Science Art exists on a continuum. At one end of the spectrum is scientific illustration. This is art in the service of science used to teach concepts or visualize big ideas. At the other end is art inspired by science: plenty of art flash but short on science....
You may have heard that some little birds, the Piping Plovers, are making big waves at Montrose Beach this summer in Chicago, as well as other beaches around the country. Piping Plovers are federally endangered in the Great Lakes region, with only about 80 nesting pairs. A Jersey Shore concert series was canceled this year to protect a nest that was found in the area, and just the other day, they cancelled the summer music fest Mamby, which was scheduled to happen at Montrose Beach in late August. Why all the fuss over one species of shorebird?
Because this is the first time in over 50 years that a pair of Piping Plovers has nested in Cook County, and the first time that the birds have been known to nest on Montrose Beach.
Most Plovers nest in Michigan or Wisconsin. We know that last year, this pair had been nesting in a parking lot in Waukegan. But this year, Monty and Rose (as the birds are being called) settled on Montrose Beach and the Chicago birding community has come out in full force to support them. From sunrise to sunset every day, bird lovers across the city and beyond take shifts to monitor their nest site to protect it from fellow beachgoers, stray volleyballs, dogs and even other birds.
It has been reported that roughly 150 people have been involved in monitoring the Plovers. I have been volunteering as a monitor a few hours per week since the beginning of June, and I have been happy to meet other visitors who are just as excited to track the progress of the pair. The birds take turns sitting on their shallow, nearly-invisible nest scraped out of sand and flying off to the nearby inlets to feed on insects and other lakeside tidbits. Watching them zip across the beach to attend to the nest or spring off of it and beeline toward an interloper in their territory has been entertaining and inspiring.
Birds like Rose and Monty (pictured at the top of this article) can become endangered for a variety of human-caused reasons. Many bird species were hunted for sport and for their feathers. Others were impacted by chemical pesticides like DDT and other pollutants, which have contributed to the decline of the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon population. In the 1960s, the US established programs to protect endangered species like the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon, and today both species have made great comebacks. The Bald Eagle population expanded from 417 breeding pairs in 1963 to over 10,000 in 2007 thanks to comprehensive restoration of its habitat. In the meantime, work is still being done to track and assist Peregrine Falcons. You can watch live cams of Peregrine Falcons in the Chicagoland area, including on the roof of the Evanston Public Library!
Many species, however, are still endangered due to habitat loss caused by human development. The Piping Plover, who likes to nest by the water, have lost their homes due to the popularity of lake and oceanside buildings and beaches. It is too easy for an unknowing human or animal to step on the nest or chicks. But fortunately, due to protections put in place by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the population of these birds has increased from 12 breeding pairs in the 1980s to approximately 80 breeding pairs in the Great Lakes area today.
At the beginning of the summer, Monty and Rose laid a nest with four eggs in a site near the midpoint of the beach, where water frequently rises. Thanks to some vigilant conservation experts, the US Fish and Wildlife Services was able to collect the eggs from the nest right before a rainstorm that almost certainly would have washed away the nest and eggs. The eggs were taken to the Lincoln Park Zoo and then sent to the University of Michigan Biological Station, where they have a facility for raising such Plover chicks that have been orphaned. We’re sad to report that these eggs didn’t make it. Luckily, many Piping Plovers lay a second clutch of eggs when this happens. After holding our breath for a few days, the couple scraped a new nest on a much higher sandbank a little south of their previous location and laid four new eggs. Three of them hatched, making these the first Piping Plovers to hatch in Chicago since 1955
We can thank the success of this clutch of chicks, as well as all the birds currently living in captivity, to research done by ornithologists over decades. To properly rear the chicks of endangered birds in captivity, we had to study the species’ diets, social habits, development and more so we could replicate their natural living conditions as closely as possible.
It’s critical to conserve birds for two reasons. First, they can occupy a variety of places in the food web, from top to bottom, making them a critical part of almost every ecosystem. They’re also often a good indicator species in an ecosystem, which means that they can tell us if something in the environment is changing. This is because it’s easy for researchers to observe their numbers and any changes in their genetics that can tell us about the past, present, and future of the environment they live in. Their loud, colorful nature makes them hard to miss, and therefore they are among the most easy large animals to study. They’re also sensitive to a lot of human activities, such as pesticide use, land use, etc. The data obtained from studying birds can be used in ecology and environmental science to measure the impact of climate change, industrialization, invasive species, and more.
Conservation efforts are launched and sustained entirely by the passions of individuals. Government protections and grassroots efforts to protect endangered birds are all a result of people who are willing to dedicate their time and resources to give them places to live and raise their young in peace. The conservation work happening with the Piping Plovers is a great example of how scientists and citizens can work together to do something amazing for animals who cannot advocate for themselves. If you have a passion for plants, animals, or ecosystems, you don’t have to be a scientist to get involved. There are no shortages of fundraisers and volunteer opportunities through national organizations like the Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy.
If you want to help the Piping Plovers in Chicago, make sure to follow the Audubon Society’s guidelines for beachgoers. You can also sign this petition to ban large concerts that could compromise the nest sites. Monty and Rose will still be incubating their eggs for the rest of July and into mid-August, and after that, the chicks will be running around the beach, learning to forage and eventually fly. If you would like to see them, grab a pair of binoculars and head south of the volleyball courts. The volunteer monitor on duty can point out the Plovers to you.