Wild in the City: Chicagoland's Urban Ecology

Engaging the Next Generation of Nature Observers

Being situated in a major bird migratory route provides access to a variety of species year round. Parks offer more natural areas to observe birds in action, but really, sometimes all you need to do is look up. Bird watching is an activity that is largely accessible and flexible. Local birding groups offer meetups to learn from more experienced members. Frank Woodruff (1867-1926), an ornithologist with the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1896 to 1926, led bird watching groups in Lincoln Park in the early 1900s, just outside of the Academy’s Matthew Laflin Memorial building. Today, Chicagoans can join bird watching groups around North Pond in Lincoln Park, led by the Chicago Ornithological Society, just outside of the Academy’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Citizen science projects also benefit from people engaged with nature. Data collected by citizen scientists is used in biodiversity studies, to inform restoration projects, and assessing environmental issues. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society, is the nation’s oldest running citizen science bird project. Originally organized by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman in 1900, the bird count stemmed from an effort to slow the effects of over hunting on bird populations. Every year, tens of thousands of volunteers collect population information that the Audubon Society uses to document the health of species and inform conservation efforts.

Exhibits featuring birds found in the Chicago area have attracted visitors to the Academy’s museums for the last century and provide a great way to get up close to a bird species that might be more difficult to study outside. Thurston Wright, a preparator with the Academy from 1936-1961, designed numerous exhibits at the Academy’s museum in the Matthew Laflin Memorial building. Wright found that one of the best ways to understand a species was through close study and blending his knowledge of art and science to create dioramas. The dioramas at the Academy were meant to bring nature indoors to museum visitors and illustrate real places around the Chicago regions. This intentional design continues today, with dioramas at the Nature Museum connecting visitors with species they might see on their next visit to places such as Illinois Beach State Park, Somme Forest Preserve, or prairies along Shoe Factory Road in Hoffman Estates. 

Engaging with Chicago’s urban nature is how we all learn to appreciate the plants and animals that coexist with us. The Chicago region has been transformed by human activity over the past two centuries. Some of these transformations resulted from the passion people have for the nature around them and recognizing that the opportunities we have to connect with nature benefit not only the plants, animals, and land, but ourselves. So get outside, Chicago. Get to know the wild in the city.

Use the cards at the bottom of each page to explore various parts of the "Documenting Urban Nature" chapter. There will always be a card to take you back to the chapter introduction or you can go back to the Wild in the City overview.


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