Wild in the City: Chicagoland's Urban Ecology

Observing Nature

Observing animals in their natural environment is a key element to understanding them. The beauty of observation is that anyone can do it, and it can be done anywhere. Scientists conduct their observations through field work –- documenting breeding cycles, clutch sizes, behaviors, and habitats that appeal to different species. In addition to specimens, documentation from field notes, photographs, and other observational records provide valuable information about local species. Chicago Academy of Sciences Director William Beecher was one of the first to scientifically document many bird behaviors through motion picture film, such as “lekking” -- a communal courtship display -- in Prairie Chickens, now an endangered species in Illinois.

Benjamin T. Gault (1858-1942), known as “the Bird Man” in his community of Glen Ellyn, was an accomplished ornithologist. A local naturalist and conservationist, Gault was extremely active in the birding community and studied birds year round. His field notes, the bulk of which were taken between 1890 to 1930, document his time observing birds, often for weeks at one site, as they constructed their nests. He recorded the kinds of trees or vegetation they occupied, weather conditions, and the birds’ behavior through photographs and field notes. He also collected bird, nest, and egg specimens that scientists today can use, offering a window through time into the Chicago region’s ecology 100 years ago. Gault’s work, and that of other “ologists,” led to the creation of identification guidebooks and species lists that are used by scientists as well as backyard birders today.William Dreuth (1874-1944), a local amateur birder, was so enthralled with birds that he documented bird migrations along Lake Michigan for 40 years, from 1903 to 1943.  Through self-study, Dreuth followed standard ornithological practices for documenting his observations and rose early almost every day of his life to monitor birds. Primary source material such as Dreuth’s observations informs studies in phenology, the timing of seasonal biological events such as migration periods. For instance, a shift in the timing for when a species typically migrates might be connected to changes in weather conditions, habitats, or even breeding cycles. In fact, Dreuth’s field notes illustrate changes in the species assemblages observed over the last century. Modern day observations build on the work of Beecher, Gault, Dreuth, and others and add to our collective understanding of the changing world around us.

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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