Wild in the City: Chicagoland's Urban Ecology

Specimen Collection

A specimen preparator at the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is preparing a Common Yellowthroat specimen for the scientific collection in the Beecher Collections Demonstration Lab. The small bird was found, as are so many others, on the sidewalk after colliding with a building during its seasonal migration through the Chicago area.

While Chicago is famous for a tradition of innovative architecture, many of the city’s tall, glass buildings present a serious, and oftentimes fatal, obstacle for migrating birds. The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors estimates that thousands of birds are killed or injured each year by colliding with windows in downtown Chicago. The Chicago Academy of Sciences, Field Museum of Natural History, and other organizations monitor the area for bird collisions. Bird specimens, like the Common Yellowthroat, receive a new life in scientific collections, where they serve as a record of species present in Chicago at a specific time and place, and provide data for assessing bird window collisions on a national level.

Scientific collections, like the one at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, allow that single warbler to be compared with thousands of other specimens in order to inform biodiversity studies. The collection holds 300,000 specimens illustrating Midwestern ecology from the 1830s to the present, including hundreds of warblers in its ornithology collection. Each specimen tells a unique story about its existence, providing a little piece of the jigsaw puzzle scientists are putting together in an effort to understand local ecosystems. Study of individual specimens can inform studies on the animals’ diet or on pollution present in the environment. Researchers also use these specimens to evaluate how ecosystems change by comparing the plants and animals from 50, 100, or even 150 years ago with those from today.
Study of specimens such as the warbler have helped drive research to recommend solutions to prevent birds colliding with buildings in the future. William Beecher (1914-2002), director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences from 1958 to 1982 and an avid ornithologist and photographer, studied bird migrations and the issue of bird window collisions in the Chicago region. His work, and that of other scientists, shows that light emitted from buildings at night interferes with birds’ navigation abilities, causing them to crash into windows. The Lights Out program in Chicago, overseen by the Chicago Audubon Society, encourages building owners to dim or turn off lights at night.
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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