Chicago Hospital Opens to Treat Birds Harmed By Skyscrapers

It's unclear where the American woodcock was heading or where its trip began. About the only thing that is known is that when the bird got to Chicago, it didn't spot the skyscraper until it was too late.

Luckily for the woodcock, its mistake took place in a city that's home to a new bird hospital where travelers can be treated until they're strong enough to complete their journeys.

"There is a desperate need to get birds assistance as quickly as possible near the areas where they are being found," said Annette Prince, director of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, which rescues winged crash victims before they're stepped on, run over or pounced on by dogs and cats.

Since migratory season began last month, volunteers have been taking the birds for treatment to near-empty rooms in the terminal of the now-shuttered lakefront airport Meigs Field.

Millions of birds migrate through Chicago each year and most make it through without so much as a ruffled feather. But some smack into buildings because they're distracted and confused by the lights of the high-rises in this third-largest U.S. city, don't see the glass or mistake the reflection off windows for the sky.

Chicago is among a handful of cities in North America where steps are being taken to save the birds. Along with the unnamed bird hospital, the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors has a "Lights Out" program in which high-rises turn off their lights at night during the migratory season.

"I use Chicago all the time as an example of a place where people are interested in doing something," said Daniel Klem Jr., an ornithologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Bird enthusiasts say the hospital will allow them to save more than the 847 birds rescued during the last migration season because Prince's group will no longer have to drive at least an hour to a similar facility in suburban Barrington — a trip that some birds don't survive.

"Many birds (that hit buildings) have brain swelling, and you have to get them treatment, administer drugs quicker," said Dawn Keller, who founded the Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington in 2003.

Volunteers also will have more time to pick up the birds since they are not driving to the suburban facility. Instead, they can drop the birds off at the new hospital just beyond Soldier Field and be back downtown within minutes to look for more.

Keller hopes that with donations, the hospital will someday have a flight chamber to test birds before their release, more equipment and supplies, as well as another licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The city lets her use the space free of charge.

Prince's volunteers start collecting birds around 6 a.m. on sidewalks in the Loop, the city's business district. Most are songbirds such as thrushes, warblers and woodpeckers.

Typically, the volunteers find a half dozen to 20 birds a morning during migratory seasons.

"Last fall we had winds from the south and then on Columbus day weekend we got a northerly wind and all those birds that had been waiting (for the wind to shift) came and over the weekend we had 400 rescues and over 500 dead birds," Prince said.

At the hospital, Keller checks out the birds and injects them with an anti-inflammatory medicine and fluids to control shock and brain swelling. While some have broken wings, the majority have some kind of head, beak or eye injury.

Some birds are little more than dazed; they can be treated, taken to a field along Lake Michigan and released so they can continue their trip.

Even before examining it, Keller suspects the woodcock suffered some head or eye damage when its 3-inch beak slammed into the high-rise.

Sure enough, one of the bird's eyes is cloudy, suggesting a torn cornea. It's not going anywhere this migrating season.

"My guess is the bird will be with us for at least two months," she said, adding that the bird may never recover enough to be released. In that case, she'd place the bird in a zoo or nature center.

"He may not be releasable," she said. "But he's not going to die."