For the Birds: What the South Side’s avian residents say about the area

The South Side of Chicago contains one of the most dynamic populations in America. With such disparate elements living in close proximity to one another, there is constant motion, with each component filling a natural niche. Although similar individuals can be found in other cities, only on the South Side do they come together and exist in one community. I am talking, of course, about the birds.

Diverse bird populations exist everywhere, but the South Side has gathered a collection which would be exotic in a private aviary, let alone a major city. Songbirds with compound names like yellow-headed blackbird and orange-crowned warbler make consistent appearances. Geese fly over vast swaths of territory, but rarely in the numbers that gather regularly south of Roosevelt. Pelicans, owls, and loons, each desiring a distinct habitat, have all found their niche on the South Side. There are even populations that defy rational explanation: the parakeets living in Hyde Park are adapted for temperate lowlands in Argentina and Bolivia, not the icy-hot extremes of typical South Side seasons. Above all, seagulls still seem out of place soaring in the decidedly non-maritime environment of the South Side, even though they may have the firmest ecological basis for living here.

For all their diversity, these birds tend to go unappreciated, except by ornithologists on the beach looking everywhere for signs or the strolling melancholic seeking distractions. A seagull wafting over a street, a flock of geese gathering momentum in a park, even the famed parakeet colony becomes the normal background for daily life. Even though (or perhaps because) they are available for viewing nearly every time one ventures outside, they are rarely noticed for their own sake. Looking at a sunset, or admiring a beach or pond, one might deign to contemplate the birds flitting by, complementing the scene; otherwise, they just exist, garnering no more attention than stray leaves blowing in the wind.

Not that this is a South Side-specific malaise. The archaic phrase “for the birds” denotes something that is inconsequential, something that can be ignored. Thoughts of Boston typically center around the Red Sox or Harvard, and not the colony of wild turkeys which resides there. Even famous populations of birds, like the ravens in the Tower of London, are not admired on their merits but, in this case, for the socio-political schemes they represent.

The aesthetic miracles of evolution (they can fly, for God’s sake) don’t elicit the contemplation they deserve–especially on the South Side. The character of the area is reflected in its bird population. Start with seagulls: They are less numerous than other birds, drifting through rarefied air, only occasionally touching the ground. There are some nominal members of the South Side who also fit that description: Farrakhan, Obama, Wade. Seagulls also serve as a reminder, if they’re noticed, of a defining geographic feature of the South Side: there’s a big damn lake to the East.

Pigeons accomplish somewhat the same purpose. Shooing away the rats-with-wings on 79th street is the same as on Michigan Avenue. The iconic big-city pests are a connection with the rest of Chicago, reminding even those that don’t often venture above Roosevelt that, yes, the center of one of the major cities in the world is sitting a couple dozen blocks away.

The sheer diversity of birds on the South Side serves as the best representation of the area. The unlikely number of species mirrors the huge array of art and culture that pervades the streets. Quietly, without much fuss, the South Side has created a vibrant collection of diverse happenings. The number of post-modern art galleries, let alone those which house more traditional works, is enough to make a chic scenester salivate. World-class theater, ranging from a traditional staging of Chekhov to plays disregarding plot and story, is in nearly every neighborhood. The few remaining places to find the blues–real authentic Chicago Blues not tailored for tourists–are mostly on the South Side. African-American culture is too diverse and energetic to have a physical location, but its spiritual center might be at the first African-American museum, located on 56th street. Just like the birds, all this culture and soul usually is passed over without a second glance, either taken for granted or ignored.

The negative aspects of the South Side have their counterparts in birds as well. One day, jogging in an autumnal Washington Park, I saw the golden and crimson leaves grow pale as dozens of shadows criss-crossed overhead. A gaggle of geese at least fifty strong flew low and swift, only twenty or so feet off the ground. A soft pit-pat started softly and grew louder as most of the birds relieved themselves on the jogging path. A sluggish sprint towards the middle of the park was the only way to avoid getting covered in white chalky goo. Part of living in a vibrant community is sometimes getting shat upon. Everyone has stories of things that have happened to them or close friends on the South Side; theft and mugging are uncommon, but not so rare as to not be at the forefront of the mind of a midnight stroller. The problem of crime isn’t the only negative: abandoned lots, broken-down housing and other signs of economic struggles rend the heart of whoever sees them, and they are pervasive on the South Side. Things aren’t so dire that they can’t be fixed. But the definite problems, the inevitable excrement of living in a large and diverse community, are there for everyone to see.

With the weather warming up, get outside and enjoy the parakeets, seagulls, and orange-crowned warblers. They’re part of the South Side’s dynamic community. Maybe recognition of one part will lead to appreciation of the whole, and all of the South Side’s vibrant plumage will be noticed.