It's fall migration time. Songbirds are pouring out of Canada on the way to their tropical wintering grounds. They fly through field, forest and treacherous city alike, headed south.
I'm just about as out of place in the city as a warbler. I've grown used to the music of crickets, the slow track of clouds across the Appalachian sky. But from time to time, just like a migrating bird, I find myself in a foreign wilderness of metal, concrete and glass. In Chicago for a show of my paintings, I left my hotel before the city woke up, to do some window-shopping before breakfast. I was flabbergasted to find stranded migrant warblers everywhere, sitting dazed on the sidewalks of these concrete canyons. Other people out on that quiet Sunday morning didn't seem to notice this phenomenon. They stepped over the tiny birds as they would discarded candy wrappers. I scurried around, trying to catch the weakened ones, all thoughts of fancy coffee and pastries banished by the birds' predicament.
What in the world was going on? Warblers migrate under cover of darkness, using the stars to navigate. The weather the night before was damp and foggy. The birds' guiding stars were obscured. Disoriented and weary, they circled Chicago's brightly lit skyscrapers and towers. According to the Fatal Light Awareness Program, as many as 100 million migrating birds perish from exhaustion beneath such structures each year, as helpless as moths drawn to a porch light.
I saw a tiny yellowthroat warbler being blown about in the backdraft of a bus and sprinted into the intersection to pick it up. He was exhausted but unhurt, his eyes bright and defiant in a black bandit mask. Smiling, I slipped the little bird into a buttoned coat pocket, pulled my city map out of another, and walked to the nearest bus stop. I'm going to find my way to the Magic Hedge in Montrose Harbor Park, on Lake Michigan's south shore.
Named by birders who gather to gawk at the birds it attracts, the Magic Hedge is nothing special botanically. It's a long line of scrubby privet and some native saplings, but it's situated in a park near a willow-hung lake, and it's the first natural cover that southbound migrant birds hit after flying the length of Lake Michigan. On Sept. 23, 1990, the Chicago Audubon Society's bird hotline reported that more than 5,000 birds were seen in the hedge, up to 800 songbirds passing through per hour. I'd hate to be a caterpillar in the Magic Hedge.
I get off the bus, cradling the small, trembling bulge in my coat pocket, and make my way to the lakefront shrubbery. I barely get the button undone before the little yellowthroat slips out and dives into the greenery.
The Magic Hedge quietly gives its gift to birds and birders alike, year in and year out. 315 species have been recorded in this unprepossessing park. A simple planting, doubtless intended merely as a windbreak, has saved hordes of migrant birds.
The little mite that blinked back at me from my cupped hands was trying to make it to his wintering grounds in Central America. Given a clear, starry night and a fighting chance, he might just have gotten there.
Commentator Julie Zickefoose lives in imperfect harmony with the wildlife on an 80-acre sanctuary in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio. She's the author of Letters From Eden.