Constable: Why it's been a banner year for pelicans and suburban birders

During the first half century of Kane County Audubon's annual spring bird count, the record for the most American white pelicans seen was six. This year, members saw 128.

"That was certainly a surprise," says John Sprovieri, president of the Kane County Audubon. But he attributes that more to lucky timing.

"We get pelicans coming through every year in the spring and the fall," Sprovieri says, noting most years the bulk of the pelicans have moved through the area before the count in May.

Sprovieri says the better news for bird-watchers might be increases in other species.

The 248 double-crested cormorants marked a 25% increase from the previous record, says Jon Duerr, a legendary environmentalist who organizes the group's field trips and has the Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in South Elgin named in his honor.

"We did not see a cormorant until 1985," says Duerr, 79, who lives in St. Charles and has been a part of all 51 annual spring counts.

The double-crested cormorant was an endangered species in Illinois in the 1970s, when the pesticide DDT and hunting did a number on the fish-eating bird. In 1974, the Department of Conservation found only 12 cormorant nests in the state, all in two trees along the Mississippi River.

The 47 Audubon members doing the count also logged 191 red-bellied woodpeckers, eclipsing the former high of 183, Duerr says. They spotted 129 white-breasted nuthatches, nine more than last year.

Bald eagles and osprey, two majestic raptors whose populations also were decimated before they were protected from hunting and DDT was banned, were spotted for the 12th consecutive year along the Fox River.

"That's a very positive trend," Duerr says.

"We did see nice numbers of eagles this year, and that's a success story," Sprovieri adds, noting ospreys are pretty easy to see, too. "There are three nesting pairs of ospreys at Fermilab right now."

Those numbers mean "healthier fish" in a "healthier river," Sprovieri says.

"There also is a pair of peregrine falcons nesting in a tower in downtown Aurora," he added.

The coronavirus outbreak has led to an increase in the number of people taking an interest in birds.

"It's an activity you can do outside, and not necessarily in a group," Sprovieri says, adding that his group now boasts more than 250 members. "So people did get more interested in birding, for sure."

Sandhill cranes, pileated woodpeckers, northern mockingbirds, redheaded woodpeckers and Henslow's sparrows have stabilized or even increased their populations, according to the Bird Conservation Network, which collects data from Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, McHenry and Will counties.

Not all the bird news is positive.

"Crows and blue jays still have not recovered from the West Nile virus," Sprovieri says, noting the arrival of the virus in 2001 wiped out those species in some suburban communities. An avian flu this spring led the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to recommend people stop using bird feeders and birdbaths, but that advisory was lifted last month.

"You can keep your feeders up, but do clean them once every couple of weeks, or more after it rains," Sprovieri says, noting soggy birdseed can harbor diseases.

With more than 300,000 acres of public open space, the Chicago area provides plenty of opportunities for bird-watching, sometimes without even leaving your backyard. Duerr, the retired executive director of the Kane County Forest Preserve, still remembers the night he was walking his dog in St. Charles, looked up and saw a flock of white snow geese flying above, reflecting the lights of the city. He's seen 145 different bird species from his yard.

"I just sit and have my coffee in the morning," Duerr says, "and see who's there."

Once endangered, these double-crested cormorants are now a fairly common sight along the Fox River. These birds are in a tree near a pond at Fermilab in Batavia. Daily Herald File Photo
  Once on the endangered species list, the bald eagle now is a common sight along the Fox River. Rick West/
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