Chicago, IL

The Plight of the Piping Plovers on Chicago's Montrose Beach

Jennifer Geer

Recreational beach activities are encroaching upon the habitat of these endangered, little birds. Conservationists are asking for a sliver of beach to be reserved for their nesting and foraging.

USFWSmidwest, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Meet Monty and Rose. They are two tiny birds that have won the hearts of many a Chicagoan. They are a famous pair, featured in their own documentary, and Monty even has his very own Twitter account. If you follow him, he may even follow you back. At least, much to my happiness, that's what happened to me.

Conservationists are asking that the Chicago Park District reserve another acre and a half to protect the birds when they return to their nesting spot this spring.

What is the big deal about a pair of mated birds?

They are extremely rare. In 1990 there were only 13 pairs of nesting plovers in all of the Great Lakes. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, there are now up to 65 to 70 pairs.

In Chicago, we have only one nesting pair, Monty and Rose. There had been none here since 1955, until a little clump of grass, lakeshore rush, returned to Montrose Beach. Chicago Park District officials noticed it and left the area untouched.

Wondrous things happened when they did this. Other rare plants appeared and began spreading throughout the dunes area.

Monty and Rose made their appearance

The untouched area set in the sandy dunes and standing water led to our famous couple, Monty and Rose deciding it was a great nesting spot for them. They showed up one day in 2019 to start their family, sheltered by the grasses. They had two chicks that year, and they survived many close calls with humans, thanks to the help of volunteers standing guard over the area.

When the rare bird's nest was spotted, beach-going activity around them was called to a halt. These little guys caused the cancellation of a popular music festival, and many a volleyball game to be moved down the beach.

The park district placed a cage around their nest. The pair and their chicks could move in and out of it, but it protected the nest from predators.

They had the run of the beach in 2020

Last spring, thanks to Covid, the beach was mainly deserted. Monty and Rose returned and raised four baby chicks in relative peace. But with Chicago reopening in 2021, conservationists are concerned the little birds will face threats from human presence once again. The foraging area they enjoyed last spring is a popular spot for beachgoers.

About Great Lakes Piping Plovers

  • They are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act
  • They usually lay about four eggs that take 30 days to hatch
  • Once hatched, the chicks learn to fly after about 30 more days
  • They spend their winters in warm areas, like Texas and Florida

Why are they endangered?

There used to be up to 800 pairs of Great Lakes plovers nesting on the shores. But they were hunted almost to extinction for their feathers. People wanted them for hats. Yes, hats. Which brought their population down to 13 at the lowest point.

What is happening now for the birds?

Conservationists are requesting an acre and a half be added to the protected area for the plovers to return, along with other bird species. Some of these birds migrate to Chicago from as far away as the Arctic.

Currently, the park district has not decided on the matter. It's been reported they are concerned with the limited amount of city beach space available for recreational activities like kayaking and beach volleyball. Thanks to rising lake levels and shoreline erosion, beach space will become harder to come by, meaning the plovers have to compete with recreational activities.

We're running out of time for decisions as the birds usually return around early May. But we can remain hopeful as the Park District spokesperson, Michele Lemons, released the following statement:

“The Montrose Beach Dunes and adjacent natural area at Montrose Point are uniquely important for both wildlife habitat and for people to access nature in our city, and we remain committed to their care and protection.”

What can I do to help?

If you are on Montrose Beach, keep away from their nesting area. Don't cross the roped-off area placed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Keep your dogs leashed, and don't let them wander through the protected area.

If you'd like to learn more, you can check out the Chicago Piping Plovers website or find the documentary, "Monty and Rose" here.

Fortunately, we've evolved beyond the days when a bird's life was worth a feather in a hat. We can share the beach with the plovers. All they need is one and a half acres. It's not that much to ask.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area. New articles published each weekday.

Chicago, IL

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