The Bird Halls, maps, and Downy Woodpeckers in the Chicago region

We are putting maps in with each species covered by a digital label for our permanent bird halls that will soon be unveiled as the Ronald and Christina Gidwitz Hall of Birds.  Amy Schleser of our exhibit department has been working on a wide variety of maps she pulled together for various species.  At a recent meeting, we went over a set of them.  I have always loved maps, and we are trying to present some of the many different ways maps can illustrate interesting things about birds.  One of our chosen species is Downy Woodpecker (Arlene Koziol took the great picture of the Downy).  For this species, Amy created the map based on e-bird sightings for the Chicago region. It is shown below.  E-bird is the public database of bird observations created by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The mapping features in e-bird are such a cool tool.  At first glance, the map is a pretty solidly covered with sightings (the points on the map) which one should probably expect for a bird like Downy woodpecker, but a closer look brings out interesting details.  There is a vertical line of points in the upper part of the map.  This corresponds to the Des Plaines River and the forest preserve district along it.  Similarly there are two large aggregations of sightings to the south of the city.  These correspond to large forest preserve districts centered on the Palos Hills area and the Morton Arboretum.  There are also plenty of pins along the lakefront (Lake Michigan).   You can see these areas in green in the map below.  All these places are where you might expect Downy Woodpeckers to be most common, but they are also the places where people go to look for birds.

Looking closely also reveals gaps where there are few or no reports of Downy Woodpeckers.  One of these is near the center of the map, and it corresponds to O’Hare International Airport.  There is not a lot of good Downy Woodpecker habitat out at O’Hare.  The other gaps tell another story.  One is around Garfield Park.  Another is basically bounded by I-55 in the north, I-294 on the west and I-94 on the east.  Running south to Blue Island. A portion of this area is Midway International Airport, but much of the rest of this space is neighborhoods.  A little googling can show you some maps with similar focus on these areas.  These are the poorest neighborhoods in the city, where there are the highest crime rates.  So do these maps tell us about Downy Woodpeckers or humans?  Actually, I think the truth is they tell us about both.  It illustrates how important the forest preserves are for a species like Downy Woodpecker.  The fact that there are still plenty of Downy Woodpeckers outside of these areas speaks to the ability of Downy Woodpeckers to adapt to urban landscapes and that our Chicago region neighborhoods generally have enough big trees and parks to satisfy this species.  I suspect that the dearth of Downy Woodpeckers on the southside is not real, but what is real is that people in these neighborhoods do not have the luxury of looking for Downy Woodpeckers.  I’d love to see that change.  How do we get more birdwatchers on the southside?

Here is a link some other maps to compare with the one Amy prepared: