New book on 100 years of Illinois birds available


A new book, “Illinois Birds: A Century of Change,” literally took 100 years to write, according to a news release.

The first comprehensive survey of birds in Illinois was conducted from 1906-1909. It was repeated from 1956-1958 and a technical book was written comparing the two surveys. When the 100-year anniversary of that first survey was approaching, ornithologists Mike Ward, Jeff Walk, Steve Bailey and Jeff Brawn seized the window of opportunity to do it again and write a book, this time with 100 years of data, lots of pictures and a broader appeal.

“Many things have changed since 1906,” author Ward said in the release. “They didn’t have bird books or mp3 players with bird calls on them. They carried guns, and if they could not identify the bird, they likely shot it. It’s also harder today to walk randomly across Illinois as they did then because of private land issues, so it’s unlikely that we walked in their exact same footsteps, but we know we were in the same general area.”

The researchers also walked down Michigan Avenue.

“Most ornithologists avoid urban areas,” Ward said in the release. “But a lot of great conservation happens in the forest preserves in Cook, McHenry and Lake counties. Fifty years from now, most of northern Illinois will probably be one large metropolis and understanding the dynamics of bird populations in urban areas is going to be important for the future management of species in these areas.”

Ward said the book is filled with pictures and figures, largely due to the fact that in 1906 the surveyors carried a “state of the art” camera and were told to take a lot of photos.

“We have several pictures in the book that were taken in the exact same spot in 1906, 1956 and 2006 so you can see how Illinois has changed and, in some cases, has not changed,” Ward said. “There are areas in central Illinois where the only change in the last 100 years is that now the field is a soybean field instead of a corn field. There are areas in southern Illinois that have gone from ag fields in 1900s to a forest in 1950s, back to ag fields in the 2000s.”

What’s changed bird-wise in the past century?

Walk said 26 species were found in the 2000s, but not 50 or 100 years ago, including wood ducks, house finches and collared doves. While only one species has been eliminated from Illinois, there are several species that are declining.

Ward said that stepping in now and making those species a conservation priority will bode well for them in the future.

“We know that conservation measures taken early in a species decline are much more effective than waiting until there are only a handful left. This survey, combined with the first two, gives us a really good handle on what the conservation priorities should be in the future,” Walk said in the release.

Another unique addition from the 2000s survey is personal interviews.

“We learned from talking with people that their perceptions of what was happening with the bird populations were pretty accurate,” Walk said. “They recognized that wild turkeys and Canada geese were increasing and that there were fewer pheasants and quail.” Walk said there is a need for education, however. Most people perceived the greatest conservation need with forest birds and didn’t recognize that the grassland birds were in far more danger.

The book isn’t a compendium of every single bird that occurs in Illinois, but it is a compendium of the major birds with which people are most familiar, Brawn said. The book provided information on how the birds and the landscapes of Illinois have changed. The last chapter of the book offers some predictions of what might happen in the future.

“Illinois Birds: a Century of Change” is a 230-page, full-color book, published by the University of Illinois. It is available for $25, plus $6.25 for shipping, by e-mailing