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by Paul Clyne on the importance to birds of the chain-link fence surrounding
the former Rose Garden on Jackson Park's Wooded Island and the importance and
utility of similar fences under similar circumstances.
Recommendation to Chicago Park District, Jackson Park Advisory Council, and Chicago Audubon
Paul Clyne to Carolyn A. Marsh [Chicago Audubon], March 6, 2011. Shared at the March 9 walk through on Wooded Island
Dear Ms. Marsh,
I am writing regarding a proposed removal of the chain-link fence around the “Rose Garden”—the fenced enclosure towards the south end of Wooded Island in Jackson Park.
I brief, I would regard removal of this fence as a grave error from the standpoint of maintaining Wooded Island as one of the most vital sanctuaries for migratory birds in the areas overseen by the Chicago Park District. I will outline below why it is not simply the area of the Rose Garden but the actual fence itself, that provides important habitat for birds.
I should perhaps preface my remarks with a note that the notational system that I have been using for recording Jackson Park bird data for more than 30 years allows for remarkable precision in referencing concrete sites of occurrence (including, e.g., differentiating each side of the Rose Garden fence versus the interior of the Rose Garden). I am keenly attuned to the precise distribution of birds in Jackson Park.
On Wooded Island, two sites stand out as showing notably high bird diversity more consistently than others: The Japanese Garden and the Rose Garden. On any given day during migration, either, or both, may be stunningly alive with migrant songbirds. For birds in transit, these two sites seem to be equally utilized by birds as refueling spots.
On days when migration levels are lower, however, the Rose Garden is far more attractive to birds than the Japanese Garden. Breeding populations, wintering populations, and lingering migrant populations are all higher in the Rose Garden. This is just as one would suspect.
The Japanese Garden is an open, manicured area, with limited cover for birds, and it has the highest human traffic of any site on Wooded Island. The diverse plantings there provide crucial and immediate food sources for birds in migration, but the amount of human activity casts this as an unsafe haven for birds, and the turnover of refueling migrants is high there.
The Rose Garden, by contrast, is heavily planted, with extensive cover, a protective chain-link fence, and remarkably little human traffic. A fundamental reason for the low human traffic is that the Rose Garden does not provide the pristine, aesthetically-crafted environment that makes the Japanese Garden a target destination for urban retreat. Many is the time I’ve been birding in Jackson Park when visitors asked for direction to the Japanese Garden. I don’t ever recall being asked for direction to the Rose Garden (except perhaps by a visiting birder).
Any site designated as a nature sanctuary needs to maintain wildlife-friendly areas with reduced human disturbance. On Wooded Island, the Rose Garden has been that area for generations. It is, in effect, the heart of the “nature sanctuary” status of Wooded Island. Based on the consistency of bird diversity and populations, the Rose Garden can be singled out as the most utilized site for migratory birds on Wooded Island and is thus arguably the most important site in Jackson Park for upholding the status of the Chicago Lakefront as an Important Bird Area in virtue of its value to migrant landbirds.
Within the Rose Garden, the greatest activity is the most consistently around the perimeter—i.e., along the fence. One reason for this is the juxtaposition of taller trees adjacent to the low-cut interior of the Rose Garden: this is the “edge effect” as recognized in ecology. Another reason, I maintain, is the presence of the chain-link fence itself.
It is easier to recognize the value of chain-link fences as habitat by observing how birds utilize such fences in areas where the edge effect is not a factor. In Jackson Park, the baseball fences on the sports fields southeast of Wooded Island and on the golf courses provide such structure. Birds foraging in these areas tend to gather in the vicinity of these fences, especially in the presence of disturbances (humans, dogs, vehicles, raptors..). On days with moderate levels of disturbance, it is commonplace to find the overwhelming majority of ground-foraging birds in the immediate vicinity of the fences, using he fence as a viewing post when potentially threatened, and taking cover on the opposite side of the fence to escape danger. The distance birds flee when fences are available is oven very short—sometimes less than a foot—and this is in sharp contrast to the long-distance escapes undertaken in the absence of cover.
Moreover, birds allow absurdly close observation when there’s a fence involved, particularly when the fence stands between them and the observer. The simple conclusion here is that birds do, indeed understand the utility of fences as security devices. Given the demands imposed to survive in the wild, this conclusion comes as no surprise at all.
We see another reinforcement of this pattern at the driving range and Bobolink Meadow. Both these areas show large tracts of fairly uniform habitat, but it is usual to find the highest concentrations of birds on either side of the fence there, particularly amid disturbances. This is demonstrated time and again when one group of birders walks the gravel path through Bobolink Meadow and finds little to report, while another makes the effort to walk the fence and discovers notably greater diversity.
An indirect reinforcement of the importance of fences is provided by the chain-link fences surrounding the tennis courts south of the 59th St. marina and on the golf course south of Wooded Island. I’ve never found these to be much exploited by migrants, and I conjecture that is because they have usable habitat on only one side. Escaping ont a tennis court provides no benefit for birds.
I maintain that, for many bird species, the actual fences on the sports fields, golf course, and between Bobolink Meadow and the driving range provide the most secure habitat these areas offer. We can assume the same of the Rose Garden fence, and this is consistent with the behavior we see in birds along that fence.
The Rose Garden fence itself is thus the habitat of greatest security for birds in the area most heavily exploited by migrants in the nature sanctuary that is Wooded Island, and likely in all of the Jackson Park section of the Important Bird Area of the Chicago lakefront. It is a vitally important fence.
It is my considered opinion that the goal of the Chicago Park District, Jackson Park Advisory Council, and Chicago Audubon Society should be to maintain the chain-link fence around the Rose Garden at all Costs.