By Hannah Magnuson
Northwestern University’s Evanston campus serves as home base to a host of travelers this spring — but students hustling to and from classes may not have noticed. That’s why Josh Honn, digital humanities librarian at Northwestern Libraries, decided to host a bird walk Monday morning around the eastern edge of the campus where migratory birds have settled after flying north from Mexico and Central and South America.
“It just seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring faculty, students, families and community members together to celebrate spring and to get to know campus a little better in both its animal life and nature,” Honn said.
The Birds & Breakfast event showcased the animals and plants that share space with the campus buildings, infrastructure and student life — a feature made especially noteworthy in light of the United Nations’ report on biodiversity released last week. The report warned that human activity has placed more than 1 million species worldwide in danger of extinction.
But for Honn, conversations surrounding campus preservation must go beyond wildlife. As the faculty affiliate for the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern, he encouraged attendees to use the walk to connect with the indigenous population who inhabited the area that now forms Northwestern’s campus–and who are as fundamental to the present campus as they are to its past.
About 35 Northwestern students, faculty and community members participated in the bird walk Monday, many with binoculars in hand. Honn opened the walk by acknowledging the area’s historical and continuing significance as a homeland for indigenous people and ecologies. More than 100,000 members of varied tribes still reside in Illinois and Chicago provides a meeting space for collective healing among tribes. “For me as a settler, it’s important that I continue to acknowledge both these histories and presences and my role, and the university’s role, in these colonial legacies of oppression and shaping spaces certain ways,” Honn said.
Honn (above right) and Frances Kane (above center), the founder of Chicago’s chapter of the Feminist Bird Club. Honn explained that, historically, as bird watching became more inclusive to women in the 1800s, its focus shifted from killing and collecting the birds to exploring their relationships with the spaces and species around them—a shift that shares features with indigenous ways of gaining knowledge.
A blackbird, or segnak in the Potawatomi language, watches the onlookers from its perch. To Honn, bird migration exemplifies how deforestation and loss of habitat around the world affects Chicagoans. “These birds are traveling from Mexico and Central America and South America and they don’t just have a single home. And [given the current loss of biodiversity], they won’t exist here for various reasons,” he said. Bird migration also illustrates the fluidity of borders and the need for inclusivity among all populations, in Honn’s opinion. “We need to think about how everything is connected—about paths of migration of humans and other species,” he said.
Kane (above, second from right) founded Chicago’s chapter of the Feminist Bird Club last year after following the New York and Boston chapters on Instagram. Kane, a 22-year-old recent graduate of DePaul University and a Minnesota native, started bird watching, or “birding,” after taking a bird identification class and learning the plethora of species present around Chicago.
The Illinois Ornithological Society has recorded 444 species of birds in the state, while a report released following the signing of The Urban Conservation Treaty for Migratory Birds in 2000 cited over 300 bird species living in the Chicago area. “How such a built-up city can be home to hundreds of species of birds and can be a stopover for species who spend their whole lives in a rain forest is something that has been really cool to explore,” Kane said.
A male cardinal, or misko-bineshiinh in the Ojibwe language, settles on a campus lawn.
Bird walkers were encouraged to use the time to share bird stories with one another—rather than tallying up the number of species spotted. Traditional colonial science takes an object-oriented approach to bird watching, focusing on collection and classification, while indigenous ways of knowing and seeing often focus on the relationships among all those inhabiting the land, Honn explained. “That’s what birding has always done for me,” he said. “I went out to look for birds and now I’m interested in trees, and mushrooms, and bugs, and all these other things that are in play when you look at birds.”
A robin, or jijikwea in the Potawatomi language, builds its nest in a tree on the campus Lakefill.
Participants ranged from experienced bird watchers to novices. Honn plans to hold more bird walks throughout the year, and Kane’s Feminist Bird Club meets monthly.
“Human beings need to realize we’re not the only ‘people,’” said Patty Loew, professor in the Medill School of Journalism and director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, during a breakfast held at Norris University Center following the event. Loew spoke about the need for a shift in perspective from a human-centric view of the world to one where nature is equally valued.
Photo at top: Migratory birds settling in at Northwestern’s Evanston campus for the spring provide a backdrop for community members to explore the area natural landscapes and the indigenous heritage – past and present – of this area. (Hannah Magnuson/MEDILL)