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Mike Ward walks through the Rutland Forest Preserve in Kane County holding a pair of binoculars, searching the trees for birds. But he rarely uses the binoculars. Instead, he rattles off which birds are flying by purely by sound.
“That high-pitched call was a cedar waxwing,” Ward explained, swatting away mosquitoes swarming after a recent rainfall. He also easily identifies a robin, a chickadee, and a cardinal calling.
As avian ecologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ward has studied birds for more than two decades. His latest project is among his most ambitious — he and a team of researchers are looking for ways to help save native Illinois birds for decades to come.
They retraced the steps of two ornithologists, Stephen Forbes and Alfred Gross, who conducted the first statewide bird survey in between 1906-1909. Forbes and Gross traveled across the state by train and on foot. They didn’t have binoculars, so they shot the birds to identify them. In their survey, Ward and his team identified birds strictly by sight.