Map by Lynda Wallis



Spring 1998

Into the Wild

Former army base supports many Chicago birds.

The Magic Hedge Map
Cook County, Illinois

There's a pleasing touch of irony in the history of the Magic Hedge. Land that was once a missile base now provides habitat for different, friendlier airborne creatures: it's one of the most spectacular birding sites in the Chicago area.


From Montrose Avenue, east of Lake Shore Drive, turn right on Montrose Harbor Drive. At the first curve in the road, a small hill can be seen to the east; the Hedge is right there. A "Magic Hedge" sign is on the south side of the area; other signs denoting the area as a migratory bird habitat can be found on the Hedge's north side.

The Magic Hedge is a small area of trees, shrubs and grasses on a small hill at sandy, wind-swept Montrose Point on the Lake Michigan shoreline along Chicago's north side. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Army operated a NIKE base here, the Hedge grew up along the base's border. The base was dismantled around 1970, but the Hedge remained.

A heavy human presence deters nesting in the area, but it's a great place to see birds during their spring and fall migrations. On a typical day, the hedge attracts more than 50 bird species; experienced birders have reported hundreds of species in a single day. Warblers, swallows and falcons are all dependable visitors; other birds spotted here over the years include barn owls, purple sandpipers, golden-crowned sparrows, and Kirtland's warblers. Early August is especially dramatic, when purple martins gather at the Hedge in groups of several thousand, then take off en masse for their winter homes.

The Magic Hedge owes its popularity among birds primarily to geography. Between Chicago and the forests of southern Illinois and Indiana, there are few places for birds to rest and feed: it's mostly farmland. Birds spend time in Chicago, resting and feeding either before or after their long, barren migratory flight.

Flight patterns, too, have an effect. While some types of birds pass inland through the Chicago area, following the Fox or Des Plaines river valleys, many birds fly along the lake shore — over the water, but well within view of land. Swooping down the western shore of Lake Michigan, they suddenly come across Montrose Point, a man-made spit of land jutting several hundred yards into the water. The trees, shrubs and grasses there make it a very inviting place for birds to stop, so they do. For the same reasons, Lincoln and Jackson Parks along the near north and southern lakefront also attract large numbers of migratory birds.

The Hedge is on land owned by the Chicago Park District. In recent years, the District has allowed a nearby grassy meadow to grow taller, providing even better bird habitat; some grassland birds and butterflies have been spotted here. The District has also planted species, such as honeysuckle, known to provide shelter and sustenance for birds.

Visitors are also likely to witness some of the threats to urban bird habitat — litter, unleashed dogs that have torn up ground cover, and 'social' trails through the Hedge area made by fishermen and beach users. Nonetheless the Hedge is still a significant harbor in the annual migration of thousands of birds, and a magical place to watch them.

Chris Larson