By Laurie Casey
Some teens post on Instagram or tweet on Twitter. Henry Griffin also tweets…to real, actual birds. The Oak Park 17-year-old has become locally famous for leading bird walks during spring and fall migration seasons. He has been birding since a Cooper's Hawk flew into his backyard in 2012, when he was 11 years old.
“Birding is a hobby for me,” says Henry, a high school junior and singer who hopes to study classic voice in college. “There's a connection between my singing and birding. I consider myself one of the more advanced birders I know as far as identifying birds by sound. I have relative pitch. If I am given a note, I can sing you any note in relation to that note.”
On May 21, I attended Henry’s bird walk – my first ever - with 18 other adults and kids in Miller Meadow Forest Preserve across from Loyola Hospital in Maywood. We took a 1.2 mile hike through a variety of habitat, including forest, meadow and savanna. Throughout the walk, occasionally Henry would chirp at the woods if he felt like he was on the trail of an interesting bird. Less frequently, he would play a bird song from his iPad to entice a bird to sing back.
There were birds aplenty. By Henry’s count, we saw or heard 49 species of birds, including Great Blue Heron, Downy Woodpecker, and Red-eyed Vireo. Some highlights include several gorgeous Indigo Buntings; their bright blue plumage glowed in the soft morning sunlight. A few fiery-orange Baltimore Orioles caught our eye. An Eastern Meadowlark put on a show as it flapped and fluttered about 150 feet away. We admired a Bobolink’s straw-colored cap as it perched on a dried wildflower.
But the highlight of the day was a sighting of a Henslow’s Sparrow. Unlike our common house sparrows, it is a rare, native bird that is classified as near-threatened by the federal government “due to habitat loss in the shrubby grassland that it favors,” says Henry. “I’ve never seen one in Miller Meadow before. It was exciting to see it in a place so close to home.” The area where we found this one was filled with invasive thistles. I guess this little guy was doing the best it could.
Through casual conversations with other birders on the walk, I learned that Henry has a remarkable ear for not only bird songs, but also their calls. Male birds sing musical songs to mark territory or attract female birds to mate. These make our spring mornings so enjoyable. On the other hand, birds use simple, often staccato one- or two-note calls to mark the logistics of day-to-day life. Henry found our Henslow’s Sparrow by ear. As we were making our way on a paved path through the meadow, Henry became intrigued by what he thought was its call. He had us quickly and quietly double back about 200 feet. After hearing the call again, we left the path and waded through some low brush. Within a few minutes, a fellow birder spotted it and described the bird’s location to the rest of us.
Bird conservation experts have been warning that birds are under threat across the United States and around the globe due to climate change and habitat loss. “My greatest fear is the public not recognizing the need for not only 'natural land,' but really specific habitat that birds need,” says Henry. For example, we may point to a woodland and think there is good habitat, and there may be. But it may be a maple-dominated forest with a lack of oaks or hickories. There are birds that use maple forests for habitat. And other birds use oak-hickory woodlands for habitat.
I ask him if he is hopeful for birds. “Hope? Let me see...that's a harder one. I think the fact that birding is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country,” says Henry. “That will help people become more educated and aware of the need for conservation.”
His spring walk schedule is over, but he will offer walks again in the fall. No birding experience necessary. You can sign up by emailing Henry at email@example.com.
Also, Trailside Museum of Natural History (738 Thatcher Ave., in River Forest) will host two free birding events in the next few weeks:
Nesting Birds Walk at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, June 18. John Elliott of Chicago Audubon Society will teach about territory, courtship, and nesting. For ages 8 through adult.
Beginning Bird Walk at 9 a.m. Sunday, July 2. A naturalist will take a guided hike to introduce this hobby to newbies.
Here are some additional resources if you are interested in learning more about birding: