The other day I was watching a Sora work its way along the edge of a northwest Indiana marsh. A Sora is a type of rail, a small, secretive bird of summer wetlands in the Midwest. The phrase “skinny as a rail” alludes to these birds, which are slender enough to ease their way between cattails without disturbing them a bit. Sora are often heard more than they’re seen so I was pleased to have a clear view.
In terms of the aesthetics of its surroundings, the Sora wasn’t in the prettiest place. Cars and trucks were screaming down I-94 a few hundred yards away. There were not one but two truck stops within view. I could barely make out a voice coming from a factory loudspeaker stating “Mack, Line 2, Mack, Line 2” or something similar. A liquor store proclaiming “the coldest beer on earth” was across the road from the marsh. Yet the Sora was in the heart of the Calumet region, once home to mighty prehistoric marshes spanning the southern end of Lake Michigan and what’s now Illinois and Indiana. Whether Mack picked up on Line 2 that day, I’m not sure.
Sora have been nesting in the marshes of the Calumet for millennia. It’s only in the past century or so, a split second in evolutionary time, that they have encountered the unrelenting forces of development. As the truck stops were built, marshes were drained, prairies became parking lots and forests were cleared for houses and highways. Sora kept returning to these smaller and smaller parcels of land and water. Though countless thousands of these birds surely have been permanently lost.
Looking at the marsh, I wondered whether anyone thought about the Sora when the tide of industry began to claim the land and water. Maybe some hardcore conservationists did. It was then tempting to frame it more positively, as if I was in the bargaining stage of grief. Well, the water here must be clean enough for these birds to be present. This marsh hasn’t been filled in all the way. But thinking that is a lot like the old Chris Rock bit, about bragging about things you're supposed to do: “I take care of my kids. At least I’ve never been to jail.”
Land and water conservation are but two major environmental issues of our time. Though how we address them informs so many others. In the Calumet, we can still take steps to protect the water that is there (one of the niftier nearby efforts I’ve heard about lately is here). Rows over development aren't hard to find, even right within the region.
A few weeks later, I was birding along a golf course in Wilmette. It was past the peak of migration but the conditions were just right to see some birds. I commented to my friend Joel about the towering oaks in the flatwoods there. Well, those are going to come down if the new development goes through, he said. Wait, what? Yeah, a road could be put through to new multimillion-dollar homes. We continued counting warblers at the site, 15 species in all. There aren’t too many green spaces quite like this one, I thought, so close to the lake with plenty of habitat.
As it turns out, the Wilmette development isn't a done deal. Whether it gets built, along a migratory flyway, is up to us. We may have already lost a few battles like those in the Calumet, but there still is a sliver of hope for this one, at least until its fate is sealed. Here is a live opportunity to influence modern-day development decisions and demonstrate our values. And one of the birds occasionally found along the golf course? An elusive skulker of Midwestern marshes, one that's easy to hear but hard to see. It's none other than the mysterious, wonderful Sora.