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What's being done to protect endangered piping plovers from climate change?

How are endangered piping plovers being protected from climate change?
How are endangered piping plovers being protected from climate change? Is it enough? 06:03

CHICAGO (CBS) – One million species are threatened with extinction, and climate change is a primary reason to blame, according to new research

Hundreds of these species live in the Illinois ecosystem. One, in particular, has captured the hearts of many, sparking a legitimate conservation effort – the near-threatened piping plover

The story starts with the beloved Monty and Rose, the first piping plover pair to successfully nest and fledge chicks in Cook County in more than 70 years. The lovebird's rise to fame began with Tamima Itani, founder of the Chicago Piping Plover Group.

Chicago's lovebirds: Monty and Rose

The two birds met at six weeks old and stayed together their entire lives. 

"I noticed two piping plovers doing courtship displays to each other," Itani said. 

"In the spur of the moment, I said I'm just going to call them the male Monty and the female Rose after Montrose, and the name stuck," she said. 

Itani is also the lead volunteer coordinator of the Chicago Orthnological Society. 

"In our lifetime, certainly, it's unheard of that piping plovers would be nesting on a beach like Montrose here in Chicago," Itani said. 

Protecting piping plovers in Chicago 06:03

Changing climate and piping plovers

The piping plover was placed on the Federal Endangered Species list in 1986. There must be at least 150 breeding pairs not to be considered endangered. Their numbers dropped to only 13 pairs in 1990. Habitat loss from human development, predation, and climate change were all causes of their decline. With the help of organizations like the Piping Plover Group, there are around 70 nesting pairs in the Great Lakes today. 

"They are birds that respond more to climatic events," Matt Igleski, executive director of the Chicago Bird Alliance, said. "Things that are more dramatic and might impact things like migration or coastal habitat like here."

Record high lake levels washed away Monty and Rose's first nest in 2019. CBS 2 has been tracking changing lake levels due to climate change for years. 

Climate change is also shifting seasonal patterns. According to Climate Central, winters are getting shorter, and springs are getting longer. This change has a significant impact on birds.

"What we see is an a-synchronicity, kind of this mismatch of when food is available and when the birds arrive," Igleski said.

"So, if the food is not quite available yet, then that could mess up some of their getting ready for nesting, feeding, and habits like that," he said.

Human activity is another danger. In 2019, "Mamby On The Beach" was set to attract thousands of concert-goers and bring loud music and activities to Monty and Rose's home.

"It all kind of came together in this one year where the birds and the music event created this big story that everyone latched on to," Igleski said. More than 6,000 people signed a petition opposing the concert in an effort to protect the piping plovers, and they won.

Then, in 2020, Chicago shut down, and the lakefront was closed during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chicago Park District shared that the pair came back to try and nest for another season.

"Their presence was such a positive in that gloomy year," Itani said. 

"Many people went to become birders and bird lovers because of Monty and Rose and their chicks," she said. 

Some grew even more dedicated to protecting the birds' livelihood.

"I basically started coordinating the volunteer effort, and the rest is history," Itani said. The volunteer group has grown to around 100 people still guarding the piping plovers on Montrose Beach during the nesting season. 

"We have a significant volunteer effort, and that consists of two volunteers doing two-hour shifts from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. every single day, and often, people will stay past 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.," Itani said.

It is a serious business for volunteers. In addition to the long hours, if a predatory bird attempts to land in the plover area, they are ready to spring into action. "We will do big arm gestures! Herons are skittish," she said with a laugh.

Forever a part of history

Monty suddenly died in 2021 due to a severe respiratory infection that is believed to be caused by a natural fungus. Rose did not come back to the beach, which means she likely passed away at the same time, according to Itani. 

"It was hard for all of us. I absolutely love Monty and Rose. Absolutely love them," she said, sporting piping plover earrings and a matching hat. 

Itani and many other volunteers spent hours with the birds, getting to know their personalities. Monty in particular was quite bold and enjoyed showing off, Itani said. Rose, on the other hand, was more reserved. 

The new star of the show is their son, Imani, who hatched on the beach in 2021. 

Last summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service released three other chicks in Chicago, in hopes that one of them is female and can mate with Imani.

The hope is for Imani to use the newly renamed and expanded "Monty and Rose Wildlife Habitat," named in his parents' honor. The Chicago Park District dedicated the space to the birds and their love story on Valentine's Day.

Imani is expected to return around the end of April or early May.

The human connection

As the weather warms and summer approaches, more humans will flock to the beaches. Although people enjoy a day in the sand, the beaches are home to many species and are a part of the city's ecosystem. Igleski hopes the piping plover habitat will remind people that they share these beaches with other animals. 

"The fact that it is a space that even we can share as citizens of Chicago, I think, highlights the importance of these areas not only for humans but also for birds," he said. 

He said, "We are protecting spaces for animals so we are not infringing on their rights to be in these spaces with us." 

One of the biggest drivers of climate change is human activity. Climate change has a devastating impact on the earth's biodiversity, or variety of life on Earth, in all its forms, from genes and bacteria to entire ecosystems, according to a United Nations report.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are part of an interlinked triple planetary crisis the world is facing today, the report found. 

Piping plovers are a part of Illinois and the Great Lake's biodiversity. These birds also offer a unique insight into the condition of an ecosystem for scientists, according to a study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

"Birds and wildlife and nature in general help us mentally, emotionally, physically, and what we do for them eventually comes back to us in many ways," Itani said.  

This Earth Day, Itani wants everyone to remember the legacy of Monty and Rose.

"Love piping plovers. Advocate for them," she said, "and continue to care for habitat and birds so they are with us for centuries to come." 

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