[Update May 31, 2022: Lincoln Park Zoo announced today that the necropsy on Monty showed he died from a "severe fungal respiratory infection," including laryngitis that "restricted his airway." Further tests are being done to identify the type of fungus involved, but the statement said that it appeared to be "environmental in origin." Monty's remains will go to the Field Museum.]
The end, when it came, arrived suddenly and unexpectedly. On Friday, May 13th, famed Chicago Piping Plover Monty passed away after experiencing difficulty breathing. In his wake he left a series of broken hearts, plover enthusiasts, and a legacy of new plover chicks across the Great Lakes. Staff at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo performed a necropsy, but at press time have yet to announce the cause of Monty’s death.
The story of Chicago’s Piping Plovers has been covered elsewhere, but a quick recap is in order. Monty burst onto the Chicago scene in 2019 when he and his mate Rose arrived with family-making on their minds. Both birds, part of the federally endangered Great Lakes population of Piping Plover, had hatched in 2017 in different parts of the Great Lakes. They met as adults in 2018 in Waukegan, Illinois, and attempted to nest in a parking lot. After that failure, Monty and Rose found much more success the following summer in an unlikely place: Montrose Beach, a popular and crowded urban stretch of sand in Chicago.
For the next three years, Monty and Rose returned each spring to nest and raise young at Montrose, upending volleyball tournaments and summer music festivals, but also capturing the hearts of thousands of people who had never heard of this tiny endangered bird before it arrived in their backyards. Monty and Rose’s presence also helped highlight important conservation work across the Great Lakes—critical plover habitat on dunes and beaches funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).
Audubon Great Lakes has been an important partner in both safeguarding and increasing the funding of GLRI, and according to Stephanie Beilke, senior manager of conservation science at Audubon Great Lakes, the presence of Monty and Rose helped Audubon Great Lakes make the case for better GLRI support.
“We encouraged people to advocate for continued funding and expansion of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” says Beilke, “and used the storytelling around Monty and Rose to get people excited about that funding source and how big of an impact it can have for Piping Plovers.”
More to the point, says Beilke, the Montrose plovers showed that people coming together to support conservation through the region are why the birds had a chance at being successful in the first place. Plover monitoring, which was coordinated by Tamima Itani of Illinois Ornithological Society in close partnership with Chicago Audubon Society and Chicago Ornithological Society and undertaken by many dedicated volunteers, was key in keeping the birds protected from beachgoers and understanding what was going on in the nest.
But beyond Monty’s importance to the Great Lakes ecosystem—one of his offspring successfully nested in Ohio last year—he was just a fun bird to watch. “I was a volunteer plover monitor,” says Beilke. “I would go out before work on the 6am to 8am shift and keep tabs on Monty and Rose and their chicks. I feel like Monty really had a ‘small but mighty’ demeanor. You’d see him chase birds twice as big as he was.”
Sarah Saunders, a quantitative ecologist with Audubon’s Science team and an expert on Great Lakes Piping Plovers, has similar memories of Monty and his antics. She is part of a group of scientists who travels around the Great Lakes every summer to band both newly hatched chicks (with temporary tags) and any returning newly adult birds (with permanent tags). She’s been doing that work for more than a decade, so she has extensive experience with both the Great Lakes population in general, and with Monty and Rose and their offspring in particular.
“You spend so much time with these birds, watching them nest and raise chicks, and you build this character in your head,” says Saunders. “How can you not get attached to them?”
“I felt like someone punched me in the stomach when I found out that Monty died,” adds Beilke. “I thought they were making a cruel joke, given the sad situation with Rose.”
Yes, it's true: Despite Monty having arrived back at Montrose a few weeks prior to his death, Rose hasn’t been seen since last winter, in Florida, and many fear that she may have died sometime between then and now. While nothing is certain, it seems that both Montrose plovers are now gone.
Amidst all of this sadness, though, both Beilke and Saunders stress that both Monty and Rose brought messages of hope, and a lasting impact that will reverberate throughout the region.
“Here was the poster child of Piping Plovers in Chicago, and his fame went way beyond Chicago,” says Saunders. “Even though Monty was just one bird nesting at one place in the Great Lakes, his legacy has touched the entire Great Lakes population.”