Connecting Chicagoans with Birds

A historian finds a unique way to connect South Side residents with avian species.

When Bronzeville Historical Society founder Sherry Williams thinks about black history, birds come to mind. Just as winged creatures migrate as a matter of survival, waves of African Americans have left the South to build a better life. Williams draws on that metaphor to teach multicultural audiences about birds and habitat conservation at the Johnson Bird Oasis, which she founded on Chicago’s South Side. Located at a former Pullman railroad car factory that once employed emancipated slaves, the oasis boasts native plants and more than 66 species of visiting birds. A 2012 fellow with TogetherGreen (a partnership between Audubon and Toyota), Williams is now developing a second bird oasis, also on the South Side.


Have you always been interested in birds?

As early as age seven, I began to appreciate birds, mostly because they represented the sound of life. I grew up in an apartment building that had no front yard or backyard, so pigeons became my friends.


How does black history relate to bird migration?

More than two million blacks moved from the South between 1916 and 1960 to escape racism and poverty, and birds do a similar thing—they migrate to find refuge, food, and better living conditions.


Why did you decide to create a bird oasis?

I kept contacting regional bird conservation advocates, and they could not name any group that was on the South Side actively doing bird watching or conservation. There weren’t any green spaces that afforded the opportunity.


Who comes to the oasis and how do they react?

Our initial invitations went out to families, then later school-age children, and then seniors. What have been most promising are the conversations that the kids have had around their own family’s history of immigration and migration while they’re learning bird identification. I find the greatest joy in seeing the look on kids’ faces when they realize they’ve mastered bird names.