A Brief History of the Wooded Island Bird Walks

By Patricia Durkin

At the risk of sounding like a terrible off-key and loud Red-breasted Nuthatch, tooting my own horn, I received a “Best Friend of Chicago Audubon Society” Award last weekend.  

I accepted the Award in behalf of all the Wooded Island Regulars and dedicated the Award to the life of Karin Cassel, who died last September.  Karin was the heart and soul of the Wooded Island Bird Walks.  She birded Wooded Island, starting in the 1960’s. She never, ever lost her passion for birding and all things birds.  Karin was our Sibley’s before there was a Sibley’s, and always preferred Peterson anyway over any other field guide.

Dave Willard asked that the recipients keep their remarks short. So I started out with the opening line to the Book of Genius: “In the beginning was the Word.” I thought that was sort of funny, but Marian N. topped my little joke by hearing, “In the beginning was the Bird.” Ha! Ha!

Doug Anderson began the Wooded Island bird Walks in 1972 – 1973.Yes! Forty-seven (47) years of continuous weekly Bird Walks, now year round, free and open to one and all!  What a record!  I have asked visitors from far and near if they know of any such Walks. None other! This is an extremely important and long lived credit to the Chicago Audubon Society and to Doug Anderson who took the first step.

I explained how the Walks began.  In 1972 Wooded Island was the domain of Jeff Fort and “The Almighty Black P. Stone Nation” gang. The gang leaders, called generals, would station a sentry at the north and south bridges and conduct business on Wooded Island. Jeff Fort and some of his generals were caught up in a murder and mayhem trial in 1972 -1972, which resulted in a 186 year sentence for the brilliant but wayward Mr. Fort.

Enter the renowned Hyde Park Chicago City Council Alderman Leon Despres (1908 – 2009) who regularly gave Old Man Mayor Richard J. Daley dyspepsia. Alderman Despres wanted to reclaim Wooded Island for the people. He came up with the idea of regular bird walks.  Now, you may ask how it came about that he tapped the young Doug Anderson to lead the Walks? I think that there may have been a political connection. Doug’s father was an assistant to the Late Senator Paul H. Douglas. Doug seemed like a likely chap to do the job. He was over six feet tall and a quick learner.

But those early birders feared walking around Wooded Island because of the reputation of being gang territory. “Not to fear” said Alderman Despres.  “I will have a Chicago Police Officer assigned to walk with the birders.”

So, that is how the Walks began. An intrepid band of birders, led by a tall young man, with a new Peterson’s Field Guide in hand, and a Chicago Police Officer in tow. Over the course of time, the Police Officer became quite a good birder.

Karin D. was a bit mortified that I would bring up the gangs. I could see a bit of shock and dismay on the faces of some in the audience.  But that is the truth of “In the beginning”…of the oral history I recall. 

It has been ten years since Doug Anderson led the Wooded Island Bird Walks. When he stopped coming, the birders kept coming. The Walks were imprinted in their brains.  The Wooded Island Bird Walks still are the best, perhaps because we are the only Walks, held weekly, year round, and open to one and all. In all modesty, regardless, we are the best. Toot! Toot!!