Their story was filled with drama, anchored by hope and, depending on who you ask, ultimately one about love.
But it would never last forever.
Monty, half of the endangered Great Lakes flock of plovers in Chicago, died Friday on Montrose Beach. It was his fourth summer in the sands of the North Side. He was still waiting for his buddy, Rose, to return.
“I always joked that I would be 10 years older and still coordinate efforts,” said lo Itani, a member of the Illinois Ornithological Society who has watched over the birds for years. “I really didn’t think it would last this long, but I never thought it would end so abruptly either.”
In some ways, Monty seemed invincible, Itani said. He was able to clean up Killdeer. He could dodge a peregrine falcon. She’d seen him earlier this week, watching him through a telescope as a few hours flew by. She said she will miss his whistling sound in Montrose.
“It was so sudden, so unexpected,” Itani said. “We were a little worried about Rose, not Monty.”
After three summers of flying chicks together, Rose still hadn’t arrived from the island of Florida where she hibernates. In a last-ditch effort to give meaning to the breeding of two birds, some said Monty didn’t want to go on without his mate.
Over the years, Monty and Rose’s daily battles played out in the sand, alongside volleyballs, skunks, and storms. From the start, the odds against the birds were as lofty as the skyline behind them. In their first summer, they overcame a potential beachside EDM festival. Between their thousands of miles of migrations, there were more challenges: the loss of nests, the death of chicks, predators hungry for plovers.
Time and again the little birds emerged resilient and often victorious. Chicagoans came to Montrose day after day to keep an eye on Monty and Rose, who came to represent much more than most things that fit in your hand ever do.
Chicago may have never been so saddened by the death of a bird. On Saturday, many were still in disbelief. Some conversations ended in tears.
“Hearing the news was absolutely shocking,” said Itani, who had to make a few phone calls before the news got through. “I was hoping they would say, he just passed out.”
On Saturday, the binocular-clad gaggle you’d expect near the Montrose habitat was nowhere to be found. A baseball cap with embroidered birds hung near the spot where Monty suddenly fell ill – and a birdwatcher found himself in a situation no one expected.
Daniela Herrera, who has been watching the plovers over the past summers, looked out over the Montrose habitat, where she breathed Monty’s last breath.
“You’re looking at a bird’s entire life cycle,” Herrera said. ‘I will miss them. And they will always have a special place in my heart.”
Herrera had been watching the birds on hot days and while foraging. On Friday, she noticed Monty behaving in a way she’d never seen before. He appeared to fall over and the behavior was so unusual that she called several times to warn others.
He never got up after a fall.
“Everything went blank,” said Herrera, who then had to share the news with birdwatchers who came to see Monty in action and instead saw his tiny body, lifeless in the sand.
Herrera said she was glad to have watched the birds and as one of the few volunteers who speaks Spanish, she lent her binoculars and shared their story with families in the city who might not otherwise hear.
“It’s kind of wild to think about how connected people have become to these little birds,” Herrera said.
But, she said, “in the end, nature will have the last word.”
Great Lakes plovers live an average of about five years. Some may live another decade or so, but threats are ever present.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came in Friday to take Monty’s body to the Lincoln Park Zoo for examination. Eventually, he may end up in a museum.
While the birds will be missed, those who have cared for them want their lessons in habitat conservation and restoration to be preserved. The Great Lakes plovers had once dwindled to about a dozen breeding pairs. Last year there were 74.
“I hope through Monty and Rose people realize how important it is to clear some space for plovers, for shorebirds and other wildlife,” Itani said. “I am fully convinced that it is our duty to continue to ensure that they exist.”
As for Rose, the longer she’s gone, the less likely she’s to come back. Some plovers take off a breeding season, but that’s rare. If she is not seen again and confirmed by her banding, her fate may remain unknown.
Jillian Farkas, the Great Lakes plover rescue coordinator with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said there’s still a chance Rose would show up, but it’s unlikely.
“It’s terrible that we lost Monty, but it’s almost an easier pill to swallow since Rose isn’t back either,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is part of the process. And that’s why recovery is so important. Every plover matters.”
A celebration of the birds’ lives is in the works.
“I will be forever grateful to them for the joy they brought us,” Itani said. “It’s a unique experience we’ve had.”