“I never thought it would end so abruptly” – Chicago Tribune

His story was full of drama, anchored in hope and, depending on who you asked, ultimately about love.

But it was never going to last forever.

Monty, one half of Chicago’s pair of endangered Great Lakes Piping Plovers, died Friday in Montrose Beach. It was his fourth summer in the North Side arena. He was still waiting for the return of his mate, Rose.

“He used to joke that he would be a decade older and still coordinate the effort,” said lo Itani, a member of the Illinois Ornithological Society who has kept an eye on the birds for years. “I didn’t think it would last that long actually, but I also didn’t think it would end so abruptly.”

Somehow Monty seemed invincible, Itani said. He could take down the killer deer. He could dodge a peregrine falcon. She had seen him earlier this week, watching him through a viewer as a few hours passed. She said she will miss hearing the sound of his flute playing at Montrose.

“It was so sudden, so unexpected,” Itani said. “We were a little worried about Rose, not Monty.”

After three summers of fledging together, Rose had yet to arrive from the Florida island where she spends the winter. In a final attempt to make sense of raising 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 high as the horizon behind them. In their first summer, they outclassed a potential beachside EDM festival. Between their thousand-mile migrations there were more challenges: the loss of nests, the death of chicks, predators with an appetite for plovers.

Time and time again, the little birds emerged resilient and often victorious. Chicagoans showed up day after day in Montrose to keep an eye on Monty and Rose, who came to represent much more than most things that can fit in your hand.

Chicago has perhaps 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 calls before the news got out. “I was hoping they’d say, he just passed out.”

On Saturday, the herd of binoculars you’d expect to see near the Montrose habitat was nowhere to be found. A bird-embroidered baseball cap hung near the spot where Monty suddenly fell ill, and a bird watcher found himself in a situation no one expected.

Daniela Herrera, who has monitored the plovers in previous summers, observed Montrose’s habitat, where she saw Monty take his last breath.

“You look at the entire life cycle of a bird,” Herrera said. “I will miss you. And they will have a special place in my heart, always.”

Herrera had watched the birds on hot days and in the midst of foraging. On Friday he noticed that Monty acted in a way that he had never seen before. He seemed to be falling, and the behavior was so unusual that she made a few calls to alert others.

After a fall, he did not get up again.

“Everything went blank,” said Herrera, who then had to share the news with birders who came to see Monty in action and instead saw his small, lifeless body in the sand.

Herrera said she was happy to have monitored the birds and, as one of the few Spanish-speaking volunteers, lent her binoculars and shared her story with families across the city who might not otherwise listen.

“It’s kind of crazy to think about how people connected with these little birds,” Herrera said.

But, he said, “in the end, nature will have its last word.”

Great Lakes plovers live about five years on average. Some may live another decade or so, but the threats are ever present.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in Friday to take Monty’s body to the Lincoln Park Zoo for testing. It may eventually end up in a museum.

Although the birds will be missed, those who have cared for them want their lessons about conservation and habitat restoration to be carried on. Great Lakes Piping Plovers were once reduced to about a dozen nesting pairs. Last year there were 74.

“I hope that people through Monty and Rose realize how important it is to create a little bit of space for piping plovers, shorebirds and other wildlife,” Itani said. “I totally think it’s our obligation to continue to make sure they exist.”

As for Rose, the longer she’s been gone, the less likely she is to return. Some plovers take a free nesting season, but it is rare. If she is not seen again and it is confirmed through her ringing, her fate may remain unknown.

Jillian Farkas, Great Lakes Piping Plover recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there’s still a chance Rose will show up, but it’s unlikely.

“It’s devastating that we lost Monty, but it’s almost an easier pill to swallow since Rose hasn’t returned either,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is part of the process. And that’s why recovery is so important. Every plover matters.”

A celebration of bird life is in the works.

“I will always be grateful to them for the joy they brought us,” Itani said. “It’s a unique experience we’ve had.”

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