Profiles in nature: Birding in place with Feral De...

Profiles in nature: Birding in place with Feral Detroit

Empty roads, canals and bridges are among Melissa McLeod’s favorite spots to look for birds. From the slow-moving canals of Belle Isle to a pop-up bird bath formed by a pothole, she travels in search of the habitats that offer her windows into Detroit’s urban/natural world and its inhabitants.

These are the spots where she often takes pictures for her popular Instagram page, Feral Detroit which she has operated somewhat anonymously for the past several years. Besides documenting the profound diversity of wildlife in the city and the porous interface between “nature” and the built environment, she also ventures into the history of places like the Cass Corridor where she has spent much of her life.

This spring, the Feral Detroit feed has been full of Cape May, Palm and Magnolia Warbler, bright-colored seasonal visitors prized by birders for their beauty and the relatively short window in which they can be seen. The 30 or so species of warblers that pass through Detroit in spring and fall are also important indicators of ecosystem health. 

“They’re highly susceptible to the effects of climate change,” McLeod says. “They migrate so far and the weather affects them.” Thus, if they’re grounded by a storm and there isn’t adequate habitat or food, their ability to continue on and ultimately reproduce can be compromised. 

Fortunately, this was a good year for warblers. McLeod says these birds “follow spring due north” to their nesting grounds in northern Canada, eating the larvae that are attracted to the tender, young leaves of oak trees. McLeod’s social media posts are usually put out on the same day as pictures are taken, offering some guidance on what one might expect to see when they go outside that day.

By the time Planet Detroit caught up with her on Belle Isle, McLeod’s gaze had turned to some of the city’s more common long-term residents. Although even with these, McLeod has the gift of rendering the common strange. 

“Dinosaurs,” she remarks as a Great Blue Heron hovers over a canal, “they’re active all day”. By contrast, the Black-crowned Night-Heron are seen mostly at night, an utterly obvious piece of information that this writer had nevertheless previously failed to grasp.

Melissa McLeod. Courtesy photo.

Red-winged Blackbird, Oriole and Yellow Warbler all inhabit the island for the summer. McLeod says she spends the dog days looking for these birds or checking on nests from a safe distance, while also keeping an eye out for hummingbirds that visit honeysuckle flowers and the Cedar Waxwing who feed on their fruit. 

Wildflowers and plants provide McLeod with more stationary points of interest during the summer months, and she also looks out for animals like the beaver that have been active on Belle Isle in recent years. She points out several “beaver slides” where the animal’s heavy tails, composed mostly of fat, have cleared a thoroughfare between the human trail and the canal. 

Some misguided soul has placed tree bark and sticks on one of these paths to make it easier for people to traverse the mud — something that McLeod frowns on — along with the practice of using deer paths on the island. She says these practices can disturb animals, or in the case of the beaver slide, render them unusable. However, she adds that she’s “not the fun police”.

The fact that McLeod has spent most of her adult life working in bookstores and libraries may explain in part the remarkable breadth of information that she can convey in a short period of time — as she does in slow, deliberative sentences. 

She is an autodidact and a generalist, her perspective contrasting with that of many birders who focus — perhaps myopically — on birds and the accumulation of a “life list” of species observed. 

“There’s this weird competitiveness to it,” she says. “It’s not just about the birds, it’s an obsession with a certain place…for Detroiters everything’s about place.”

Although documenting wildlife has provided her with an escape from the politics of the city — something that takes a strange shape for her as a life-long Detroiter who is also white and generally assumed to be from somewhere else — the structural inequalities that she observes enter into her work as a matter of course. 

“Everything is political,” she says. In a series of recent Instagram Stories, she shared her thoughts on Cass Park where she was photographing birds during migration. This space was now mostly empty — making it perfect for birding— but it had once been an active hub for a mix of people, some of whom probably lived on the street. Now the empty parking lots of “District Detroit” and Little Caesars Arena orbit the park and contribute to its lack of human visitors. 

“I just felt out of place everywhere,” she says, referencing the alienation she feels in her own neighborhood as it’s taken over by development. This pushed her to spend more time on Belle Isle, “When I come here, I don’t feel that.”
Putting together a popular Instagram page on Detroit wildlife has mainly been a solitary pursuit. McLeod tells a story about “riding dirty” without car insurance to Stony Creek Metropark so she could go on a bird walk. (The city’s exorbitant car-insurance rates make this a common practice.)

When she got there, she found a group of suburban birders in expensive outdoor gear, discussing trips to South Africa to add birds to their life list. She did not return. But she did pick up on advice to spend more time on Belle Isle. Like the rest of the Detroit River, the island lies at the confluence of the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways for bird migration, making it a globally recognized “Important Bird Area”, protected under the Urban Bird Conservation Treaty.

The diversity of wildlife that McLeod found on Belle Isle and in places like Elmwood Cemetery surprised her and ran counter to a message that she had internalized, which said that the city where she grew up was essentially worthless. Going to Detroit Public Schools, she says, “Teachers would straight up say to you, ‘you need to leave this place, you’re going to end up dead, you’re going to end up in jail’.” 

Now she has to contend with the counter-narrative of Detroit’s “comeback” and the perception that the wildlife she documents symbolizes the city’s return to some sort of ahistorical innocence, ripe for investment. 

McLeod says that before the COVID-19 pandemic, she was trying to build more “real community” with nature walks on Belle Isle — intentionally making them informal and leaderless gatherings — where people could look at wildlife and share information in a way that would feel less exclusive.

The temporary deliverance from the demands of the self that looking at wildlife provides is a kind of meditation and perhaps one reason why McLeod refers to her practice as therapy. And although the vicarious pleasures of Feral Detroit’s Instagram feed can provide a break from the seemingly endless stream of bad news that is America in 2020, she says would-be naturalists will eventually need to get outside and experience things directly. 

“Don’t get too obsessed with lists and the way traditional birders do it, just go outside and pay attention.”

Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.