Native plants sprout from every corner of Tamima Itani’s Evanston backyard. It’s a haven for pollinators and monarch butterflies. But Itani mostly keeps her eyes on the skies. So far, she has spotted 124 different bird species from her yard, including some species in decline, such as the purple finch and golden-winged warbler. “These are uncommon yard birds,” she explains. “In the fall, I can see sandhill cranes heading south. Last fall I even observed the locally rare golden eagle.”
It’s a passion that took her by surprise. From an early age, Itani preferred to stay indoors while her parents and siblings liked to hike. But all that changed in 2016 on an African safari trip.
The avian life in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia stunned her.
“I saw lilac-breasted rollers, malachite kingfishers and so many others. They piqued my interest because I could not identify them at first,” says Itani, ’86 MS, ’91 PhD, ’02 CERT, who earned a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Northwestern and pursued a career in the medical device industry.
“All of a sudden, a big world opened up to me. I went from being this computer, books, movies and TV person to, ‘Alright, I want to go out into nature.’”
She delved into bird-watching back home. Then, in August 2017, a friend told Itani about a pair of piping plovers — endangered shorebirds small enough to fit in the palm of a hand —at Waukegan Municipal Beach, about an hour north of Chicago.
It was a big deal, Itani explains. “The number of piping plovers dropped to only 12 breeding pairs in the 1980s.”
She drove to Waukegan, Ill., to photograph the birds. Though their first nesting attempt failed to hatch chicks there in 2018, two years later, in 2019, Itani discovered the same pair of plovers “scraping a nest in the sand, right in the middle of the most public beach in Chicago, Montrose Beach.” The two birds were poised to become the first of their species to successfully nest in Cook County in more than 60 years, as beach usage and development have reduced their nesting options around the Great Lakes.
Itani knew the odds were stacked against them. “I rallied people, saying, ‘Hey, we need to take care of this. Otherwise, there’s no chance it’s going to succeed.’”
After notifying the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Chicago Park District and other organizations, Itani named the birds Monty and Rose to make communicating about their whereabouts easier. With the help of local conservation groups, Itani launched a public campaign to protect the nest, capturing the attention of national media and mobilizing more than 200 volunteers to monitor the nest throughout the summer.
As spokesperson and dutiful protector of the pair, Itani was dubbed the “Plovermother.” And her efforts paid off — Monty and Rose became the first piping plovers in decades to successfully nest and fledge chicks in Cook County.
“When the first chick hatched, that was just amazing,” Itani says through tears. “A lot of people had said, ‘Well, it’s never going to happen, not at Montrose. It’s too busy.’
“I said, ‘We’re just going to support them, and what will happen will happen.’”
For three years, Itani chronicled the lives of Monty and Rose. When the pair abandoned an unhatched egg, Itani notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who kept the egg at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo until it hatched.
“The egg hatched the next day, and that little chick was [reunited with] Monty and Rose,” Itani says. “Rose immediately went to the chick … and then Monty later did the same thing. It was just the sweetest thing ever.”
Monty returned to Montrose Beach in April 2022, but Rose never arrived. He died later that spring. But one of their chicks, Imani, returned to Montrose Beach this past summer.
Itani has memorialized their story by writing two children’s books, Monty and Rose Nest at Montrose and Monty and Rose Return to Montrose. She’s donating all proceeds to piping plover research.
“I have to tell you,” she says, “I just feel so incredibly fortunate to have had this in my life.”