“Here he's planting mayapples –  cold weather doesn't slow him down – he helps set the pace whatever the weather,” Wendy Pollock said of Tony Rothschild.
Photo by Wendy Pollock
“Here he's planting mayapples – cold weather doesn't slow him down – he helps set the pace whatever the weather,” Wendy Pollock said of Tony Rothschild. Photo by Wendy Pollock

This is the first in a series of articles introducing the community to volunteers for nature in Evanston.  Each volunteer makes a mark on the community's  green space in a way everyone enjoys and benefits from.

On any particular day, Tony Rothschild’s broad brimmed hat might be visible at Ladd Arboretum, Twiggs Park, Harbert Park, Lighthouse Beach or Northwestern. He is reliably pitching in to cut and tow buckthorn or to collect a fragile songbird.

Mr. Rothschild, 63, has long been involved in service for parklands.  Starting in 2012 on Sierra Club service trips, he helped maintain and build trails in the Rockies. Trees were down from the pine bark beetle and other blights hastened by climate disruption.  He used two-person saws, or four-foot long single saws to clear the paths. 


Introduced by Judy Pollock, President of Chicago Audubon, he started helping to remove invasive species, especially common buckthorn, in Evanston’s Ladd Arboretum. 


Although we think of Ladd as beautiful and well-manicured, there are areas along the North Shore Channel that were packed with buckthorn, a non-native invasive tree. Buckthorn produces berries spread by birds that sprout more buckthorn and crowd out native trees and shrubs valuable for wildlife.


Working closely with Ladd Steward Wendy Pollock and a group of other volunteers, Mr. Rothschild has been helping to create a trail east of the Ecology Center, continuing to clear invasives, and planting and caring for native shrubs, flowers, and grasses.


A corporate lawyer for his career, Mr. Rothschild retired in 2018.  “I love being outside,” he says.  “I like physical work, in large part because you can see the results of your efforts, which was often not the case in my professional life.”  He and his wife, Jane, have two boys, aged 27 and 30, who live in Chicago.


As a lawyer, he counseled small to mid-sized businesses.  Through his synagogue, he has also volunteered for social justice causes, including sponsoring Rohingya refugees and working with homeless families.


In 2018, he began restoring natural habitat in more places: clearing buckthorn along the North Branch of the Chicago River with the North Branch Restoration Project (NBRP), which runs from Northbrook to Chicago and includes Harms Woods.


The NBRP also collects native seeds to replace the invasives being removed.  The goal is “opening the density of the woods,” and restoring native habitat he says.


Buckthorn provides limited wildlife value because it is not readily eaten by insects, which birds depend on, especially to feed fledglings. But even without the insects, buckthorn provides cover and shelter for birds, and care is required to remove the invasive plants while planting new grasses and shrubs so that there are hiding and nesting areas for birds during the transition to restored habitat.


Judy Pollock also introduced him to Harbert Park.  “She ran Harbert for a little while, then graduated,” he said 


Creeping Charlie joins buckthorn as the main target for removal at Harbert, under direction from Harbert Steward Allison Sloan.  Mr. Rothschild is also planting and building chicken wire fences to protect new native Paw Paw, American Plum, ­serviceberry, crabapple or hawthorn

from the family of deer that call the park home. 


Ms. Sloan has selected native food plants to demonstrate that a natural garden can also feed us.  Twiggs Park hopes to do the same.  Mr. Rothschild has helped there, too: “Biggest honeysuckle [another invasive] I have ever seen, and plenty of buckthorn,” he says.


"Tony has been a stalwart volunteer for natural areas in Evanston," says Ms. Sloan. "Much of the work on the new paths, deer fences and buckthorn removal at Harbert Park Woods was done by or assisted by his hands."


Work in the arboretum, and Twiggs and Harbert parks is part of the  North Shore Channel Habitat Project, which accelerated in 2016 thanks to a grant to the City of Evanston from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.


“We envision the channel lands as a green corridor that not only welcomes migratory birds and butterflies, but offers Evanstonians access to nearby nature,” says Wendy Pollock. “This year, during the pandemic, these areas have been especially important and well used.”


“He has a great friendly positive spirit and is an important member of the group,” says Judy Pollock.


The NBRP’s “cut and burn” efforts toward buckthorn have been on hiatus due to COVID-19.  “It has been weird – not seeing the NBRP people, although a number of them have joined us in our weekly workdays at the arboretum.  Not much else I am doing, so I’m taking long walks,” Mr. Rothschild said.


Some of Mr. Rothschild’s long walks are at Northwestern University, where he volunteers rescuing birds that have hit windows. The purpose of the monitoring is to let Northwestern administrators know where their efforts to stop bird strikes have worked, and where they need to do more.


Bird strikes kill all varieties of birds, hummingbirds to warblers to whippoorwills, young and old.  Birds do not see glass that reflects trees or sky, or where they can see through.


Northwestern has reduced bird collisions by adding window film in dot or line patterns that birds can see and that are relatively unobtrusive for people.


Monitors collect injured and dead birds:  Live birds catch a relay ride to Willowbrook Wildlife Refuge for rehabilitation, and dead birds join the Field Museum collection.  Peggy Notebaert Museum helps as the drop off/pick up point for injured birds. Mr. Rothschild takes two shifts a week that start as early as 5 a.m.


“I like to be up early.  Love watching the sun come up,” Mr. Rothschild said. 


With Mr. Rothschild on the side of the birds, the whole community benefits.