Graceland Cemetery — Switching Gears

- Discovering Nature and Chicago History at a Local Cemetery -

Portrait of Robert D. Hughes By Robert D. Hughes

Note: This article originally appeared as a post in The Montrose Birding Blog in June 2020.


When the city of Chicago closed Montrose Point to limit the spread of COVID-19, I had to find an alternate place to go birding. Graceland Cemetery is within walking distance of my home and that’s where I went for my local birding fix in the spring of 2020. I birded Graceland once in the past, forgot about it, and never really considered going there again. The Chicago lakefront park closures changed that.

The Basics

Graceland Cemetery is on the north side of Chicago, just north of Wrigley Field. It’s 121 acres and extends from Irving Park Road on the south to Montrose Avenue on the north and from Clark Street on the west to the elevated train tracks on the east. If you’ve driven east on Irving Park past Clark Street you’ve probably seen it. This Google Map shows the street system around Graceland.

Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut Warbler at Graceland Cemetery

(Click to see the larger version)

Birds, Birding, and Other Critters

From late March when I started to early June I tallied 105 species. My best day was May 15 with 72 species in about 3 hours. As of June 2020, the eBird total for Graceland is a respectable 174 species. Graceland proved to be excellent for warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other arboreal songbirds, which isn’t surprising given the many tall deciduous trees on the property. Overall habitat diversity is low, however, which limits avian diversity, especially for waterbirds. Lake Willowmere is the only body of water and it’s too small to attract most waterfowl and other water associating birds. One aspect I liked is how open the cemetery is, which made scanning the skies and looking for flyovers easy.

Graceland’s most famous animal residents are the family of Coyotes that call it home. I saw them on most of my visits and they became the subject of conversations I would have with other birders and even non-birders. They were hard to miss and showed a casualness towards people, a sign they’ve become acclimated to us. They brightened my visits and sometimes gave me a start when they got too close.

It’s an Arboretum Too

Graceland is also an arboretum with over 50 species of trees. Many of the common ornamental trees that line Chicago streets grow on the property (e.g., Silver and Norway Maples, American Elms, and Honey Locusts), and I found other more exotic species like English Oak. These trees give Graceland a beautiful, open park-like atmosphere. They’re also why it’s so attractive to warblers and other tree-loving passerines during migration.

Jack Johnson's Grave

Jack Johnson's Grave at Graceland Cemetery

(Click to see the larger version)

In the End, It’s a Cemetery

When most Chicagoans think of Graceland they probably think of the many famous people buried there. The cemetery hosts a number of movers and shakers from our history, businessmen like Potter Palmer, former mayor Carter Harrison, architect Mies Van Der Rohe, and Chicago Cub Ernie Banks, to name a few. To my mind, the most notable resident is Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. You may have seen the Ken Burns documentary about him, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”. Johnson became a lightning rod for white hatred when he won the boxing championship and also for aspects of his personal life.

Final Thoughts

Losing access to Montrose was a bitter pill to swallow. I’ve birded there for almost 40 years and I’ve never missed an entire May migration until 2020. Having Graceland took some of the sting out of that loss. It also gave me a chance to explore a Chicago landmark. Graceland is a wonderful place to wander around and look at things. A big thanks to Graceland Cemetery management for keeping it open to the public during the early stages of the COVID crisis. 

- February 2022

Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut Warbler

Related Resources

Other Short Stories by Robert Hughes

About Me Portrait of Robert D. Hughes

I'm a native Chicagoan, born and raised in the Windy City. My professional background is in webmastering, Web development, and content management. When I'm not working I apply my passion for writing and photography to promoting the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Chicago. Questions or comments? Drop me an email – Robert D. Hughes