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Look Up and See!

An adult osprey carrying a fish to feed its family in the nest, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge; from Leslie Day’s Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City
Don Riepe
An adult osprey carrying a fish to feed its family in the nest, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge; from Leslie Day’s Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City

When most people think of birds in New York City, they think of pigeons, or perhaps starlings or house sparrows quarreling at a street corner. They may think of Canada geese making a nuisance in a park. Leslie Day, in her Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, does not look down on these commonest birds. She enfolds them all in an affectionate embrace. She regrets efforts to limit the Canada goose population, even in the vicinity of JFK airport. Mainly she wants us to know that there are many more kinds of birds to be seen and admired in New York City than just these omnipresent species.

In fact, New York is a particularly “birdy” city (to use the birder’s term). Someone who makes a serious effort to find birds in the city almost every day—there are such people—can find upward of three hundred species in one year without ever leaving the city limits, using only public transportation. The cumulative bird list of Central Park alone includes over 280 species, some of which, to be sure, appear only occasionally. Like Boston or San Francisco, New York has rich bird life because it has extensive parkland, because it is close to the sea (which adds marsh and beach to the mix of habitats), and because the city now protects certain places where birds congregate, like tern colonies and heronries, even at some inconvenience to humans.

Bird life is constantly changing in New York City. We may assume that the marshy island that the first European settlers encountered in the early seventeenth century thronged with ducks, geese, herons, and other conspicuous water birds that were soon consumed or chased off as the city arose. But change did not stop when the city became fully built. New York City’s bird life has been altered in interesting ways in just the past fifty years.

More different kinds of birds nest in New York City now than did fifty years ago, although those that just pass through may not be as numerous. The breeding bird population of New York City does not simply replicate that of the nearby countryside, however. Some birds survive very well in the city, while others stay away. Ecologists classify natural species according to their response to urban environments: as exploiters, adapters, or avoiders.

Exploiters positively thrive in the thick of the city. Untroubled by human presence, they roost on our roofs, nest in our eaves, and eat our trash. The exploiting birds that are most conspicuous in New York City—starlings, house sparrows, rock pigeons (the proper name of the common street pigeon), mallard ducks, and Canada geese—are also abundant in many other cities across the world. Quick to colonize any denatured landscape, they are “tramps easily dispersing across our world,” writes the ecologist John Marzluff. “If they were plants, we could call them weeds.”1 They point toward a homogenized future in which one will see the same tough, streetwise birds in any city in the world.

All of these species, along with mute swans, were spread by human introduction. Two more recent introductions may produce new exploiters. A bird importer about to be charged with illegal trade in native birds released some house finches, a small, wine-colored bird native to California, at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in 1940. They bred, flourished, and are now ubiquitous, not only in New York City but throughout eastern North America. House finch numbers have recently been reduced by an eye disease, reminding us that epidemics are one of the risks faced by exploiters.

Parrots are another new exploiter group. Escaped or released pet parrots are common in cities worldwide, but only monk parakeets, native to temperate Argentina and capable of surviving a northern winter, have established permanent populations in New York City. These bright green parrots with gray monks’ hoods have become a nuisance to Con Edison by choosing transformers for their enormous collective nests.

Fortunately for New Yorkers who enjoy variety in bird life, a number of adapter species, to continue with the ecologists’ categories, have recently moved to the city. Even some birds usually wary of humans have learned that life is possible, even advantageous, here. In 1992, a red-tailed hawk, soon to be famous as “Pale Male,” established his bulky stick nest on the façade of an apartment building on Fifth Avenue. He seems to have been the first of his species to set up housekeeping on a building instead of a cliff or tree. By 2007, thirty-two pairs of red-tailed hawks were established in the five boroughs. The peregrine falcons reared at Cornell University and released, beginning in 1983, to replace the native stock that DDT had completely eliminated, chose New York City bridges and towers for their aeries instead of the traditional mountain crags. Several dozen pairs of peregrine falcon now inhabit the city, more, Leslie Day tells us, than in any other city in the world.

The biggest and, one would have thought, the wildest North American owl, the great horned owl, has nested in Pelham Bay Park since the early 1960s. American kestrels, colorful small falcons, find nesting cavities in the cornices of apartment buildings. With plenty of pigeons and squirrels and sparrows to eat and no serious enemies, some of these seemingly untamed predators may even prosper more in the city than in the countryside, with its subdivisions, shopping malls, and chemical-saturated agricultural monocultures.

The most successful native bird that breeds in New York City, Day observes, is the American robin. Originally limited to forest clearings, robins took to city parks and suburban gardens with alacrity. Almost every tree in the city seems to contain a robin’s nest in spring. The latest addition to the list of species that nest in New York City is the raven, once limited to the remotest mountain cliffs but now reclaiming its former range right to the coast.

Still other adapter species have returned to New York City as a result of active protection. Herons and egrets were extirpated by plume hunters from all but the remotest corners of Florida by the end of the nineteenth century. After the nascent Audubon Society obtained a ban on plume hunting, herons and egrets gradually recolonized northeastern coastal marshes in the mid-twentieth century. In 1978, as the Clean Water Act of 1972 took effect, they began to nest within the city itself, on islands in the East River and in New York Harbor. Soon these urban heronries outnumbered the rural ones, perhaps because they were less disturbed by human and animal predators.

The New York City Audubon Society began censusing the city’s heronries in 1982. In 2015, the society’s scientists counted over 1,300 pairs of seven species of herons, plus double-crested cormorants, nesting on islands in New York Harbor, Jamaica Bay, and the East River. These colonies constitute a great conservation success story, although questions remain about their long-term viability, since these birds are exposed to heavy metals and other pollutants present in city waters.

Ospreys, nearly eliminated by DDT, also returned in the 1980s. In 2015, twenty-one osprey nests, mostly around Jamaica Bay, produced forty-five young, far more than before the DDT era. These adaptations and returns are the avian parallel to the proliferation at the edge of cities of some big mammals like deer, foxes, and coyotes portrayed by Jim Sterba in his recent book Nature Wars, except that the birds inhabit the cities’ very center.2

A final set of adapters among New York City’s new breeding birds consists of southern species that have spread north as winters become milder and bird-feeding more widely practiced. Mockingbirds, once deep southern, first nested on Staten Island in 1961, and in Central Park in 1963. They are now common. I found a mockingbird nest myself on the Columbia University campus a few years ago. Cardinals, the species that attracted Leslie Day to birdwatching, recovered previous terrain in New York City in the 1940s and are now abundant. Other immigrants from the south in the last fifty years include tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, and red-bellied woodpeckers.

These successes do not mean that New York City has more birds than ever before. Some species, especially the migrants that pass through in spring and fall and overwinter in the tropics, have lost ground. There are multiple reasons for this. These include deforestation of their wintering areas in Latin America as well as forest fragmentation in their breeding areas in the northeastern United States and Canada. There is also death by cats or pesticides, and collisions with glass windows or telecommunications towers. After a foggy September night there is a little pile of dead birds at the foot of most New York skyscrapers.

Radar, unexpectedly, has allowed us to measure the decline. When radar was new, during World War II, it was discovered that migrating birds show up on the screens. A scientist who compared images on weather radar from the 1960s with those of the 1980s found that the number of small birds that make the night flight back in spring from Latin America across the Gulf of Mexico had been cut nearly in half. The “warbler waves” that old-timers remember each May in Central Park are a feeble relic today.

Many species of birds shun New York City for nesting. These make up the ecologists’ category of avoiders. Some are particularly wary of humans (like black ducks or ruffed grouse), others (like cliff swallows or bank swallows) are too specialized in their habitat requirements to raise young in most parts of the city. The eggs or young of ground-nesting species such as ovenbirds or juncos would quickly fall prey to rats and cats in New York City, though these species pass through commonly enough in migration. A few species have ceased to breed in the city, such as ruddy ducks, which abandoned Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Leslie Day notes, when the water became brackish.

Despite these absences one can still have an impression of abundance in New York City, especially during spring and fall migrations, because birds are more concentrated in the city’s parks and green interstices than they are in the countryside. Even small parks and gardens can hold a lot of birds in May or October. However pleasing the spectacle may be to humans, these birds may be in difficulty, desperate to find some green space with insects to eat after an all-night flight. The small Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, harbors a particularly large variety of migrant birds in spring and fall, for reasons that remain a mystery. Its cumulative bird list exceeds one hundred species. The New York City Audubon Society has been organizing guided visits to see migrant warblers and thrushes in Bryant Park early on spring and fall mornings.

Other concentration points for birds are found at New York City beaches, where hundreds of pairs of terns and skimmers may nest in densely packed colonies. These colonies could not exist without protection. New York City does its best to fence them off from dogs, sunbathers, and joggers. Taken together, all of these additions and restorations support the idea that a city like New York can actually be better than the country for some kinds of birds.

New York City bird life with its special history and its peculiar presences and absences has been an irresistible subject for books. Four complete surveys of all the birds known to occur around New York City provided snapshots of the area’s evolving bird life as of 1906, 1923, 1942, and 1964.3 Unfortunately these have had no sequel to show the enrichment of bird life that has occurred within the city since the 1960s.

Leslie Day, in her Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, makes no claim to be such a sequel. She has limited her attention to about ninety of the more familiar birds found in the city parks, “neighborhood birds.” Her book is fairly complete for the commoner park birds, but she treats fewer birds of the coastal beaches and marshes than the earlier Birds of New York City by Chris Fisher and Andy Bezener.4 One misses, for example, the photogenic black skimmers, whose lower beak protruding oddly beyond the upper one serves to scoop up animal matter from the water’s surface. New York City protects a big skimmer colony at Arverne, in the Rockaways, Queens, by closing off a section of beach in June and July, despite some protests, and Gateway National Seashore does the same at Breezy Point, Queens. Other threatened species like least terns and piping plovers, also omitted from Day’s book, are protected there too. She covers only three of the two dozen species of sandpipers and plovers that gather at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge by the thousands in spring and fall, some of them, to be sure, hard to identify.

Day provides basic information about each species she includes: its scientific and common names, its appearance and behavior, its calls and songs, and information about when and where it can be found in the city. Often she adds a striking detail or two. The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, swooping downward at two hundred miles an hour; minuscule ruby-throated hummingbirds make a three-housand-mile round-trip journey to Central America for the winter and back; green herons have learned to drop a leaf or insect into the water to draw fish close enough to spear. Her information is generally accurate, though a handful of errors have crept in. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers and white-throated sparrows do not breed in the city. Boat-tailed grackles are not just occasional visitors but one of the newest arrivals from the south as a regularly nesting bird in the city’s marshes.

Day wants to think the best of birds’ fidelity to their mates. She asserts that many small birds mate for life, like the larger ones, even though most go their separate ways in winter. For instance, she makes this claim for catbirds, though the scientific literature is more cautious. The Birds of North America says only that in one study a third of catbirds had the same mates in a subsequent nesting season.5 She makes no reference to recent DNA studies suggesting that many broods of small birds have multiple paternity.

The book’s outstanding feature is its remarkable photographs, mostly by Beth Bergman. They illustrate every species considered, mostly in settings typical of the city, engaged in their daily activities, feeding or interacting with their mates or young, often at nests. Especially fine are the great horned owls, great egrets in diaphanous nuptial plumage, two blue jays engaged in some kind of conversation, jewel-like magnolia warblers, and a lost migrant woodcock resting in someone’s back garden. Their vitality makes these illustrations far superior to the rather lifeless portraits found in many bird guides.

The reader should not expect Day’s book to do everything. It is not really a field guide, whose main purpose is to single out the crucial distinguishing marks for each species, in all its plumages, and compare them with similar species with which it might be confused. For that, one must refer to the standard guides to identification by Roger Tory Peterson, David Sibley, or the National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Nor does this book provide an extended historical analysis of the recent changes in New York City bird life, though some information about particular cases appears in the accounts of species. A list of the best places in New York City for finding birds appears at the end of the book, but without discussion of their special features or directions for getting to them. For this one can use Deborah Rivel and Kellye Rosenheim, Birdwatching in New York City and on Long Island.6

Leslie Day is a self-taught enthusiast, not a professional ornithologist. She marvels at the riches of New York City’s bird life, and conveys her excitement effectively. Her book makes a handsome introduction to those riches. It will please anyone who enjoys nature even if it may not fully satisfy all of them. If it draws some new people into this enjoyment, and makes them want to learn more, it will have done its job.

  1. 1

    John M. Marzluff, Welcome to Subirdia (Yale University Press, 2014), p. 31; see my review in these pages, November 20, 2014. 

  2. 2

    Crown, 2012; see the review by Russell Baker in these pages, February 21, 2013. 

  3. 3

    Frank Chapman, The Birds of the Vicinity of New York City (American Museum of Natural History, 1906); Ludlow Griscom, Birds of the New York City Region (American Museum of Natural History, 1923); Allan D. Cruickshank, Birds Around New York City (American Museum of Natural History, 1942); John Bull, Birds of the New York Area (Harper and Row, 1964).  

  4. 4

    Birds of New York City, Western Long Island, and Northeastern New Jersey (Lone Pine, 1998). 

  5. 5

    The Birds of North America, edited by Alan Poole and Frank B. Gill (The American Ornithologists’ Union), No. 167 (1995), p. 7.  

  6. 6

    University Press of New England, 2016.