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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.