The following is a modified excerpt from Leslie Day's Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City in celebration of National Bird Day.
In New York City, birds are everywhere. They share the sidewalks with us. They build their nests on, above, and below the window ledges of our apartments, brownstones, office towers, and bridge spans. They sometimes devour the pizza slice on the ground, or the bird seed scattered by some kind soul, but they also consume the cornucopia produced by flowers, seeds, and fruit of the millions of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and grasses of our city streets, backyards, and parks. Along our coastline they nest, raise their young and feed on the bounty produced by the sea, harbor, rivers, estuary, lakes and streams that surround and flow through our city of islands. The gulls, shore birds, sea hawks, cormorants, waterfowl, and wading birds consume fish, clams, oysters and mussels, and the nutritious sea grass that struggles to survive along our beaches,
Like every other aspect of nature in New York City, our birds and the environment they depend upon for food, shelter, and nesting habitat, thrive because of the work of our environmental community: the women, men, and young people, volunteers and professionals, who devote their lives to caring for our parks, gardens, islands, shorelines, and back yards, and planting species that help birds survive.
Every day birds become injured by flying into our skyscrapers, feeding on poison we put out, or feeding on the rats we poison. Waterfowl may accidently swallow lead sinkers left by fishermen, or become immobilized by oil spills. There are organizations that care for these injured animals. Rita McMahon and the Wild Bird Fund she created, and Bobby and Cathy Horvath and their organization Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation are organizations that take in hurt and sick birds, rehabilitate and release them back into the wild. In every borough there are wildlife rehabilitators.
The New York City Audubon Society works toward protecting wild birds and their habitat, and making skyscrapers safe when birds migrate at night. Confused by the lights, up to 90,000 birds die annually colliding with buildings at night. In 2005 NYC Audubon launched the Lights Out New York Program and got the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Time Warner Center and many other buildings to dim their lights from midnight until dawn during the height of fall migration, September 1st through November 1st, to keep thousands of birds safe as they migrate past these lighted glass skyscrapers.
There is a great history of caring for our birds in New York City. John James Audubon, who devoted his life to creating life-sized paintings of birds, travelled North America in the early nineteenth century with the purpose of painting every species. He posed them in their native habitat and had botanical artists recreate the herbaceous plants, deciduous trees and conifers they depended upon for food and shelter. Audubon, who died in 1851, spent the last years of his life in a house in northern Manhattan on West 155th Street along the banks of the Hudson River. He is buried in the Trinity Church cemetery where his tomb, the Audubon monument, stands on West 155th Street. The area, in what is now Washington Heights, is known as Audubon Park and Audubon Avenue runs north/south from West 193rd Street to West 165th Street.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Frank Chapman, chief ornithologist and Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History on West 81st Street and Central Park West, designed dioramas that showed the birds and their habitats, including species on Florida’s Pelican Island that were on the verge of extinction. In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt, whose father was a trustee of the museum, was inspired by the diorama to make this island the first National Wildlife Preserve. Teddy Roosevelt had been an avid birder since he was a boy and had a large collection of bird skins, some of which were donated to the museum’s extensive collection of almost a million birds of every species worldwide.
It was Frank Chapman who pioneered the Christmas Bird Count as an alternative to the Christmas Side Hunt: a competitive hunting activity to see who could kill the most birds. The national Christmas Bird Count, now in its 114th year collecting bird data by “citizen scientists,” is the longest running animal survey in the world, and is used by ornithologists and conservation biologists to look at the health of bird populations throughout North America.
Roger Tory Petersen, the noted bird artist and creator of the Petersen Guide to Birds and many other field guides, came to New York City to study art at the Art Students League in the 1920s and was a founding member of the Bronx County Bird Club.
There are thousands of New Yorkers with a passion for watching birds, studying birds and caring for birds. In Central Park, during the height of spring migration, over 500 birders have been counted. Birders, often kind and helpful, will let you or your children look through their scopes at a red tail hawk male or female in the nest, tenderly feeding their young.
Once you start to notice birds, you will see them everywhere: outside your classroom, your office, the stores you shop in, your hospital window. Birds care for each other and their families for months, sometimes years. There are many species that stay together for life, caring for their young and each other. Different species come together to chase a bird of prey from their territory, working communally to save their families. Many of us dream that we can fly. Falling in love with birds and watching them soar is the next best thing. Beth Bergman, my friend and the photographer for my field guide to New York City birds, told me that for her, birds are pure poetry. I think that birds bring out our humanity and make New York a more “human” city.
Leslie Day is a New York City naturalist and the author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City, and her latest, Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City. Dr. Day taught environmental science and biology for more than twenty years. Today, she leads nature tours in New York City Parks for the New York Historical Society, the High Line Park, Fort Tryon Park Trust, Riverside Park Conservancy, and New York City Audubon.