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Birdwatching in Urban Areas

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Andrew Redden is an avid backyard birdwatcher. From his rear window, he has, on various occasions, spied doves, robins, cardinals, blue jays, three varieties of sparrow, finches, mockingbirds, catbirds, and juncos. He’s even spotted a group of parrots that make regular visits to a neighbor’s tall mulberry tree, squawking up a storm as they gorge on the sweet, sticky fruit.

His “yard,” by the way, measures 30 by 20 feet and, with the exception of a small, central bed and two narrow planted borders on either side, is mostly paved in concrete. And it’s smack-dab in the middle of Brooklyn, whose 2.5 million residents would qualify it as the third largest city in the United States were it not already one of New York’s five boroughs. But the birds – who find shelter in the shrubs and vines and food from the berries, insects and seeds – are resilient little city dwellers themselves. Some are just tourists in the Big Apple, stopping by to recharge and refuel as they make their way south in the fall and north in the spring. Others have made New York their permanent home, and offer endless entertainment, diversion and delight to those who seek them out.

A popular pastime

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, almost 50 million Americans are bird watchers. And contrary to popular perception, many of those bird watchers are city dwellers. As cities continue to grow and crowd out nature, the birds remain, some of our last links to the ever-shrinking natural world.

In his new book, “The Life of the Skies,” Jonathan Rosen meditates on the many meanings of urban bird watching. In the mid-1990s, Rosen went out to New York's Jamaica Bay to watch the birds. Looking out over the water, he saw ibises, egrets and snow geese. As they flew past the World Trade Center, he was keenly aware of the "poetic juxtaposition of the permanent towers and the evanescent birds." Only a few years later, the lofty towers were gone, but the birds were not. Today, Rosen walks through Central Park – a stone’s throw from his Manhattan apartment – in pursuit of birds. In cities, he notes, they are "the only remaining wild animals in abundance that carry on in spite of human development."

Birds about town

Redden would agree. In addition to the birds he feeds – with a mixture of wild birdseed purchased at the local supermarket – he’s always on the lookout for different varieties as he makes his way around the city.

“I’ve seen red-tailed hawks, ospreys, ducks, swans, and egrets,” he said. He adds that both Central and Prospect Parks are ideal spots for urban bird watchers. According to Jillian Rubio, Director of the Prospect Park Audubon Center, there have been 250 different species of birds identified there alone. The Audubon Center at Prospect Park – the very first in an urban area – sponsors free weekly bird walks, so interested birders can grab their binoculars and go.

Parks in the other boroughs – Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island – are sanctuaries for numerous birds as well.

And for those city dwellers who pine for the sight of gulls wheeling in the sky or sandpipers daintily hopping along the water’s edge, relief is only a subway ride away. Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Orchard Beach and Far Rockaway all offer ample opportunities to watch shore birds strut their stuff.

So don’t assume birds of a feather don’t traffic in the city; birds are an integral and vital part of urban life, and it looks like they’re here to stay.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas,V.M.D.
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