Science in the City: Appreciating our Feathered Friends

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always liked birds. I’ve had bird feeders, enjoyed listening to bird song and even done some amateur birding. However, it wasn’t until my current class – Animal Migration in Theory and Practice– that I fully appreciated how amazing these creatures really are. While the course covered migratory movements and behavior for many different animals, it was the study of birds and the tremendous journeys some of them undertake each year that really fascinated me.

We learned that most small passerines (birds such as warblers, finches and sparrows) migrate in large flocks at night and that New York City is an important stopover site for many birds as they migrate up the Atlantic Flyway, a major bird transit route. This means that on any given night during the spring or fall migration, thousands of feet above NYC, there could be flocks of these small birds undertaking one of nature’s greatest journeys. In fact, we learned that if you venture up to the top of the Empire State building on the right night, you can even hear the flight calls of these traveling birds. This brings me to the great thing about birds – you can find them all over the city! And I don’t mean pigeons. At different times of the year, New York City is home to song birds, water birds and even birds of prey.

One great thing about birding anywhere, including NYC, is the ever growing technology and citizen science projects built around the hobby. Some of these tools really add value in that they can give amateur birders a leg up on knowing the best times and places to spot birds. Here I’d like to highlight two of the most helpful ones.

First, and most well-known, is eBird. eBird, which was partially funded by an NSF grant, is an application that allows citizen scientists to record and share their bird sightings real-time with the broader community. eBird was created to make the most of the countless bird observations that happen all over the world every day. One of the best features of the program is that it allows you to view local interactive maps to see where, when and what birds have been spotted in your area. For instance, I found that in one part of Central Park called “The Ramble,” 215 bird species have been seen. Even more useful, the map provides details on when each species was last seen which can help guide your future birding activities.

Another terrific resource for birding in New York City is BirdCast. BirdCast is a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that synthesizes data from eBird, night flight calls captured by acoustic recording equipment, radar observations and weather patterns to provide weekly migration updates. In this way, BirdCast provides real time migratory forecasts for each region of the US. For instance, the BirdCast outlook for the week of April 25 to May 2 in the Northeast calls for “moderate to locally heavy movements… over portions of southern New England” due to favorable weather conditions. The report goes on to list over twenty different species that are on the move in the area this week – I know I’ll be keeping an eye out for the Scarlet Tanagers and Baltimore Orioles*!

Another excellent (and reliable) way to see birds in the city is to check out some of the nesting birds of prey. For example in Washington Square Park, Rosie and Bobby’s chicks just hatched in their nest on the ledge of an NYU campus building. This resident red-tailed hawk couple can be easily spotted in person from the park, just as you can spot other nesting hawk pairs in the many NYC parks they call home.

Just last week, while I was walking my dog, something caught my eye from above – to my delight it was either Rosie or Bobby soaring high above the city buildings. So take advantage of all the birding options in this city, especially during the migratory and breeding seasons – and make sure to look up, you never know what you might see.



*booo – JAD (a Yankees fan)