NEW YORK CITY HAS MORE BIRDS THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

by Whit Gibbons

June 28, 2015

One might be excused for assuming that a book about the wildlife of New York City would be a tongue-in-cheek guide to Broadway, Time's Square and other nocturnal entertainment venues in the City That Never Sleeps. But a new book, "Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City" by Leslie Day (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), reveals that the city also has a lot of natural wildlife to be enjoyed.

Among the birds one thinks of in association with a fast-paced city are pigeons, house sparrows and starlings. But more than 475 different bird species have been recorded from New York State and most have spent some time in the City. One of the largest natural habitats is Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, where 340 species of birds have been documented. The concentrations of birds in identifiable wooded habitats like Central Park, where more than 60 different bird species can be seen over the course of a year, are admirable. This remarkable book is an excellent resource for the human inhabitants of NYC, introducing them to the ecological and behavioral details of almost a hundred birds that might be seen in various neighborhoods.

Related groups of birds are discussed in an introductory section preceding accounts of selected species. For example, cardinals, tanagers and grosbeaks are said to be "abundant in every park and area of the city with trees." Each account that follows explains when and where a particular species can be expected to be found within NYC. Most of the material is applicable wherever someone encounters the species within its geographic range. How to identify birds by sight and sound, behavior, feeding habits and ecology is information birdwatchers anywhere will find useful. Nesting habits and egg descriptions complete the picture of what ornithologists and amateur birders alike might want to know.

Spectacular photographs taken by Beth Bergman, photographer for the Metropolitan Opera, accompany the species accounts. Many show the color patterns of males and females. Others show young birds in different stages of development. Some are action shots of birds eating, flying or swimming. Illustrations of many of the birds and their eggs by nature illustrator Trudy Smoke further complement the full coverage of everything one needs to know to appreciate the birds of the area. The eggs are shown in color and noted as being "life size" or "½ life size."

Despite the abundance and diversity of birds in the Big Apple, threats and hazards do exist for birds. As noted by the author, "Nearly 90,000 birds die annually by colliding with city buildings at night." Skyscrapers and high-flying migrating birds can be a deadly mix--for the birds. Also, although many birds can be seen in Central Park and similar wildlife sanctuaries, remember that much of the surrounding urban landscape offers some birds little choice of where to live or to spend time during a migratory stopover.

Nonetheless, Leslie Day has done a fine job of shining a spotlight on birds that can be enjoyed in a city setting. Her book is also a tribute to the populace of the area, and no doubt to some far-seeing environmentalists, who have preserved and maintained natural habitat like Central Park amid the metropolitan sprawl. Every city should cherish its parks and remaining wild areas not only for the birds but also for all native wildlife.

A book about the birds of New York City offers hope for every municipality in the country. If one of the greatest urban areas in the world can preserve enough suitable habitat for birds to come and go or even live there permanently, the same can be true anywhere. Leslie Day's model of how to write a bird book should be an inspiration for ornithological enthusiasts everywhere. And maybe someone will eventually write the "Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of ..." whatever town or city you live in.

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