Birds in ancient New York

Archaeological sites dating to the early Holocene (around 10,000 years ago) have unearthed bones of loon, grebe, heron, crane, rail, passenger pigeon, turkey, grouse, quail and woodcock. Paleoindians hunted birds for food, shaped their bones into tools and flutes, and wore feathers as ornaments.

Birds played an important role in Algonquin mythology as well. One Iroquois myth relates the tale of a hunter who lured an eagle to a deer-kill in order to shoot it and take its feathers. As retribution, the hunter was seized by the Mother of all Eagles and taken to her eyrie. When Mother Eagle left her nest to find food, the hunter managed to tie up the beaks of her eaglets with a leather thong. Upon seeing her eaglets’ predicament, and unable to free them herself, she made a pact with the hunter: she would free him if he would untie her eaglets’ beaks and promise never to shoot an eagle again without her permission. He agreed, and his descendants kept his word.

Birds in Colonial New York

When Europeans first began exploring these shores, they wrote glowing reports of the flora and fauna they encountered, giving them names that corresponded to the European species they knew. Nicolaes van Wassenaer, a popularizer of the Dutch enterprise in the New World, describes an Eden of bird life:

In their waters are found all sorts of fowls, such as cranes, bitterns, swans, geese, ducks, widgeons, wild geese, as in this country [Holland]. Birds fill also the woods so that men can scarcely go through them for the whistling, the noise, and the chattering. Whoever is not lazy can catch them with little difficulty. . . .  Pigeons fly wild; they are chased by the foxes like the fowls. . . .  ‘Tis surprising that storks have not been found here, since it is a marshy country. Spoon-bills, ravens, eagles, sparrow hawks, vultures are numerous and are quickly shot or knocked down by the natives.

Euro-American hunters quickly decimated local birds. In his book,
Wildlife in America, Peter Matthiessen tells us that game birds had declined so drastically by the end of the eighteenth century that closed season was declared on them in New York. Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm, who traveled through New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the mid-eighteenth century, reported that the oldtimers remembered when the waterways were so filled with waterfowl, a man could easily kill 80 ducks in a single morning with a shotgun, whereas now he was lucky to see a single one – ducks, cranes, or wild turkeys. The hunter’s taking of eighty ducks struck Kalm as extremely wasteful.

Extirpations, Extinctions, and Recoveries

Drummer of the Plains: the Heath Hen

The heath hen, the eastern subspecies of the Prairie Chicken (also called Pinnated Grouse), once inhabited the scrub pine and oak barrens of Long Island and New Jersey. J.P. Giraud, in his 1844 book,
The Birds of Long Island (the first book on New York birds), recounts the demise of this once-plentiful game bird:

Thirty years ago, it was quite abundant on the brushy plains in Suffolk County, which tract of country is well adapted to its habits – but being a favorite bird with sportsmen, as well as commanding a high price in the New York markets, it has been pursued, as a matter of pleasure and profit, until now it is very doubtful if a brace can be found on the Island. On a recent excursion over its former favorite haunts, I could find no trace of it. In conversation with several of the elder residents, they spoke of the “Heath Hen” as being very abundant some twenty or thirty years since, but now consider it entirely extinct.

Like its western cousin, it was famous for its mating dances, which involved drumming that could be heard for miles – hence its Latin name
Tympanuchus cupido cupido.

The last heath hen was shot on Long Island in 1836; a colony of 300 or so survived on Martha’s Vineyard until 1932, the last year it was reported there.

Wild Turkey

The turkey is usually associated with heavily forested land, where they feed on mast (fallen acorns, beechnuts, etc.). It was hunted nearly to extinction by the mid-1800s, disappearing completely from New York State by 1844. A small stock survived in south-central Pennsylvania, which slowly expanded its range as farms reverted to woodland and forests recovered from logging. The turkey was deliberately re-introduced in New York State beginning in 1959; by 1995, Stephen W. Eaton reports in Bull’s
Birds of New York State that “they had bred within sight of LI Sound in Westchester County, were wandering through suburban backyards, and were even being seen in the Bronx.” Several wild turkey sightings were reported in the spring of 2003 in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side and in Chelsea.

Egrets and the Millinery Trade

The name egret is derived from the French word for plume, aigrette. The ornamental white plumes displayed by
Great and Snowy egrets (then called herons) during mating season were in especially great demand in the millinery trade during the nineteenth century, when fashionable women sported hats with plumes, feathers, and even whole stuffed birds.

In 1844, Giraud reported that the Snowy and Great Egret were being killed in “large numbers . . . for the value of their plumes, which are prized as ornaments.” By 1910, the Snowy was considered extirpated from North America, and the Great Egret nearly exterminated. According to Chapman’s 1906 guide to the
Birds of the Vicinity of New York City, the last sighting of breeding egrets was made on May 30th, 1885, when William Dutcher observed three Snowys at Sayville, Long Island.

Alarmed at the egrets’ imminent demise, New Yorker George Bird Grinnell led the fight to stop the slaughter of the beautiful birds. Boston society women joined forces with him, boycotting bird hats. Helen Winslow’s declaration was typical: “The place for dead birds is not above a pretty woman’s face.” This group became the core of the first Audubon Society, which was founded in 1896 in Massachusetts. Other states followed suit. In January of 1905, William Dutcher filed papers with New York State to incorporate the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals.

Under President Theodore Roosevelt, several bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges were created to protect endangered birds. Audubon Society members in New York, led by President of the Society T. Gilbert Pearson, introduced and successfully lobbied for the passage of the “Audubon Plumage Bill,” which was signed into law by New York Governor Charles Evan Hughes in 1910. This law banned possession for sale, offering for sale, and sale of the plumage of wild birds. The persistent efforts of the Audubon Society ultimately led to the passage of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Now that they were protected, the egrets began their slow comeback.

When John Bull published his
Birds of the New York Area in 1964, he noted how the egrets had greatly increased in numbers in the coastal salt meadows. “Only those active observers who have been in the field for the past 30 years or so can appreciate the phenomenal comeback this heron has made,” he writes; “Even as recently as the early 1930s the report of a Snowy Egret in the New York City region was enough to send an observer rushing to the spot in hopes of seeing it. Today the Snowy is the most numerous of the native ‘white’ herons, at least on the outer coast, and is more deserving of the appellation ‘common’ than its larger relative.”

Pesticides and Birds

Roger Tory Peterson, in his “Foreword” to Bull’s 1964 book on New York City birds, predicted calamitous declines of bird species due to the widespread use of pesticides since the war (WWII). Rachel Carson had already alerted the public to the perils with publication of her landmark book,
Silent Spring, in 1962. Already, noted Peterson, ospreys had declined drastically since 1950 on eastern Long Island, and he feared complete extirpation “before the successor to this book is written.” He noted that the Peregrine Falcon was gone from the Hudson valley, compared to pre-1950s reports of a dozen nesting pairs.

Peterson’s predictions were borne out. In the case of the osprey, the population of breeding birds on Long Island plummeted from 500 nests in 1940 to 75 by 1950. The
Peregrine Falcon once had perhaps 50 nest sites throughout the eastern half of New York State; by the early sixties it had been extirpated. The Bald Eagle – once abundant here – was also extirpated from New York. All three species were decimated by the widespread application of DDT, which accumulated in the food chain and drastically thinned their eggshells.

The good news is, the ban on DDT that came about as a result of the publication of Silent Spring has led to a recovery in nesting populations of
ospreys, peregrines, and eagles – aided by a little help from their human friends.

Nesting platforms for
osprey have been erected throughout Long Island, which was their traditional breeding ground (primarily on the eastern end, with historical accounts listing 300 nest sites in the early nineteenth century). As of 1994, 247 pairs were counted on Long Island – a great success story.

Peregrine Falcons have been deliberately re-introduced into the urban landscape of New York City, due to efforts since 1972 by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC). By 1983, peregrine nests were established on the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. During the nineties, new nests were established throughout the New York City region. Now, according to Barbara Loucks (Bull’s Birds of New York State, 1998), New York City “has the largest urban population in the world, with some nesting pairs only a kilometer apart.”

Bald Eagle could not have made such a spectacular recovery if it were not for the captive breeding and release program initiated in 1976 by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Peter Nye collected eaglets from Alaskan nests, nursed them, then released them into the wilds of New York. By 1996, 19 of 29 breeding pairs in New York State successfully bred. This is good news, but the bad news is habitat loss in upstate New York. In an interview with Peter Nye conducted by Anthony dePalma of The New York Times (Jan. 31, 2004), Nye expresses growing dismay at the habitat destruction he witnessed in an aerial survey of prime eagle breeding territory in upstate New York, where developments with cruelly ironic names like Eagles Nest Estates are clear-cutting wooded hillsides to make way for second homes. “The question now is whether, by 2050, the habitat they need is still going to be here to support them or will we keep whittling away at it so that the habitat disappears?”

Pollution and New York waterbirds

The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 may well have enabled
cormorants, herons and other colonial nesters to breed successfully in once polluted wetlands. This landmark legislation lowered the level of fecal matter and other organic pollutants that sewage treatment plants could release into the water, thereby raising the level of oxygen in the water, which in turn enabled the birds’ prey species to survive – and provide good eating to adults and offspring. As a result, waterbirds were able to roost even on islands in a heavily trafficked channel like Arthur’s Kill, between Staten Island and New Jersey.

The Exxon Oil Spill of 1990 saturated the waters and marshes of Arthur Kill with 567,000 gallons of heating oil, killing hundreds of birds and thousands of fish and other aquatic prey. The oil spill diminished but luckily did not destroy the bird colonies, and they made a comeback. In 1995, a census conducted by New York City Audubon counted 2051 breeding pairs of herons and ibises on five islands in Arthur Kill and the East River (known as the Harbor Herons Complex). The herons included such previous rarities as the
Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Green Heron and Little Blue Heron.

Neo-Tropical Songbirds

Neotropical songbirds are perhaps so loved not only for their bright colors and songs, but for their migratory natures. Although a handful stay in New York to breed, most pass through to more northern breeding grounds – just as they will pass through again in fall to their wintering grounds in Central and South America, following the abundance of insects which are their mainstay. They fly along traditional migratory routes across thousands of miles north to south and back, often perishing on the journey. They fly at night, perhaps to avoid day-flying predators, and come down to rest and refuel if they can during the day. If adverse weather does not kill them, the lights of city buildings often do. That they make it at all is a testament to the force of instinct – the drive to survive and breed. I also think it a testament to their bright and resilient spirits.

It never fails to amaze me to find our North American warblers in the mountains and cloud forests of Central and South America, where my husband and I often make winter trips. In the cloud forest of Chiriqui, in Panama, we have stepped outside our cabin and been greeted by the cheerful
Wilson’s Warbler. In the coffee fields up in Panama’s mountains we have been delighted to see our familiar Yellow, Chestnut-sided, and Black-throated green warblers. It heartens us to know that our hosts, the Hartmann’s, are avid conservers of bird habitat, growing their coffee bushes in partial shade and preserving the great trees of these highlands. But not all farmers are so conservation-minded. We are distressed to see the warblers’ favored woodland, montane habitat being eroded and fragmented as poor farmers cut and slash the trees to extend their fields up the flanks of supposedly protected mountains. Such habitat destruction has undoubtedly impacted warbler populations, which have been declining in the last several decades.

Not only their wintering grounds but their boreal breeding grounds and migratory stopovers have been fragmented if not destroyed. The great boreal forest which circles the globe just below the north pole comprises 25 percent of the original forests left on our planet. Logging, mining, oil and gas drilling and farming are human activities that pose a threat to this forest which harbors literally billions of nesting birds. Already, its southwestern border in Saskatchewan is being eroded as fast as the tropical rain forests (estimated at a rate 0.87 a year). A joint report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and Forest Ethics released in late 2003 indicates that logging alone has destroyed 60 million acres. 186 species of land birds, or 30 percent of North American land birds, breed here, most of them migrating south in winter. Increasing urbanization and related suburban sprawl along migratory routes also threaten the survival of warbler species which depend on intact woodland. As David Sibley notes in
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior (2001), such forest does not even have to be destroyed to have an adverse impact; invasion by exotic plant species, feral predators, and browsing deer which strip vegetation can also have profound negative effects. Warblers who are specialized such as the Northern Parula, which depends on the availability of Usnea, or beard lichen, for its nesting material, are affected when the lichen – which is sensitive to pollution and acid rain – diminishes or disappears. Its breeding range has been severely contracted with the loss of this lichen.

The bright note is that such habitat destruction can be stalled or even reversed, and further destruction prevented. A development and conservation plan is being hammered out for the boreal forest, for example, by environmentalists, government and industry leaders. Local development along migratory routes is more difficult to halt, particularly given the business ethic in our country, and must be fought on a state-by-state and regional basis. Through the efforts of conservationists and state-mandated conservation programs, bird species that are endangered or threatened or locally extirpated can recover and make a comeback – as long as the species has not been exterminated.

Such success stories as the demise and comeback of egrets and eagles underscore the importance of conservation efforts that extend beyond regional borders. The development that accompanies expanding human populations, whether agricultural, industrial or urban, is destroying forests and wetlands at a staggering rate. Agricultural and industrial poisons are draining into our waterways, seeping into our aquifers, and concentrating in the food chain. The burning of fossil fuels is not only raising the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming, but the gases that are spewed into the air and carried on air currents around the globe return to earth as acid rain that kills many plant species – and the animals which depend on them. Sooner than later, as Carson predicted, not only will the woods be bereft of bird song, but we will be bereft of woods and other pristine habitats that provide homes to myriads of birds and other species. Already we are witnessing an extinction event of a magnitude that approaches the extinction of megafauna at the end of the last ice age.

Where to see the birds of New York City

New York City is along the Atlantic flyway. During spring and fall migration, thousands of neotropical songbirds descend to the parks, which from a bird’s-eye-view look like oases in a concrete desert.
Central Park is one such migratory stopover, where it’s possible for a dawn-to-dusk birder to see 29 species of warblers and more than 100 species all-told in a single day, most concentrated on the Point, a wooded spit of land that juts into Rowboat Lake. Jamaica Bay is another stopover, where shorebirds are attracted to its mudflats. East Pond provides the best vantage point when its water level is lowered beginning in July.

Wherever waters are unfrozen in winter, the New York region attracts wintering waterfowl. Jamaica Bay provides a prime wintering ground for geese and ducks, which are drawn to its fresh and brackish ponds. The fresh-water ponds of
Hempstead Lake State Park in Nassau County harbor hundreds of ducks, including common and hooded mergansers in full breeding plumage. A two-hour drive from Manhattan will take you to Montauk Point, where tens of thousands of scoters and eiders, as well as loons, grebes, red-breasted mergansers, razor-bills and other ducks, can be seen and heard offshore.

In summer, hundreds of breeding pairs of waterbirds nest in the marshes of Jamaica Bay, including
herons, egrets, and ibises.

These are just a few highlights of birding in New York City. The New York City Audubon guide to finding birds in the region is quite helpful to the birdwatcher, as is the New York City Audubon Society website, among others. See the list of books and links below.
--Betsy McCully

Reading Lis

Burger, Michael F. and Jillian M. Liner.
Important Bird Areas of New York. New York: Audubon New York, 2005.

Fowle, Marcia T. and Paul Kerlinger. The New York City Audubon Society Guide to Finding Birds in the Metropolitan Area. Cornell University Press, 2001.

Levine, Emanuel, ed.
Bull’s Birds of New York State. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP/Comstock Publishing Associates, 1998.

Winn, Marie,
Redtails in Love. New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 1999.

Bird Links
The Falconer, Central Park
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History of New York Birds
Hooded Warbler
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Great Egret
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Wild Turkey
Black-throated Green Warbler
fall plumage
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Peregrine Falcon
Central Park
Jamaica Bay
Montauk Point