Pigeons aren’t the only birds to be seen in New York City. Believe it or not, NYC is one of the best places for bird watching in the Northeast: Central Park and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge near JFK Airport are right along migration paths and have an amazing array of species.
But in addition to the exotic migrants that pass through the Big Apple like tourists, New Yorkers share their city with birds who live here full time. We see them every time we step outside. The birds we see every day are a lot more like you than you realize — whatever chutzpah it takes to make it in the city instead of retreating to the leafy suburbs, they have it.
1. European Starling
These guys are EVERYWHERE, and for the most part they’re boring little brown birds. But like an X-Men villain, the most interesting thing about them is their origin story. Like their name suggests, they’re native to Europe, and in fact they’re considered an invasive species here in North America.
In 1890, a man named Eugene Schieffelin ambitiously attempted to release all the British birds mentioned in works of Shakespeare into Central Park. The bullfinches and nightingales he imported didn’t stick around, but his flock of 100 starlings exploded and became the 200 million alive in the U.S. today.
By the ’40s, the starlings had spread west of the Mississippi, and they’re all over North America now. The goverment has tried to eradicate them, but they’re extremely hardy and keep growing. Lesson learned: This is why people who talk about how much they love Shakespeare shouldn’t be trusted.
2. Monk Parakeet
The fact that there are freaking PARROTS living in a Brooklyn cemetery is about as crazy as if giant pandas were living in Tompkins Square Park. Monk parakeets (sometimes called Quaker parrots) have been living in Brooklyn since the 1960s. No one knows exactly how they got here, but the best theory is a shipment of parrots from Argentina for the pet trade got loose at JFK.
There once were parrots living in the U.S. – the Carolina parakeet lived all up and down the East Coast, but went extinct by the 1930s, mainly due to hunting by farmers who considered it a crop-eating pest. Since then, several populations of escaped pet parrots have popped up in various places, including a notable flock in San Francisco.
Greenlawn Cemetery in Park Slope and the Brooklyn College campus are the two places to see Brooklyn’s parrots. They live in the spires of the fancy front gate of the cemetery, where the groundskeepers learned to love them after they realized they kept away the rock pigeons.
The blog BrooklynParrots runs occassional parrot-peeping tours, and their next one is this Saturday, Sept. 7. Find yourself a Tinder date or whatever it is you single people do and go on it; I promise it will be probably mostly weird but a little fun.
3. Red Tailed Hawk
For a time in the early-to-mid aughts, Pale Male and Lola were like the bird version of the 2004-era Hilton sisters — famous for doing nothing. The mated pair of hawks became embroiled in a celebrity-tinged real estate controversy that was breathlessly covered by local papers.
Pale Male and his female companion Lola built their nest on the facade of a posh building at 5th Avenue and 74th Street. In 2004, the building’s co-op board voted to remove the nest, raising the ire of the Audubon Society as well as tenant Mary Tyler Moore who very publicly protested outside the building.
Eventually, the nest was allowed to stay. Sadly, Lola died in 2010, but Pale Male has found a new lady love and raised a few hawk babies (called eyasses).
But the city-dwelling hawks aren’t out of the woods yet. On Aug. 27, DNAinfo.com reported that construction scaffolding went up on the building, raising concerns about the hawks’ access to their nest. However, red tailed hawks don’t roost in their nest during the fall, they’ll only need it again after January.
The best place to see red tailed hawks is by keeping an eye upward while strolling through Central Park, or keep up with the site dedicated to him at PaleMale.com
4. House Sparrow
Like the Starling, the House Sparrow was introduced from Europe and quickly exploded in population. Just 16 birds were first brought to Brooklyn in 1851 to fight off crop-eating insects. The next year, about 100 more were brought over, and all those gazillion birds you see today all over North and South America came from them. Seriously, they’re EVERYWHERE.
Here’s how to identify a house sparrow: Is it a little bird and you’re on a city street? It’s a house sparrow. The males have a black goatee that gets bigger and darker if they’re the alpha male of the group, so if you see one with a puny little black patch, you know he’s always complaining about getting friend-zoned.
5. Rock Pigeon (also know as Rock Dove)
More commonly known as Rats With Wings.
But consider this loathed creature for a moment. In nature, the rock pigeon’s habitat is rocky cliffs, which is why it’s so adept at living in a city of tall buildings with nooks and crannies to nest in and statues to poop on. The Big Apple looks just like a nice rocky cliff to a pigeon. It also explains why there are more pigeons in Manhattan than the woods of Hudson County. Well, also the abundance of bagel crumbs on the sidewalks for them to feed on.
Rock pigeons truly are unique in that they’re the animal we share our urban life with the most harmoniously. Rats and cockroaches are everywhere (just check the Dept of Health resturarant website), but they lurk in the shadows, rarely seen. Most New Yorkers see pigeons everyday, chilling on sidewalks and parks. As George Costanza noted, New Yorkers and pigeons have a deal for self-preservation: “they get out of the way of our cars; we look the other way on the statue defecations.”
Like the starlings and house sparrows, rock pigeons aren’t native to the U.S. They were introduced by the French to Nova Scotia in 1606, so blame the French for this one.
Pro tip: if you have a problem with pigeons perching on your windowsill or fire escape (this happened to me, it was awful), I recommend this sticky gel.
6. Laughing Gull
Everyone hates seagulls, but what you think you hate are those nasty herring gulls. The Laughing Gull is smaller and cuter and doesn’t squawk as much and in general has a much more pleasant demeanor.
And even if you’re a sworn gull-hater, you have to love a good comeback story. Laughing Gulls were hunted heavily in the late 1800s because their feathers were a fashionable accessory in ladies’ hats, and almost became extinct in the northeast. Protective efforts were put in place, and the birds returned to the Jamaica Bay area. By 1990, the population was big enough to cause JFK a major headache, according to a New York Times article about the Port Authority trying to kill off eggs to avoid birds colliding with planes.
In NYC, you’ll most likely see these guys only near the beach at Coney Island or the Rockaways. In the summer, they have a distinctive black head, but it fades in the winter.
7. Herring Gull
There’s quite a few species of seagull that you can see in NYC, but this is by far the most common. These are the nasty gulls you hate, trying to snag your bag of Doritos at the beach and chilling over at the landfill.
Identifying them can be a little tricky because the juveniles are brown speckled, and they have different plummage for the first four years of life. Additionally, they can crossbreed with other gull species and have different markings. In general, look for the gray back, white head, and nasty little red mark on the beak that looks like a gross cold sore.
Basically, if you see a gull and it’s not a laughing gull (black head) or a greater black-backed gull (black wings), it’s a herring gull. And yes, it’s just a crummy lame seagull, but at least now you can say, “why that’s a herring gull, not just a seagull.” If nothing else, let the herring gull’s gift to you be a fleeting moment of pretention, something so sweet to a New Yorker.
8. Eastern Bluebird
This is New York’s state bird. But don’t worry too much about how to identify it, or where the best place in NYC to spot it is, because YOU WILL NEVER EVER SEE THIS BIRD IN NEW YORK CITY.
Seriously. Technically, it’s not a rare species, and it does get spotted by birders in Central Park and Prospect Park, but I’ve birded all up and down this great city and beyond, and the only time I’ve ever seen an Eastern Bluebird in real life was in Tennessee. You just don’t really see it in NYC.
The only important thing to know here is that it’s the state bird. If you see something flying around that’s blue, it’s more likely you just bought bad weed from one of those crusties in Tompkins Square Park that had a giant panda.
Further adventures in bird watching:
Look, it’s September. It’s gorgeous out. It’s migration season. Go out to Central or Prospect Park and look for birds. You won’t regret it.
If you’re feeling up for bigger bird adventures, I recommend buying this Birds Of New York State book. Unlike the popular Audubon guide to the whole eastern U.S., by narrowing it to NY state, you don’t have to deal with the confusion of birds that only live in Florida. If you want to try a phone app, don’t skimp on the free or “lite” ones, they’re useless. I recommend the iBird North app, it’s $6.99 for iPhone.
Binoculars are expensive, but you can find older used ones on eBay for cheap. Look for 8x magnification, not 10x. If you don’t end up enjoying a crisp autumn birding stroll through the park, you can always use them to spy on your neighbors.
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