Urban Ornithology: 150 Years of Birds in New York City
Reviewed by Leslie Day
I lived on a boat on the Hudson River in Manhattan from 1975 to 2011 and it was then that I became an avid birder. Living on the Hudson I watched canvasback ducks with their beautiful red heads arrive each winter in huge numbers in the 1980’s. And I observed them as their numbers diminished greatly after the 1990’s. When I first moved to the river there were many laughing gulls that migrated to the city each April. My father’s birthday was April 12th, around the time they’d show up. The happy sound of their calls would bring me running outside to my deck to look at them and hear the joyous cries — my harbinger of the beautiful warm months to come. By the time I moved away in 2011, there were just a few arriving each spring.
Many New Yorkers understand that the city is an elaborate ecosystem and a fragile yet deeply important part of the natural world. Shaped by its coastlines and waterways, a key point on the migratory paths of numerous species, and home to more than five million trees, its ecological complexity belies its reputation as a concrete jungle.
Urban Ornithology: 150 Years of Birds in New York City provides a detailed window into this side of New York. One of the many treats from this book, which looks at the bird life of New York City going back to the 1870’s, is reading about the early ornithologists and citizen-scientists who recorded information about the life of various species. Happily, the authors include a brief glance even further back, to the Lenni-Lenape, who lived here as long ago as 1000 CE. We learn about the land during the time of New Amsterdam, too — in particular, the history of Adriaen Van der Donck (known by the Dutch honorary title, the Yonker), whose land stretched from today’s Van Cortlandt Park to Yonkers. After his death, the land was passed on to Tibbit and then to Jacobus Van Cortlandt, eventually purchased by the City in 1888 to become Van Cortlandt Park, the centerpiece of this book’s study. Focusing on the northwest Bronx, the book compiles data on New York City bird life from the 1870’s up to 2016, observing them from the Bronx River to the east, the Hudson River to the west, the northern border of Yonkers, and the Southern border of the Harlem River Shipping Canal.
Much of the data was collected by the famous ornithologist Eugene P. Bicknell, who grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and for whom the Bicknell thrush is named. Bicknell, and later Jonathan Dwight, another ornithologist of the time, collected and identified bird (and plant) species, and recorded the data used extensively in this book. Other major collections tapped include the findings of the noted naturalists who appear in the author line-up: Kieran from 1914, Sedwitz from 1928, Norse from 1930, and Buckley from 1950. There are so many people who have contributed field studies in this area over the last 150 years, right up to today’s Van Cortlandt Park naturalist and resource manager, David Kuntsler, Susan Elbin, chief ornithologist for New York City Audubon, Ellen Pehek of the NYC Parks Department’s Natural Resources Group, and John Young and Minty O’Brien, to whom the book is dedicated, ardent and long-time (over 60 years) citizen science observers of Van Cortlandt Park. They, and many more, contributed to this important book on New York City birdlife.
The introduction is really a treatise on the destruction by Robert Moses of many natural and important breeding habitats within Van Cortlandt Park and other parts of this subarea. Between the 1930’s and 1950’s he destroyed the last remaining swamps in this part of the city and much more when he designed and built the Henry Hudson Parkway, the Mosholu Parkway, and the Major Deegan Expressway, slicing up the park, draining and filling in the swamps, thus causing great destruction to the birdlife of this area.
Later in the book it becomes apparent that even the Parks Department, while creating a master plan for Van Cortlandt in 2014 to be put into practice through 2034, completely left out the park’s birdlife. This work should therefore be essential reading for the Department, and for all those implementing the master plan. At the end of the second chapter, Avifaunal Overlook, the book has essential suggestions for protecting the birdlife of the northwest Bronx, including the creation of an avian conservation plan, to supplement and “correct errors and deficiencies in the 2014 Master Plan” so that birdlife will be integrated into future plans and the park’s day-to-day maintenance.
Some areas of the northwest Bronx do still teem with birdlife; including Van Cortlandt Park, Jerome Reservoir, Hillview Reservoir, and Woodlawn Cemetery. When the City created the parks of the Bronx — (Van Cortlandt, Pelham Bay, and the Bronx Park, i.e. New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo) — they tried to leave the land in its natural state. The difference between these parks and Central and Prospect Parks, the authors point out, is that the new Bronx Parks were created to protect the forested areas, whereas Central Park and Prospect Park were manufactured parks, built over degraded land. Unlike these better-known parks, then, the Bronx parks were created to protect and manage gorgeous natural areas where diverse wildlife, including migrating, nesting, and year-round birds, lived and continue to live — attracting as many species as in the other parks.
There are so many eye-openers in this book, but one that was really interesting to me was the discussion of a keystone species in the northwest Bronx. Keystone species are organisms that are essential in helping other organisms survive. The eastern coyote, also known as the Coywolf, has an outsize influence on birdlife in Van Cortlandt Park. The coyote helps keep down the predators of ground nesting birds. Feral cats, raccoons, striped skunks, and opossums all disturb or kill ground nesting birds and are eaten by coyotes. Mammal herbivores who forage plants needed as habitat for ground nesting birds, like white tail deer and eastern cottontail rabbits, are also prey for the eastern coyote.
The largest chapter is devoted to accounts of over 300 species of birds observed in the northwest Bronx and other areas of the city between 1870-2016; the first of its kind since Bull’s Birds of the New York Area in 1964. Each bird species account covers the current status, the historical and current record in the subarea of study and other city locations, information about spring and fall migrants, and status of breeding birds. This is a vast compendium of data collected over the past 150 years for each species.
The appendices contain thirty-eight (!) tables of data; crucial glossaries; names of every one of the almost 500 people who have shared their observations; bird specimens in museum collections going back 150 years; and to my delight three indices: Index of English Bird Names, Index of Scientific Bird Names, and Index of Subjects. A good index is incredibly helpful, but three indices including separate ones for common names and scientific names is a tremendous help to the academician and to the lay person.
Throughout the book you read and hear a voice that is tying together all that was, all that has been lost, and all that remains, and what people who love nature are trying to do to protect New York City’s natural world. Yet, of the authors listed, three are deceased, leaving only P. A. Buckley as the voice of those colleagues and giants before him in the field of ornithology. A deep bow to Buckley, who was tasked with completing the book after his co-authors died. It is indeed a treasure for anyone wanting to learn about bird life in New York City, and for students and teachers of ornithology. Here we get not only a natural history of the city, but many of the reasons why we need to cherish and protect it.
Leslie Day is the author of the Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, the Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City, the Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City, and Honeybee Hotel: the Waldorf Astoria’s Roof Garden and the Heart of New York City.