Science

The Delight of Watching Birds on the Streets of New York


It’s springtime, and the city feels especially glorious; it felt like a winter on top of a winter this year. But, if we reflect on what brought joy during this challenging time, birds enjoyed a top spot on the happy list for many. Especially those we saw out our windows—or, in New York City, on the street.

Three species in particular dominate the sidewalks, asphalt, tops of buildings, fire escapes, window ledges and air conditioners: house sparrows (the small brown and gray birds, males with a black beak and bib underneath), pigeons (which need no introduction) and starlings (the medium-sized dark iridescent birds that are quick, crafty and ubiquitous). All three of these species are invasive. Domesticated pigeons came from France around 1600, and escaped. House sparrows were introduced to Brooklyn around 1851 and starlings were successfully released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891.

The house sparrow and starling introductions were the work of the American Acclimatization Society, an organization founded in 1871 whose mission was to bring species that were “useful or interesting” from Europe to North America. House sparrows, for example, were imported to control insect pests. But starlings have another story. It’s widely believed that they were brought to the U.S. by the society’s president, Eugene Schieffelin, as part of an effort to introduce all of the birds mentioned by Shakespeare. But while Schieffelin was responsible for the starlings, there’s no contemporary evidence for the Shakespeare-starling connection—it’s not mentioned in any official document from the society. Though the story, which is a good one, continues to be told.

At the time of these introductions, the scientific fields of ecology and conservation were virtually nonexistent and now we know that either for pest control or homage to the great playwright, this was a terrible idea. Today, house sparrows and starlings are the most widespread invasive birds in the world, also deliberately introduced to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and other locations. But I would add a qualifier to that terrible idea by calling it, what the Grinch would consider, “a wonderful, awful” idea.

I have been studying starlings in New York City since 2016. I do so formally in museums and labs, but in between my research I watch them informally on the street. It’s turning out to be a whole starling life. I was initially captivated by their adaptability to the urban landscape, especially their dietary flexibility. They will eat a pile of yellow rice on Columbus Ave, a soft pretzel on Central Park West and a flattened apple pie in the parking lot of a Costco in Queens. Pigeons and house sparrows often hover and hop around them but cannot compete with their quickness. For a bird, they are good at walking on the ground. I have seen one saunter up a ramp of a Checks Cashed or fly low just across the street and then start walking again seconds later.

The sounds they make are so varied that you might not recognize that they are coming from the same species. If you listen closely, you can hear their up-and-down whistling, whirring and even an early video game laser–like sound. You may not consider it beautiful enough to be called a song, but it’s a song nonetheless. And when you stare at them, as I have many times, they never ever appear to look at you, but it is obvious they see you because they respond incredibly rapidly to absolutely any movement or disturbance. They are off in a flash, always faster than I can draw my phone out for a good picture. Their beaks and plumage change color with the seasons. In fall and winter, their feathers are flecked with white and their beaks are a deep brown.

In early spring, their beaks change color to a bright yellow (thanks to hormones signaling pigment molecules), and their plumage is shiny and iridescent, not black but the deepest darkest greens, grays and purples. The males are especially shiny, very slightly larger than females and have longer feathers on the front of their neck. And any day now, the all-gray juveniles will be out of their nests learning to fly and begging their parents for food. 

But despite the quirky qualities that make them especially good for urban bird-watching, each year starlings cause millions of dollars of damage to farms across the country by decimating agricultural crops, stealing substantial quantities of food meant for domesticated animals and spreading diseases to livestock in their guano. And if that weren’t enough, starlings also fly into aircraft and compete with native birds for nesting sites. They build their nests in tree holes and on stone window ledges. Because of their invasive status, and the agricultural, ecological and economic issues that they cause, they are either ignored or downright hated, especially by bird-lovers who are “in the know.”

In fact, hating starlings is often an early sign that you are now identifying as someone who knows about birds. Sometimes, I wish I didn’t know about what else they do across the country, or why they arrived here, and could just enjoy watching them in a quiet ignorance. And I wonder if you can know about their paths of destruction and still appreciate aspects of their biology and behavior. Especially those two individuals keeping me company at the bus stop.  

There is a great deal more avian diversity in New York City than just pigeons, house sparrows and starlings. If you go into the parks, you will see tufted titmice, robins, red-tailed hawks, mourning doves, cardinals and, if you were lucky a few weeks ago, the fabulous snowy owl. Central Park is also a major migration flyway for many bird species in springtime, which bring an additional group of temporary and exciting passersby. But this diversity is not distributed evenly in this fragmented urban landscape. So, what if, like spring last year, you didn’t feel safe walking into the park crowded with people, so you looked out the window instead?

Or what if you were out there working, not in your pajamas like some, and just didn’t have time to bring your binoculars for a stroll in the park? A park is a privilege sometimes. But does the opportunity to enjoy birds also have to be? A growing body of research has quantified the health benefits from spending time in nature. A short walk in a natural green space can result in anxiety reduction, reduced negative rumination and increased feelings of well-being. So, what if that nature spills out onto the sidewalk; is it any less uplifting? And don’t species like starlings buoy us with their resilience in the face of the sometimes absurd ugliness of a city?

At times this winter, the world felt particularly dreary, and nothing in the built environment even came close to reminding me of life or the natural world; sprawling storage facilities, scaffolding, for-rent signs and restaurant structures struggling under snow. And then way up in that bit of sky, beside the water tower, I spotted five of them. I know their triangular wings, and their quick and suspicious behavior, anywhere. And then as they flew up and out of my sight they left in their wake, hope: of bluer skies and future springtimes. 

This is an opinion and analysis article.


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