Why Birds Love the Big Apple

New York City is among hundreds of places now designated as "Important Bird Areas" or IBAs

02-01-1999 // Valerie Feldner

New York City is an important bird area? To outsiders, such a question may sound like a contradiction of terms. But for many New Yorkers, it seems perfectly apt. Just ask Roger Pasquier.

The noted New York ornithologist and writer has listed Central Park as one of the nation´s 14 best places to watch birds, along with such avian hot spots as the Florida Everglades and Cape May, New Jersey. Pasquier´s preference may have something to do with the fact that nearly 300 species of birds have been recorded by bird-watchers in the "bird book" kept in Central Park´s Boat House.

"On a good May morning, we´ll see 65 species in a three-hour walk," notes Starr Saphir, a field ornithologist who has been leading weekly walks through the park for the past two decades. "In the countryside, you´re very likely to miss understory birds like the Louisiana water thrush or the ovenbird, but in Central Park they´re all over the place during certain times of year," adds Marie Winn, author of Red Tails In Love, a book based on her adventures birding in a city that has, among other things, the largest concentration of nesting peregrine falcons of any urban area in the world.

Because of their surprisingly accommodating habitat and strategic location along East Coast migration routes, seven sites in New York City were officially named Important Bird Areas (IBA) not long ago by conservationists. The term IBA is an international conservation designation that singles out places crucial to birds. Initiated in Europe in the 1980s by a British nonprofit organization called BirdLife International, the IBA program is part of a worldwide cooperative effort attempting to solve the number-one threat to birds today: habitat loss. To date, more than 2,000 sites in such disparate countries as Paraguay, South Africa, Turkey and Russia have been identified in the program; many of these sites have since received some form of increased protection.

In the United States, the IBA program is being spearheaded by a consortium of conservation groups that is working with state and local governments to protect areas that meet IBA criteria: The lands may be key breeding sites, sustain endangered and threatened avian species or have a high concentration of birds. "The old ´don´t-fix-it-till-it´s broke´ attitude that characterized much of the past nongame conservation work has been replaced with an approach that recognizes how much more effective we can be with proper planning and knowledge," says Jeff Wells, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society of New York State.

The nation´s first 73 IBA sites were designated by Audubon in Pennsylvania in l995. Since then, dozens more have been selected by conservation groups in other states, including Maryland, South Carolina, Idaho, Vermont, California and New Mexico. "Our goal is to extend the program to all 50 states by the year 2000," says Audubon´s IBA National Coordinator Fred Baumgarten.

Two years ago, the program received a big boost when the Bird Conservation Area Act was signed into law by New York Governor George Pataki--the first such legislation of its kind in the nation. Under the measure, which is modeled after the IBA program, New York lawmakers will designate sites on state lands with high-quality habitat as conservation areas for birds.

Meanwhile, more than 100 locations in the state have already been selected as Important Bird Areas--no easy task, considering that New York contains 49,576 square miles. Various sites were nominated by bird clubs, land trusts and individuals; each met a set of criteria established by a group of experts who sit on the state´s IBA Technical Committee.

The seven sites selected by the committee in New York City are surprising, given that the urban area covers only 325 square miles and is home to more than seven million people. Of these sites, Central Park is perhaps the most remarkable because its birds must live literally beak to nose with humans. "The park represents rare habitat both within the city and along the highly urbanized northeastern stretch of Atlantic Flyway," says Wells.

While flying along the major rivers and coastlines, neotropical migrant songbirds, waterfowl and raptors look for a patch of green big enough for resting and feeding. In the fall, ruddy ducks surge through the New York City metropolitan area in rafts of 2,000 birds a day. Eight thousand hawks have been tallied during fall counts. For many species, Central Park is the only game in town. That´s why ornithologists call places like it a "migrant trap." Many of the birds flying this route simply would not survive their long, perilous journey without such islands of green.

"In Central Park, we get maybe 15 percent of all the birds migrating through the area," says Robert DiCandido, a doctoral candidate in ecology at the City University of New York. His guess is as good as anyone´s because DiCandido is one of the city´s urban park rangers. Every year, he leads hundreds of New Yorkers on bird walks through Central Park.

The park attracts not only a large number of birds but also many different species because its 841 acres include meadow-edge habitat, forest, swampy bowers and ponds. "It´s the habitat and the location of the habitat that attract the birds," says Saphir. "There is water in the park and a major river not too far away on either side along with New York Harbor. It´s really uniquely situated."

Ornithologist Paul Kerlinger, former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and author of How Birds Migrate, explains that some neotropical migrants such as the Kentucky warbler can fly 100 miles on the energy reserves of one gram of fat. These tiny birds can easily fly from their wintering grounds in Venezuela to North America. They have an "uncanny ability," says Kerlinger, "to access their environment" to locate suitable stopover sites such as Central Park. He notes that a tiny migrant is often passing through the area for only one day and needs "a safe place with virtually no predators, some food available and water."

Despite these tiny migrants´ abilities, annual surveys show that many species of neotropical songbirds are in trouble and possibly declining because of habitat loss both in winter and summer ranges. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology cites specific figures--2 to 10 percent losses--from l966 to l994 of total songbird populations. But no matter what the exact figures are, ornithologist John Atwood, who studies population trends at the Manomet Center For Conservation Sciences in Massachusetts, notes that there is still cause for concern because "the word ´losses´ keeps coming up again and again in all of the research."

As an IBA site, Central Park provides temporary havens for migrants as well as homes for resident birds such as the black-crowned night herons that feed in the reeds around Belvedere Castle and the downy woodpeckers that tap out messages almost daily on tree trunks in an area called The Ramble. "While this urban mecca is safe as far as bird habitats go--it won´t be leveled for shopping malls or other development--balancing the needs of the millions of people who enjoy the park for recreation with the needs of the birds is a constant challenge," says Baumgarten.

Is this a glimpse into the future? The World Resources Institute projects that by the year 2025, two-thirds of the planet´s human population will be living in metropolitan areas, which will continue to spread out into surrounding fields and woodlands. As a result, protected urban sites such as Central Park will become all the more critical as safe havens for birds.

"People pose the biggest threat to wildlife," says DiCandido. "But people also represent the biggest hope birds have for habitat conservation." And that, he adds, "is definitely not a contradiction of terms."

Manhattan writer Valerie Feldner is on the staff of The New Yorker magazine.

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