by Betsy McCully, Nov. 12, 2018
Updated August 30, 2020
Birds of Ancient New York
In the long-ago time, a hunter lured an eagle to a deer-kill, shot it with his arrow, and stole its feathers. When the Mother of All Eagles saw what the hunter had done, she swooped down, seized him in her great claws, and took him to her eyrie high on a cliff. When Mother Eagle left to find food for her hungry eaglets, the hunter tied up the eaglets’ beaks with a leather thong. Mother Eagle returned and was dismayed to see her eaglets tied up and unable to untie their beaks. So she made a pact with the hunter: She would free him if he untied her eaglets’ beaks and promised never to shoot down eagles again without her permission. The hunter agreed and his descendants have kept his word.–Iroquois Myth
Archaeological sites dating to the early Holocene (about 10,000 years ago) have unearthed bones of loon, grebe, heron, crane, rail, passenger pigeon, turkey, grouse, quail and woodcock. Paleo-Indians hunted birds for food, shaped their bones into tools and flutes, and wore feathers as ornaments.
Birds of Colonial New York
Birds also fill the woods so that men can scarcely go through them for the whistling, the noise, and the chattering.–Nicolaes van Wassenaer, 1624
When Europeans first began exploring these shores in the early 1600s, 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, described 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 also fill 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. . . . ‘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 down or knocked down by the natives….
Euro-American hunters soon decimated local birds. Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm, who traveled through New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s on behalf of Linneaus, reported that 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 80 ducks struck Kalm as extremely wasteful, typifying what he saw as the colonists’ profligate use of the country’s natural resources. By the end of the 1700s, closed season was declared on game birds in New York State.
Birds Hunted to Extinction and Near Extinction
The Heath Hen, Drummer of the Plains
In conversation with several of the elderly residents, they spoke of the “Heath Hen” as being very abundant some twenty or thirty years since, but now consider it entirely extinct.–J. P. Giraud, 1844
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 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 in Martha’s Vineyard, the island off the Massachusetts coast to the north of Long Island, until 1932, the last year it was reported there.
The Wild Turkey
The wild turkey is usually associated with heavily forested land, where they feed on mast (fallen acorns, beechnuts, etc.). It was hunted to near-extinction by the mid-1800s, disappearing 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 1859; by 1995, Stephen W. Eaton reported in Bull’s Birds of New York State that “they had bred within sight of Long Island Sound in Westchester County, were wandering through suburban backyards, and were even 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. Today there are thriving populations in the region. See New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for updates on their status.
Egrets and the Feather Trade
The place for dead birds is not above a pretty woman’s face.–Helen Winslow, 1896
The name egret is derived from the French word for plume, aigrette. The ornamental white plumes displayed by Great and Snowy Egrets 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 Egret 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 Snowies 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 Massachusetts in 1896. 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. 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.
Environmental Threats to Birds
Rachel Carson alerted the public to the perils of pesticides with publication of her landmark book, Silent Spring, in 1962. Her description of poisoned birds falling from the sky, and her prediction of a future silent spring when we would no longer hear them sing, is unforgettable. In 1964, Roger Tory Peterson, in his “Foreword” to Bull’s Birds of the New York Area, predicted calamitous declines of bird species due to the widespread use of pesticides since World War II. Already, Peterson noted, breeding ospreys on eastern Long Island had declined from 500 nests in 1940 to 75 nests in 1950, and given their continuing decline in the 1960s, he feared their complete extirpation from the region. He also noted that the Peregrine Falcon was gone from the Hudson Valley, compared to pre-1950s reports of a dozen nesting pairs. The Bald Eagle, once abundant in the region, was also extirpated at the time he wrote. All three species were decimated by the widespread application of DDT, which accumulated in the food chain and drastically thinned their eggshells.
Recovery and Protection of Threatened Birds
The question 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?–Peter Nye, 2004
The ban on DDT that came about as a result of the publication of Carson’s Silent Spring has led to the 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. As of 1994, 247 pairs were counted on Long Island, and by all accounts they continue to expand. Listed as “Endangered” in New York in 1976, they were downgraded to “Threatened” in 1983, and downgraded again to “Special Concern” in 1999. (New York State DEC)
Peregrine Falcons have been deliberately re-introduced into the urban landscape of New York City, due to efforts by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (New York State DEC). By 1983, peregrine nests were established on the Throg’s Neck Bridge and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. During the 1990s, new nests were established throughout the New York City region. By 1998, when Bull’s Birds of New York State was published, New York had “the largest urban population [of peregrine falcons] in the world.” Still, the Peregrine is listed as “Endangered” in New York State.
The Bald Eagle could not have made such a spectacular comeback if it were not for the captive breeding and release program initiated by the New York State DEC in 1976. 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 loss of habitat in upstate New York. In an interview with Peter Nye conducted by Anthony de Palma of the New York Times in 2004, Nye expressed 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 were clear-cutting woodland hillsides to make way for second homes. “The question 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?”
Only those active observers who have been in the field for the last 30 years or so can appreciate the phenomenal comeback this heron has made.–John Bull, 1964
When John Bull published his Birds of the New York Area in 1964, he noted how the Snowy Egrets had “greatly increased in numbers in the coastal salt meadows.” “Only those active observers who have been in the field for the last 30 years or so can appreciate the phenomenal comeback this heron has made,” he wrote; “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 [the Great Egret].”
This beautiful egret and his plumed cousins would never have recovered and may have gone extinct were it not for the persistent efforts of conservationists. Legal restrictions on the feather trade, laws protecting migratory birds like egrets, and the creation of wildlife refuges and bird sanctuaries have ensured the recovery of vulnerable and endangered birds. The landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made illegal and continues to make illegal the pursuit, hunting, taking, capturing, killing, or selling of any migratory bird, their parts, including feathers, their eggs and nests, “except under the terms of a valid federal permit.” The Endangered Species Act of 1973 added further protection for birds and other species considered endangered or threatened; it has been instrumental in helping many imperiled species to recover. Both of these acts are under threat by the current administration in Washington.
Also critical to the survival and recovery of wading birds is the cleanup of the waters and wetlands where they feed and breed. The Clean Water Act of 1972 spurred the cleanup of our polluted waterways and wetlands. Unfortunately, oil spills both small and large continue to saturate the waters and kill birds. The Exxon Oil Spill of 1990, for example, released 567,000 gallons of oil into Arthur Kill. The spill temporarily diminished the number of breeding waders, but they have since made a comeback. In 1995, 2,051 pairs of herons and ibises were breeding 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.
Wading bird populations on these islands and throughout New York Harbor have been monitored by the New York City Audubon Society since 1982. Their 2016 Report surveyed the nesting species: Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Glossy Ibis, Little Blue Heron and Tri-colored Heron. Great Blue Heron and Green Heron nested on mainland sites. They noted that several islands in the Arthur Kill complex had been abandoned altogether for reasons not quite clear, although human disturbance and mammal predation are suspected causes. Since 1993, populations of wading birds declined from 2,233 pairs in that peak year to 1,420 pairs in 2016. For more detailed statistics visit their website and read their annual reports on Harbor Herons.
Where to Find Birds of the New York Region
Because New York City is on the Atlantic Flyway, it is a magnet for neotropical migratory birds, which migrate by the millions every spring and fall. From a bird’s eye view, urban parks look like oases in a concrete desert. Central Park is one of the hotspots for migrating songbirds, especially in what’s known as The Ramble. It’s possible, on a really really good day, to see as many as 30 neotropical warbler species and 100 migratory bird species all-told (or tallied) in a single day from dawn to dusk. To get that many you need the right weather conditions to produce what’s known to birders as a “fallout,” when birds literally drip from the trees. Throughout the year in Central Park, according to New York City Audubon, 192 bird species “are regular visitors or year-round residents and over 88 are infrequent or rare visitors.”
Another migratory stopover is the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, in the borough of Queens. The Bay is part of New York Harbor and the Lower Hudson Estuary. It’s a constellation of natural and manmade marsh islands that attract shorebirds in fall to feed in the mudflats, fueling up to continue their journeys southward to their wintering grounds. August is perhaps the best month to see them, although it may entail wading in boot-sucking mud.
The refuge’s manmade ponds harbor wintering ducks and geese, including Snow Geese, and year-round resident Mute Swans and Canada Geese — so many of the latter, in fact, that they crowd out other waterfowl.
For a detailed guide to visiting birding spots in the five boroughs of New York City, visit the website of New York City Audubon.
Any unfrozen pond and bay in winter will harbor wintering ducks. The freshwater ponds of Hempstead Lake State Park on Long Island, for instance, harbor hundreds of ducks, including common and hooded mergansers in their splendid plumages.
A two-hour drive or train ride from Manhattan will take you to Montauk Point on eastern Long Island, where tens of thousands of Common Eiders and Black, Surf, and White-winged Scoters, as well as good numbers of Common Loons and Red-breasted Mergansers, can be seen and heard offshore. Less common are Red-necked Grebes. Occasional rarities show up, such as Common Murres and Razor-bills. Gannets may be seen gliding over the distant waters and dive-bombing for fish.
These are just a few of the highlights of birding in the New York City region. Get yourself a print guide for more in-depth and detailed information.
For photos taken in the field that might help you with an ID, please visit my Bird Gallery page.
New York Birds Reading List
Bull’s Birds of New York State. Emanuel Levine, ed. Ithaca: Comstock/Cornell, 1998
Burger, Michael F. and Jillian M. Liner. Important Bird Areas of New York. New York: Audubon New York, 2005
Day, Leslie, Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2015
Rivel, Deborah and Kelly Rosenheim, Birdwatching in New York City and Long Island. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2016
New York Birds Links
c. Betsy McCully 2018-2021