Birds of the Big Apple

Just returned from a week in New York City. Of course, the only birds I saw in Manhattan were the usual suspects: Eurasian Starlings, Rock Pigeons, and House Sparrows, all well adapted to urban life. Why is it they are so good at surviving the crowded urban jungle? Yes, a number of other species are found in the green oasis of Central Park, but I’m talking about the denizens of places like the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and Times Square. Where do these birds get food, water, and shelter and how do they survive the cold winters?

Pigeons, starlings, and House Sparrows are originally from a wide geographical area of Eurasia, spread over thousands of miles east and west and north and south. Their populations evolved adaptations to a wide variety of climatic conditions and when they got transports New York and other areas they readily adapted.

Food? A casual walk through the Big Apple reveals remnants of uneaten human food, most fast food, strewn about on the sidewalk, in the gutters, surrounding street vendor carts and around garbage bags. Numerous outside eateries add to the organic litter on the sidewalk. Access to sufficient food seems to be no problem. Water? The gutters provide an ample supply, either from rain, street cleaners, a leaky faucet, or dew dripping from awnings and ledges. Shelter and nesting? There are innumerable niches in and around buildings on ledges, behind gutters, in light fixtures, recycle containers, and random patches of greenery.

Pigeons, starlings and House Sparrows do well in the big city in spite of its overwhelming urbanization. In fact, these three species plus the Barn Swallow occur in 80% of the world’s cities. But in its earlier years, in the late 1800s, the most common urban bird in New York was the Chipping Sparrow. Today only the hardiest of avian species survive the sidewalks of NYC.New NYC buildings must be constructed with bird-friendly materials | 6sqft

Around the world Rock Pigeons, Eurasian Starlings, and House Sparrows are almost ubiquitous but there are about 200 species of birds that have adapted to city life. Mynah birds are common in the cities of India and blackbirds are found all over Europe. In fact, over 20% of the world’s bird species inhabit cities – 2,041 of them. Of course, if you include all the habitats of New York City, including Central Park, you can actually find about 210 species, although several of these are uncommon or rare. What’s the birdiest city in the world, you ask? It is Cali, Columbia, with an amazing 540 species found in the city limits.

Know what else is amazing? It seems logical that a natural habitat, like a forest, would contain the greatest number of species and that increasing urbanization would cause a proportional decline in bird species numbers. Not exactly true. It turns out that, of all the possible species to inhabit a geographical are, the greatest number are in the somewhat urbanized area. The undisturbed area contains the next highest number and the totally citified area the least. Ornithologist John Martzleff calls this phenomenon “subirdia.” Seems like integrating urbanization with natural habitat provides the best of both worlds.

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