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Pigeon Slayers of New York – Behind the Scenes Interview!

Last week I noticed a pretty cool picture on Twitter.


I wasn’t the only one who noticed either; this tweet has been shared tens of thousands of times! I thought this was a good opportunity to write about how we share some of our urban landscapes with wildlife; I hope you’ll check out my article on this, just out on Earth Touch.

I wanted to talk to someone that knew a lot about urban birds  to help put the observation in context, so I reached out to Jason Ward, birder, writer and educator with the Audubon Society. I wasn’t able to include all of my conversation with Jason in the Earth Touch article, so I included everything here!
That’s a Red-tailed Hawk and we hear often about Peregrine Falcons in New York City; what are some other birds that people be surprised to find out are using urban habitat near them?

Yes, definitely a Red-tailed Hawk, as evident by the unmarked white chest and streaky belly. Along with hawks and Peregrine Falcons, people tend to be shocked at how close they are to Bald Eagles! People usually associate them with the coast, but they can be found all over North America, typically close to water. Speaking of water, many people are shocked to find the four feet tall Great Blue Heron in their local parks and neighborhoods. Commonly misidentified as a “crane”, this heron has a six feet wingspan and dines on a variety of prey. Fish, amphibians, small mammals, the occasional duckling or grebe are some of the items on the menu for this giant. 

Why can some birds like Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks thrive in cities while others cannot?

The main factor here is food and how that food is obtained. Habitat loss can completely eliminate food sources and preferred habitat for most species and that usually spells doom. But Red-tailed Hawks are generalists. All they require is some open ground and high perches. You can find that in cities, woodlands, desert, mountains, grasslands etc. So it’s no surprise that you’ll find Red-tailed Hawks fitting in comfortably in all of those environments. The Peregrine Falcon is a different story. The fastest bird in the world requires a lot of open space and high cliffs to nest on. It just so happens that skyscrapers in large cities provide them with a nice alternative. They can use those tall buildings to survey their landscape and watch for passing birds. They’ve adapted to the changing world around them. 

What are some unique challenges facing birds in the city?

Cities create so many unique obstacles for birds. Tall buildings are definitely public enemy number one. Most migratory birds migrate at night, using the moon to orient them as they fly. When moonlight reflects off windows, birds can become disoriented. Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta is a good example of a “bird trap”. It’s a relatively small park, only 21 acres. But it’s located right in the middle of the city, and it’s surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. Birds land there at dawn to feed during migration. Once night falls, the birds are faced with a difficult task. As they look towards the sky to find the light of the moon, they see moonlight reflecting off windows and artificial lights from hundreds of hotel and business windows that remain illuminated throughout the night. Because of this, migratory birds wind up staying in this park months after migration ends. Becoming stuck in some kind of “migratory bird limbo”. 

Are urban birds actually benefiting from living in the city are are they making the best of a bad situation?

Birds who thrive in urban environments are definitely making the best of a bad situation. Although city-living can mean more food for meat-eating birds, the risks outweigh the rewards. Chasing food in an urban environment often results in collisions with windows, cars, and overzealous home-owners who believe it’s okay to chase hawks away from their backyard bird feeders. 

What do you recommend for people in urban landscapes that want to learn about and see the birds around them?

If you live in an urban environment and want to learn more about the birds in your area, I’d highly recommend looking up your local Audubon chapter. Attend a workshop sponsored by that Audubon chapter, attend a bird walk or a monthly meeting. Or, if you’re more of an introvert, purchase a pair of binoculars and head out to your local park. Find a good, quiet area, and just wait. A couple moments of listening and observing will unlock the door to a world full of feathered ambassadors. You’ll be hooked in no time! 

What can cities do to make their urban landscapes more bird-friendly?

Photo: Josh Henderson/Galveston Police Department
The absolute best thing cities can do is turn their lights off at night. I’m haunted by the image of 398 dead birds placed on a table in Galveston, Texas. Those birds all fell victim to one, 23-story building in the city on the Gulf Coast over the course of one night. Something as simple as shutting down those lights can make a huge impact. Recently, Atlanta Audubon played a large role in advising the City Hall building in Atlanta to install bird-friendly screens on the windows to prevent window collisions. Efforts like these are increasing in number.

Urban birds of prey are in the news relatively frequently; is there anything you think is missing from these stories? In other words, what would you like people to know about urban raptors that doesn’t get enough attention?

We mean well, we really do. We’re a very compassionate species. But that compassion can have adverse effects. Getting too close to a bird of prey who just caught a meal may seem like a good idea. After all, your followers are going to love the video, you’ll probably get tons of likes and retweets. But you may also spook the bird of prey, and force it to abandon its meal. What we don’t realize is that the mortality rate for birds of prey is incredibly high during their first year of life. So every single meal is an important one. We must give them their space. The same applies for the hawk who stalks your bird feeder. By putting up a bird feeder, you’re not only feeding finches and chickadees. You’re also feeding your local Cooper’s Hawk (a bird of prey that eats other birds). It’s an unwritten contract you signed upon hanging your bird feeder. Give birds their space, if one flies into your cab, take it to a rehab center immediately. Oh, and, keep your cats indoors.

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