A Bird’s Tale

From Maine to the Big Apple

Wed, 06/12/2024 - 10:00am

We’ve recently had the opportunity to spend some time in the Big Apple, otherwise known as New York City. There’s a lot going on down in that place – people streaming by on sidewalks everywhere. Cars and trucks rumbling and honking. Skyscrapers that seem to reach to the clouds. To orient ourselves, we do what we always do in situations like this: we look for birds.  

We spent most of our time in Midtown Manhattan, not visiting the city’s bird havens like Central Park, so our observations were the result of being out and about in places with lots of people. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that the species we saw most often in our time there was the familiar pigeon—formally now known as the rock pigeon. We could quickly see why some people in the city become very endeared to their local pigeons. Compared to our pigeons back home in Maine, which will fly away at the slightest movement (perhaps the ones in Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, and Bangor are a little less flighty?), these pigeons will peck around right at your feet. We marveled at one that was feeding on some spilled food at the doorway of a corner store with an automatic door. The bird would sometimes go part way into the entranceway when the door was open. When we walked through, it adeptly stepped aside and circled back to the food as we continued on.  

We also marveled at the beauty of the different color forms of pigeons, which appear more dramatic when you get to see them from just a few feet away. A gorgeous silky tan and white one really caught our eye one day as the bird puttered around with that distinctive pigeon strut right at our feet. 

Two birds that have made us feel a connection to home during our visits to the city are the American crow and the blue jay. Yes, we recognize that both are common birds across vast areas of the U.S. and so are not definitive of Maine, But, for us, both are birds that we see and hear every day around the house and neighborhood when we walk our little, black dog, Loki.   

Crows, are of course, very numerous and ubiquitous across most of Maine. Thus we were surprised at how few crows we saw and heard in Midtown Manhattan. Maybe they stay closer to the green spaces of parks and along the edges of Manhattan, but we didn’t see or hear many.  

We actually saw and heard more blue jays in the portion of the city that we frequented. Whenever we heard that familiar “jay! Jay!” squawk, we felt a connection to home - and also were a bit surprised!  While we have blue jays around the neighborhood in Maine, we don’t think of them as a species you see in downtown Portland. While we thought crows would be more common, we hadn’t really considered that blue jays would even be present. We know that blue jays migrate and so during migration season would certainly pass through the city. But this was June, when blue jays should be nesting. It would make sense then that these blue jays were resident nesters. We’ll have to ask some New York City birder friends about that and read up about the status of birds in Manhattan to learn more. 

One pleasant surprise occurred during a Zoom call that we had to take from the rooftop of a 10-story building. A striking female American kestrel glided by and landed on the balcony of a nearby building, chattering away. Kestrels will nest in nooks and crannies of buildings in many places, so we expect this bird may be doing the same. More for us to ask New York birder friends about! 

Given the number of people that split their time between Maine and New York City, we won’t be surprised if we hear back from some of you New Yorkers out there about our impressions. Please let us know as we love to hear about birds everywhere! 

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists. He is a coauthor of the seminal Birds of Maine” book and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).