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A Bird Expert on Your Sightings

A Wordle image of the birds submitted to the WNYC and New York Times crowdsourced bird-watching map.

We got hundreds of texts when we asked for your favorite bird-watching spots throughout the city, in collaboration with The New York Times. Bird expert Tom Stephensen was on The Brian Lehrer Show, responding to some of the sightings we received. Here he comments on some of the stories we didn't get to on the air.

"A hawk — fairly large — dive bombing squirrels on trees in Fort Greene Park. He's been known to swoop down on small dogs when they wander away front their owners."

Tom Stephensen: Red-tailed Hawks typically prey on small mammals like squirrels or rabbits, about 1.5 to 2 times their own weight max. It would be very unlikely for a hawk to try and capture a dog, especially with an owner around. As I mentioned on the show, there are sometimes problems with dogs in our city's few remaining parks. These green spaces have been set aside, in part, as refuges for migrating birds. 

As species migrate, they are often forced by weather and wind conditions to land in the city, and naturally choose the only places of green refuge they can find. They depend on the food they can gather in these parks to give them the energy to continue their travels to their nesting grounds in the spring and to their wintering grounds in the fall. With the large decline of our song birds (some species declining over 80 percent in the last 40 years) these parks provide even more critical value. There are strict rules and laws to give these birds the freedom they need to rest and eat. However, often we find dog owners who violate these laws and allow their pets to run free in the areas that have been set aside as important feeding zones for these birds. This behavior causes birds, especially the many species that use the ground or low vegetation for feeding, great stress and loss of energy, endangering their survival. Maybe the Red-tailed Hawk mentioned in the comment was just acting as park enforcer when he was seen swooping down to deliver justice from the skies. 

"The Meadowlands Environment Center. 2 De Korte Park Plaza, Lyndhurst, NJ.Egrets, swans, cardinals, robins, ducks, and an osprey. I live about a mile away from this park and found a long eared owl in my backyard. I was in awe." 

TS: New Jersey has many really rich birding areas like Sandy Hook, Brigantine and Cape May. It sounds like Marilyn has the great fortune to live very near one of those natural areas and has really taken advantage of it. A Long-eared Owl is a fantastic bird. 

"Washington Mews at University Place: I saw an albino pigeon that was white with red eyes." 

TS: Sounds scary ... maybe an escapee from Alfred Hithcock's movie lot...Actually, the pigeons we see in the city are the result of centuries of breeding in the same way that chickens were bred to be domestic farm creatures. Trained pigeons were used for sending messages for the military as early as the Romans, in the middle ages, and even by the very savvy conqueror Ghengis Khan. Kind of like the original "ham radios." Today, pigeons are still trained for racing and some are bred to be pure white and then released at events like weddings. Maybe the bird Valerie saw made its way here from the Royal Wedding.

Pigeons are so ubiquitous in the city because they are very comfortable with people (centuries of close association) and they don't have many predators. 

"The athletic field at Brooklyn College. A green parakeet" 

TS: D most likely saw a Monk Parakeet. These birds are native in South America and I have seen them there many times. Like many other beautiful birds, however, they have been captured for the pet trade (which often devastates local populations of some species) and once the romance wears off, released in to the "wilds" of New York City and other areas. Some of these species, like the Monk Parakeets, are able to survive and reproduce. They are the only species of parakeets that build huge stick colonies for their nests. You can see such a parakeet condominium at the entrance to the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. I've even seen colonies of these birds in Rome, so they really get around!

"In the north woods, 104th street and Central Park West: A northern parula."

TS: The Northern Parula is one of the very beautiful species of migrating warblers we find in spring in the city. It's fairly common during most of May and has a distinctive song that is an ascending buzz that emphatically jumps over the top and falls in pitch at the end of the song.

These warblers are one of the reasons people love spring migration so much.

"A Scarlet Tanager at central park."

TS: The Scarlet Tanager is another striking migrant. It has the most brilliant red I have ever seen, making a cardinal look like it needs to go to the cleaners. They nest in many nearby areas both to the north and south of the city.

"Central Park West and 86th: A flock of grackles. Ugh. They're like women at a cocktail party."

TS: Common Grackles, like some other bird species, are very social, and hang out in groups. Of course, you know what happens with that kind of mob mentality. They are known to descend on feeders, tearing the place up and eating all of the food. I really like Gina's simile. However, we have to learn to love them as they are one of the few species that nest in the city. And if you look at them carefully you'll see that they are incredibly beautiful, with lots of iridescent blues and purples.

"Morningside Gardens - 123rd and Broadway: A falcon! Eating a pigeon!" 

TS: The widespread use of DDT in the '40s and '50s led to the unintended consequence of preventing many species of birds from breeding, including the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon. Thanks in part to Rachel Carson's book "The Silent Spring," DDT was banned and the species impacted by the chemical have come back from near extinction. The Peregrine Falcon is one such bird and has been helped by a breeding and release program that placed several pairs in New York City. Since Peregrines normally nest and feed from cliffs, they adapted very easily to the tall buildings and bridges in the city and can now be seen soaring down from great heights to catch one of their favorite prey, pigeons. They're the fastest birds in the world when they dive. I've seen them several times from the top of the Empire State Building and often near any of the large city bridges. 

"102nd and Broadway: Never saw it but I heard an owl in the early morning." 

TS: In the last 100 years the owl population of New York City has declined severely. Miriam is very lucky to have heard one (check to be sure it wasn't a crooning Morning Dove). A few years ago, there was a program that put several pairs of Eastern Screech Owls back into Central Park to try and re-establish a population there. Unfortunately, it hasn't been very successful. That being said, especially in winter, when they breed, owls can be found in all of the boroughs. Once I accompanied expert owl-finder Paul Keim to Pelham Bay Park with a writer from National Geographic (doing an article on the "night life" of NYC) and we found four species of owls there.