You’ve probably heard that Birds are everywhere, from forests to prairies, from swamps to deserts to suburban yards and yes, our metropolitan cities. The urban birder needs to open their mind to the possibility of spotting many different kind of birds among the concrete and glass of our largest cities.
A big advantage to birding in the city is that you can often get a lot closer to certain species, because they’re used to being surrounded by people. If you know what to look for, you’ll spot fascinating species right on your doorstep.
When we think about city birds, some that come to mind first include pigeons, house sparrows and starlings. It makes sense that they would thrive in the city, because these are all birds imported from Europe. Over the course of many centuries, as European towns developed and grew into cities, these birds had time to adapt to the changes. Adaptability is the key, and many native North American birds are proving to be adaptable as well. One prime example is the house finch. Originally found in the western U.S. and Mexico, this colorful songster probably learned to live around the villages of the Hopi, the Navajo and other Native American people in the Desert Southwest. When the house finch was accidentally introduced into the New York area in 1940, it soon adapted to eastern cities and started to spread. The new eastern population met the expanding western flocks on the Great Plains in the 1990s, and today house finches are found in cities and towns from coast to coast.
Think like a bird when you’re in the city
When you visit a city, try to see what a bird sees: buildings that seem like scattered woodland and cliffs. Trees and a city park that’s exactly the same as the ones in the middle of the countryside. They all provide food, shelter and various habitats. Although many of the habitats may be smaller and more fragmented, they are still habitats. And the good thing about them being smaller is that often the wildlife is more concentrated in one area.
For the most part, most birds have very simple needs. They find their food in the air, so all they need is a place to build their nests. The chimney swift is a perfect example. It catches flying insects in high, swift flight, ranging for miles every day in search of airborne bugs. Today, large hollow trees are harder to find, but every city has chimneys. The swifts use their sticky saliva to paste a small platform of twigs to the inside of a chimney, creating a secure nest where they can lay their eggs.
Other aerial insect-eaters also find nesting sites downtown. The common nighthawk will lay its eggs directly on a gravel roof, where they are perfectly camouflaged. Cliff swallows will build their mud nests on the sides of buildings, but in more and more cities they are now placing those nests under bridges, where they are better protected from weather.
New Birds Are Choosing Cities
In cities located along the shores of the ocean, lakes or large rivers, some birds take advantage of the specific habitat parking lots have to offer. They are favorite haunts of ring-billed gulls. Most kinds of gulls are opportunists anyway, and ring-bills are quick to adopt large open parking lots as places to rest, their flocks lining up and facing into the wind. Parking lots next to fast-food restaurants are especially popular, as the gulls can usually find choice leftovers dropped on the pavement.
At one time, crows and ravens were absent from American cities and were mostly wilderness birds that lived in the wide-open farm country. But in recent decades, these intelligent and adaptable birds have noticed that they weren’t in danger when they ventured into suburbs and cities, so they moved right in. American crows now live in many cities from coast to coast, while common ravens thrive in some downtown areas of the West, like Phoenix and San Francisco. Today a raven can even be seen perched on a neon sign in Las Vegas.
Get to know your local city
People often want to know about the rare birds that can be found in the city, but the best way to see rarer species is to focus on the more common ones first. Look at the usual, and you’ll sometimes find the unusual among them.
You might be able to quickly see an unusual bird that is in the area for just a short period of time. These birds can often be readily seen in urban parks, especially during migration. City parks on flyways often play host to migrating birds who need to stop for a break. These patches of green are irresistible to a hungry and tired migrant or vagrant who has been blown off course.
Botanical gardens are also a favorite place to bird watch as they are beautiful and full of birds, especially in the native plants sections. And as always, if you like birding alone, take safety seriously and consider places that are safe to visit.
6 BIRD-FRIENDLY CITIES
While every city offers the chance to see some birds, a few of them have embraced birding in notable ways.
1 Portland, Oregon. From great blue herons living along rivers in town to swifts roosting in local chimneys, Portland finds ways to celebrate all kinds of urban birds.
2 New York City. America’s biggest city hosts an astonishing variety of birds, especially in parks like Central Park, where organized bird walks are held almost every day in spring and fall.
3 Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Its location along Lake Michigan makes this a prime birding city all year. From ducks and gulls in winter to migrating hawks in fall and warblers in spring, there are always birds to see in Milwaukee’s parks and nature centers.
4 Tucson, Arizona. Since 2001, Tucson has organized a citywide bird count every spring. Cactus wrens, verdins, curve-billed thrashers and other desert birds thrive even in the heart of town.
5 Austin, Texas. Austin is famous for live music and other cultural highlights, but it’s also a hub of birding activity. Lakes and parks along the Colorado River bring abundant bird life to the city center.
6 St. Petersburg, Florida. Surrounded on three sides by the waters of Tampa Bay, the city teems with birds in all seasons, including pelicans, egrets, ospreys and more. Migration brings warblers and other songbirds to every park in town.
So when you’re in the city, look up often. You might see a Peregrine Falcon hunting, an American Kestrel harassing a Red-tailed Hawk, some interesting waders, or even flocks of Chimney Swifts flying overhead.
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