By Ajamu Brown
Over the past year, I have learned to appreciate the diversity of birdlife in New York City. We have it all, from the pre-historic-looking double-crested cormorant and raspy-screaming red-tailed hawk to the stunningly pretty wood duck and the red-winged blackbird to name a few. Being a young African-American interested in birds gets me a variety of responses. Most people that I talk to find this new hobby of mine curiously entertaining. Or I get asked as I did a few weeks ago, “In Brooklyn, have you seen any interesting birds besides your flying rats and sparrows?” That makes me laugh. Ironically, my enthusiasm for sighting exotic birds has increased my respect for the ubiquitous rock pigeon. According to the New York City Audubon Society, 90,000 birds are killed by flying into buildings made of glass in our city each year. Sometimes nocturnal migratory birds fly into tall-lighted buildings or fly in circles until they pass out from exhaustion. The adaptable pigeons have avoided this fate.
Dispelling stereotypes of bird-watchers and accepting New York City as an urban bird-watching destination will take some time. That is why I have enlisted the help of David Lindo, a London-based Birder and Wildlife Photographer, to lead a bird walk in Prospect Park on February 23rd to help address these two issues. For newcomers, this will be a great way to explore the different varieties of feathered urban wildlife that make Brooklyn home.
My Bird-watching experience in Brooklyn
Last March while reading an article in the Scientific American by Danielle Lee called “Black & Green, the New Integration – 5 Names in Urban Ecology You Should Know,” I came across Mr. Lindo’s Web site, “The Urban Birder.” David’s Web site made me think about bird-watching as a fun, affordable activity that anyone could enjoy, and his personal story was equally compelling. Despite not having mentors as a child, David taught himself about birds at a young age in northwest London. He now has his own business leading birding tours, writing books and giving speeches around the world.
I immediately contacted David through his Web site after reading about him. To my surprise he called one afternoon from London. I told him about my budding interest in birds and about the Bed-Stuy Community Eco Project, a food and environmental justice project that I created with a local nonprofit called Divas for Social Justice from a small grant I received from the National Audubon TogetherGreen program in 2009. Although I was initially interested in promoting food justice with my fellowship, I slowly gained an appreciation for bird conservation and eventually purchased my own binoculars for the occasion. Since then, my worldview of birds and our local ecosystem has expanded. Through bird-watching, I rediscovered Prospect Park and learned that it is home to 200 species of birds. I also began to appreciate the parks history that was created by Fredrick Law Olmsted and Vaux Calvert in the mid-nineteenth century to provide a natural outdoor experience for working-class New Yorkers.
Birds, birds every day, from London, Canada and the USA
One Sunday last fall, while doing laundry at a tiny Caribbean-operated Laundromat near my home, I noticed an article with a picture of two young falcons huddled together taped above the change machine near the entrance. As the other customers were watching TV, I came closer to read the bold headlines: “City officials tag peregrine falcons living near the Bayonne Bridge.” I was happy to see this posted with pride in a Laundromat in the inner city. But it also made me think the relationship communities like mine have to nature, are often overlooked in conservation.
A few weeks later, I went on an Audubon Eco-Cruise one evening and found myself among thirty bird enthusiasts looking intently through binoculars at a peregrine falcon perched on the Bayonne Bridge as we made our way back from Jamaica Bay; it was one of the very birds I read about at the Caribbean Laundromat. As we approached the bridge the captain turned off the engine so that we could have a closer look. But as I looked around the boat there were two other people of color besides myself, and they both worked at the concession stand. In a city as diverse as New York there is still work to be done to close the eco-gap and share experiences such as these with all of its citizens.
I would have loved to share the eco-tour experience with the youth in my community just to see their expressions when they saw a black skimmer or a black crowned night heron plunge headfirst into the water as they hunt for fish. But the price, $40 ticket for adults and $30 tickets for kids, in this economy is out of most working-class parents’ price range, particularly if they have more than one child. Prospect Park is an affordable way to see a black-crowned night heron, but you rarely see people of color on the bird-walking tours. Beside access, there needs to be a certain amount of environmental literacy to appreciate wildlife.
As our country becomes more racially diverse, we need more people like David Lindo giving walks in the park and sharing their experience about birdlife and nature. We also need enrichment programs to make bird-watching more attractive to communities of color. Over the past few years, funding cuts has forced the Prospect Park Audubon Center, that offers free environmental education programming, to drastically reduce its hours. To increase eco-equity, we will need not only to reverse this trend, but support nontraditional educators and grassroots community groups in their efforts to educate and green their communities. The investment (at this time) makes economic sense, too. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, “bird-watching is the fastest-growing outdoor recreation in New York and across the country, with an estimated 3.8 million bird-watchers in New York who generate $1.6 billion in eco-tourism revenue a year”. The more people are working to protect the environment and educate the public about resident birds and migratory species the more likely the appealing bird-related activities will be to the urban experience.
As urbanization increases, creating urban birders means that resident birds and migratory species will be protected in bird-friendly communities for future generations.
Upcoming Bird-watching Event in Prospect Park
As I mentioned earlier, David is offering his time on February 23 from 9 AM-11:30 to lead a bird-watching tour in Prospect Park. The meeting point will be on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway, across from the Central Library. The walk will last for 1 hour and 30 minutes and will be followed by a short Q & A at the Prospect Park Boathouse. The Audubon Center has a limited supply of binoculars available free of charge, but if you have your own please bring it with you. There is a charitable contribution of $5 for hot cocoa and light snacks. This is David’s last week on tour in the U.S. so please RSVP if you’re interested. More about David can be found here: www.theurbanbirder.com. If you have any questions feel free to email me at email@example.com. See you in the park!
A few Urban Birding tips from David Lindo to get you started…
o Look up
o Ignore people — see buildings as cliffs and mountainsides
o Have as your mantra: “Anything can turn up anywhere at any time”
o Enjoy yourself!
For the Walk, all ages are welcome!!!