Harlem may seem like an unlikely location for bird-watching. Yet, for the past few months Harlemites wake up to the sound of multitudes of bird calls, some just outside their bedroom windows. New Yorkers are used to the sounds of those sometimes-pesky sparrows that are like miniature pigeons. They seem to be everywhere waiting for the crumbs of your sandwich as you sit in the park. They bicker and are often a boisterous lot too. Then there are the pigeons. Pigeons on your rooftops, window sills and air condition units, splattering the sidewalks with poop and swooping down within inches of your head as you try to escape what you realize a little too late, is their feeding spot in a park. As I write I hear crows making a ruckus nearby. What I am thrilled to hear each morning are the sounds made by cardinals. It is mostly a shw-heet-shw-heet-shw-heet-shw-heet-whoo-whoo-whoo; three or four long and three staccato. Robins make a sweet call too and if you are curious and patient you can connect the music to the red-breasted serenaders.
The source of much of this ornithological merry making is the largely undisturbed tree canopies that shelter the North Woods of Central Park, which abuts 110th Street. Morningside Park sits a few blocks away to the West and St Nicholas Park is close by. The ribbon of greenery ends with the narrow Jackie Robinson Park, with its many massive mature trees and understory plants throughout the ten-block landscape, ending at 155th street. With all these large fragmented pockets of wilderness, city birds have ample areas in which to forage and raise their families.
Many spaces in which birds congregate are usually narrow patches of earth strewn with used diapers, foam and discarded household items resting on the roots and clinging to branches of mulberry bushes, lovely purple-flowering paulownias and elderberries. Stray cats curl up on discarded stuff toys and cushions, some still recovering from the long winter and too tired or eager to pounce on the all-too-vigilant sparrows.
My apartment is on the forth floor of a five-story apartment building, which is surrounded by similar structures. Between my north-facing windows and the south facing windows of buildings on 149th street lies a narrow strip of land and concrete which runs along the entire length of the block. The sliver of land is divided into coveted backyard spaces for the ground floor residences and are home to birds, squirrels, stray cats and the occasional racoon family, on vacation from the nearby parks. I find myself rushing to the window, careening my neck and stepping out on the fire escape to find that bird that is not the cardinal whose calls and whistles I've come to know so well. The blue jays are the ones making the loud squawking calls. Sparrows are plentiful and noisy. Starlings sit high in the London planetrees and make soft quick clicking sounds to attract mates. Across the street, on the south side of my block sits a renovated school that is now a luxury coo-op building. One penthouse garden apartment attracts an outrageous mocking bird. I often see and hear him mimicking car alarms and announcing himself to the world from his perch on the apex of a roof structure.
Mourning doves are regular visitors to my window boxes and fire escape. They make squeaky-wheel sounds as they fly past my windows.
Slivers of land at the back and sides of multi-family buildings are spaces not unlike areas of the North Woods with its larger two-legged inhabitants sectioning parts of Central Park's wildness for sleep, recreation, bodily functions and other human pastimes. The woods provide hiding, breeding and recreational venues for birds that sometimes benefit from scraps left behind by cohabiting humans.The main attraction for birds however remains the same in large spaces as throughout the narrow margins and spaces between buildings. It is in the bounty of trees laden with mulberries, elderberries, paulownia seeds, chokeberry and sumac berries.
One other factor influencing bird population in Harlem is the presence of human feeders who accidentally, carelessly or deliberately supply birds with an array of crumbs from bread, bagels, pizza and yes, fried chicken. I sometimes shudder to see birds pecking at sprinkles or chocolate-covered lump of a doughnut or starlings squabbling over pieces of chicken.
Then there are the birds of the bay and bridge areas.The island of Manhattan drastically narrows in North Harlem. Beginning at 125th Street, several bridges straddle the Harlem River and connect the island to the South Bronx. Seagulls sometime surprise me with tenacity, their wing-span and gall as they scoop down to pick on treats near the subway entrance at 148th street, often startling pedestrians.A few blocks north sits the Macombs Dam Bridge which connects North Harlem to the South Bronx area near Yankee Stadium. I once approached the east side of the bridge curious about the architectural structures on the foundation housing the swing mechanism of the bridge. This foundation is usually covered in weeds; phragmites, paulownia, milkweed and goldenrod occupy the surface of the footing which is surrounded by a band of concrete. As I got closer, I found that each evenly spaced mound on the concrete was a tightly tucked-in Canada Goose. How they managed to each sit perfectly still at about four feet apart was cause for amusement and wonder.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a backyard in the city can encourage feathered visitors by allowing one or more weedy shrubs or trees that birds favor. Mulberries can be messy but birds cherish them as they do the seeds of paulownia and elderberry. A pile of dried leaves may attract warblers and overwintering juncos before it begins to breakdown into compost. A drinking station in the form of a simple birdbath is an open invitation and birds will love you if you provide feeding stations of seeds to help them survive our harsh winters. Amelanchier, chokeberry, sunflowers, panicum and echinachea in containers work for those with terraces and rooftop gardens. Window boxes including small containers of water and assorted birdseed may attract cardinals, doves and sparrows. Evergreen cuttings and stems of holly berry will attract birds in winter and may inspire juncos to overnight as evergreens provide protection during winter nights.
Hummingbird sightings are rare in Harlem. I sometimes spot them at the botanical gardens in the Bronx but will be thrilled to see one in my neighborhood. I am working on it and planted red cardinal climbers, foxgloves and salvia in the community garden on west 146th Street to entice them. Red-orange honey suckle will soon follow in a sunny garden spot.
Dark-eyed Juncos are known as Snow birds. They spend winter in New York but fly north in spring.
I keep looking and listening for new and less familiar calls and wonder what new neighbor will move into the hood and which ones may relocate. I welcome all those feathered friends, even sparrows and pigeons. It is important that we remember that they are entitled to this land. Indeed many of them were here long before us, when Manhattan was a lush landscape crisscrossed with walking trails. They cohabited with many Native American Peoples. With so much urban development taking place in our great city and the many environmental and biological hazards shaping the world, it is extraordinary to have these beautiful and musical creatures choose to share this island with us.