Welcome to the Club
The second of June was a cozily warm, gloriously sunny, summer New York City Sunday. It was the kind of day when the brilliant sunlight makes the scrawniest trees and sootiest buildings glisten. Even the gloomiest people seem to glow. Somehow the intense light brings out the beauty in the natural and unnatural worlds when logic says it should throw a spotlight on their faults.
I was in one of the best possible places to enjoy such a day in the Big Apple. In Central Park I stood on a wooden dock that juts out into a small hourglass shaped pond. It is surrounded by lush plantings of shrubs, grasses, flowers and trees. A fifty-five acre meadow that accommodates eight softball fields with ample space to spare for a multitude of picnickers opens on its northern shore. A stone castle set on top of a sheer cliff is the second highest point in the park. It overlooks a tiny island that dominates the southwest corner. By any standards it’s one of the most picturesque spots in the park and had been one of my favorites long before the events described in my tale transpired.
On this particular day I was having a chat with Michael, a new acquaintance. He is an accountant by profession and a naturalist and arts enthusiast by inclination. Michael enjoys sharing his knowledge. He was in the midst of explaining to me that the most common turtles inhabiting the pond, the Mississippi Red-eared Sliders, are not native residents but instead are abandoned pets, when a male Red-winged Blackbird landed on the top of the wooden fence, a bird-blind, to our right. This bird perched, on a two-by-six plank, a foot and one-half above our heads and two feet in front of us. As Michael went on to tell me what he knew of the large Snapping Turtles that hunt and breed here, the Red-winged Blackbird began to loudly call “chek” repeatedly and then to sing “konk-la-ree” in an even louder voice. Still vocalizing, the bird raised his wings away from his body. This posture accentuated the display of his scarlet wing patches edged with pale yellow. The patches themselves appeared to literally stand up as if being raised by a charge of static electricity. The theatrical bird was distracting us from our conversation, but we persisted. So did the Red-winged Blackbird. He began to run back and forth still keeping his wings up and away from his torso flaunting his flaming red epaulets and singing passionately. Michael and I kept talking to each other but our eyes became fixed on the bird. After a while I realized that we had begun shouting so we could hear each other over the raucous Red-winged Blackbird.
The bird’s singing became so insistent that I began asking Michael to repeat every word he said. I was a bit annoyed, a bit amused and more than a bit surprised by the bird’s behavior. When I felt I could no longer act nonchalantly about the situation I said to Michael, using an appropriate New Yorkese expression, “What is it with this bird, anyway?” To which Michael matter-of-factly replied, “Oh, that’s George” as if that was all the explanation required for my understanding of the creature’s behavior. “What do you mean, oh that’s George?” I said. “Are you telling me you know this wild bird and that you call him George?” Michael did not offer detailed verbal clarification. Instead he gave a practical demonstration. “Watch this,” he said, as he tore off a piece of a roll he had in his hand. He held the bread up to the top of the fence and said, “Come on, George.” The Red-winged Blackbird immediately fell silent, let his wings fall to his sides and rapidly walked along the top of the fence toward Michael’s hand. The bird gingerly took the bread from Michael’s fingers and flew off to the nearby island where he landed on a rock and ate his food.
This was how George introduced himself to me.
I do not remember what I said next, but I do remember laughing and feeling more than a little astonished. “George is famous,” Michael explained. “He will be back soon.” In ten minutes George was back stridently singing his “konk-la-ree” Red-winged Blackbird tune and flaunting those scarlet epaulets. I asked Michael if he thought George might take food from my hand. He saw no reason why he would not. I got a bit of Michael’s roll and held it up for the bird. In an instant George rushed toward me and took the bread in his beak and sped off to the island again. This put a smile on my face that I could not wipe off for the next hour. I did not know it at the time, but it marked the beginning of a relationship and a heightening of my awareness of the natural world. Gradually, I would come to understand that I had been given an invitation to join a special club and by giving George an offering I had unconsciously accepted the invitation. I had become a charter member of Club George without knowing it.
What is it about this encounter that affected me so? Unquestionably, I was astounded that a wild animal had interacted and communicated with me. His dramatic audiovisual display had commandeered my attention. Once he had it, he delivered not so much a message, as a demand. George did not offer a timid, “Polly wants a cracker,” but a forceful, “Hey buddy, feed me” instead.
The location of this encounter intensified the impact it had on me. The fact that it happened in a city park in the middle of one of the most densely populated and developed areas in the world made it all the more startling. Though still implausible, it seemed to me that this would have been more likely to happen in a sparsely inhabited area where one would have expectations to come into contact with wild animals. But then Central Park does have relatively more wildlife than its immediate surroundings. It is a virtual lifeboat for creatures of the natural world that are surrounded by a man-made sea of concrete and steel. It is home for numerous species of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians and spiders that have few places as hospitable to inhabit. It is also the temporary home to dozens more bird species during their spring and fall migration. Though it was not its creators’ principal intention, Central Park is a strategically placed haven for birds to rest, feed and even raise offspring as they move along the Atlantic migratory route stretching from Canada to South America.
Because its geography attracts migrating birds Central Park is known as a “migrant trap” to birders around the world. The Central Park Conservancy boasts that the park is “one of the top fifteen bird-watching sites in the entire United States.”1 Marie Winn, science writer for the Wall Street Journal, author, translator and bird-watcher, quotes bird expert Roger F. Pasquier as having named the park “one of America’s fourteen great bird-watching locales.”2 Marie is pretty fond of it herself. David Allen Sibley, author and artist of several avian works, ranks the park along with Cape May, New Jersey, and the Monterey Peninsula in California as one of the three top bird-watching spots in North America.3 Other experts might argue that there are geographical sites that offer many more species, rare species or larger numbers of a specific species. Some say ranking locations is inherently futile because the results can vary depending on which of those different criteria I mentioned are used. Perhaps the issue is best put into perspective by the American Bird Conservancy, which has this to say on the subject.
Urban green areas—such as city parks and cemeteries—are often the only spots for migrant birds to alight for miles around. Surrounded by roads and buildings, they offer at least temporary respite during the long journey north or south, and birds head for them by the thousands. Resident species tend to be few, but at two seasons of the year a sharp observer can find scores of species in a single morning. Every birder has a few favorite spots like this, but some are justifiably famous for the number and variety of birds they attract—some far outside their normal ranges. These include Central Park in Manhattan; Prospect Park in Brooklyn; Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Rock Creek in Washington, D.C.; the Magic Hedge on Chicago’s Lakefront; the “Migrant Trap” in nearby Hammond, Indiana; and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.4
The number of permanent resident bird species in Central Park is arguably twenty-four. I say “arguably” because at times a few individuals of a species spend a winter there while the majority does not. The total number soars to roughly two hundred when migratory birds visit in the fall and spring.5 Some species included in this count can be seen flying over the park though they do not usually land there. Birders who track these “flyovers” report hundreds and even thousands of individuals of a particular species traveling in flocks. There is irony in the realization that this haven for wild birds is the product of labors to alter the natural environment with the prodigious application of technologies such as hydraulics, architecture, construction, landscaping, and horticulture among others. Central Park is a complete fabrication down to the last imported ounce of topsoil covering its 843 acres, which by the way came from New Jersey.
Before meeting George I had never been what you could describe as a nature enthusiast and certainly not a bird-watcher but I always thought of myself as one who was concerned about the state of the environment. I considered myself a person who took time to “smell the roses.” I appreciated the beauty of the physical world and was curious about the creatures in it. When George “spoke to me” he asked me to enter into his world where I would also be introduced to other members of his club, but it was going to be up to me to get to know and understand them.
There were so many different kinds of birds in George’s territory that I started to make lists of them on my calendar so I could later look up essential facts about each one. Many of these birds were already familiar to me. Even a self-absorbed New Yorker must notice the ubiquitous Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, and European Starling nearly every day. Others were entirely new to me. For example, the Black-crowned Night Heron, Cedar Waxwing, Belted Kingfisher, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron and Barn Swallow were some of George’s neighbors that I had inexplicably missed during my “Pre-George” existence. The lists I made on my calendar gradually became notes. The notes evolved into journal entries I typed into my computer several days a week. The journal grew until it became a story about how my incremental discoveries about George and his neighbors led to my admiration of all birds and their environment.
While watching the birds around George’s Pond my powers of observation increased as I exercised them. Trying to make sense of what I saw obliged me to do research. It was not long before I found the two reference books I owned were not sufficient. In a short time I collected a dozen texts each having its strengths and weaknesses, but all of them complementing each other. For example, the Peterson Field Guide, which many consider to be the archetypal bird “field guide,” is excellent for highlighting the key features that most readily identify a species. Fred J. Alsop III’s Birds of North America: Eastern Region has a concise one-page summary for each bird that provides not just physical descriptions but facts about behavior, breeding, nesting, songs, calls, size, wingspan, and weight. Most other field guides do not pull all this information together but focus mainly on physiognomy and vocalizations. For an overview of the world of birds and detailed information about each bird family The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, by David Allen Sibley proved to be indispensable, as did his Guide to Birds with its comprehensive descriptions of North American bird species. I found the condensed version, the Sibley Field Guide to Birds, was a convenient size to bring along on birding excursions and Sibley’s Birding Basics was a superior how-to-bird-watch primer. Sibley, Alsop and Peterson’s works are among the most helpful a birder can find but I can strongly recommend other texts also. They are too numerous to describe here but I feel duty-bound to make special mention of two books that should benefit novice birders. Kenn Kaufman’s A New Focus on the Field Birds of North America and Donald and Lillian Stokes’ Stokes Field Guide to Birds may be more user-friendly to the beginner but no less comprehensive than some other texts. A staple for many is Robbins, Brunn and Zim’s Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. The Club George bibliography lists still more volumes I unequivocally recommend.
There is one thing I urge you to do no matter what books or authors you select: read the introduction you were planning to skip over. Most introductions must of necessity be short and therefore in theory should concentrate a substantial dose of information into a mercifully small capsule that will not overtax your attention span. I believe you will thank me for suggesting this though it may not be for some time after you have waded through the material.
My dwelling on reference books may lead you to believe I only developed an intellectual curiosity about birds. To the contrary, after meeting George all succeeding birds looked to me like works of art. Even those commonly seen birds that I thought of as the “usual suspects” became gorgeous creatures in my eyes. “Post-George,” when I looked at a Rock Pigeon I became aware of the iridescent green, purple and bronze on its neck. I looked beyond the American Robin’s red breast to see the subtle white highlights on its tail, belly and eye ring. I noticed that the European Starling’s black beak turns bright yellow and the white dots on its breast wear away by the time mating season arrives leaving black shiny feathers with shimmering iridescent highlights. The House Sparrow’s plumage was not drab as so many describe it but instead it was subtle and refined. Before long I felt self-conscious when I offered a description of any bird at all because I caught myself piling on the superlatives to an embarrassing extent.
Another consequence of Club George membership was making the acquaintance of people who shared mutual interests. Spending long periods with George I met bird-watchers at the pond and when I expanded my bird-watching area, I met more. Park birders proved to be enthusiastic, knowledgeable or both. Though it may seem strange, however, I soon learned that many of them frequently speak to each other without ever knowing or asking one another’s names. One such encounter with a resolutely anonymous bird-watcher typifies this New York birder behavior. Together this unidentified bird-watcher and I spied a flock of nearly two hundred birds flying over George’s Pond. Taking only a cursory glance my companion concluded they were European Starlings but I, taking a harder look, recognized them as a migrating assemblage of George’s Red-winged Blackbird relatives. The mention of Red-winged Blackbirds struck a chord with her. She turned and said, “You’re ‘George’ aren’t you?” I corrected her saying, “I’m Bob, but I am a fan of George if that’s what you mean.” She explained she did not mean to say my name was George, but that she knew me to be one of George’s admirers. We never did learn each other’s names even after a few subsequent chance meetings. Of course there are Central Park bird-watchers who actually do know each other’s names. They even gather on a regular basis not just to bird-watch but to hobnob, consort and otherwise socialize with one another.
Though individual birders’ names may or may not be of critical importance there are issues that are. One near continuous topic of conversation, and e-mail via birding networks like eBirds, is the controversy about when human observations in the field become interaction or even intervention in the lives of birds in general and in the feeding of birds in particular. Whether by hand or through the use of a bird feeder some folks argue that it creates problems. I understand these differing opinions. I feel that moderation is the right course. When I see a Red-winged Blackbird or a Northern Cardinal, for two favorite examples, a voice in my head says, “Eat birdie, eat.” No doubt this is an unconscious echo of a paternal instinct that my mother instilled in a juvenile me when she would say, “Eat Bobaluh, eat.” It is the sociable, noisy, bold species that bring out this behavior in me. I do not attempt to feed shy or unapproachable birds that hide in the brush or perch in the treetops. They are not interested in what edibles I might offer them so I leave them to their own culinary devices.
I am not alone as a bird feeding bird-watcher. Other bird-watchers are obvious about it and, trust me I know what I am talking about, some are closet bird feeders. They do not want it to become public knowledge that they indulge in the practice for fear they will be criticized. In Red-Tails in Love, however, Marie Winn points out that most of the Central Park bird-watchers she knows, whom she calls the “Regulars,” cannot resist feeding wild birds.
Sarah unscrewed a small black plastic film canister, removed a peanut fragment, and held it out on her hand. One of the titmice promptly landed and snatched the peanut away. She provided another peanut tidbit for me to do the same. I’m embarrassed to find in my notes that a bird’s feet on the palm of the hand feel like “fairy wings.” In years to come I was to see this little drama many times for most of the Regulars hand-feed the resident birds on occasion. Chickadees, blue jays, and cardinals are others that yammer to be fed when the Regulars walk by, though they only come close: titmice and chickadees alone actually come to the outstretched hand, with a downy woodpecker taking the plunge once in a blue moon.6
Since she makes no mention of Red-winged Blackbird feet planted on her hand I conclude that Marie was not aware of George when she wrote this passage.
I have mentioned that there are about twenty-four resident bird species in the park but precisely what are they? According to the Central Park Conservancy list, these are the birds living in Central Park all year long: Great Blue Heron, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Ring-necked Pheasant, Eastern Screech-owl, Northern Mockingbird, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Tufted Titmouse, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, and House Sparrow. I have succeeded in becoming familiar to varying degrees with all except the American Kestrel and Peregrine Falcon. Frustratingly those two species continue to elude me and consequently are absent from my journal. The rest of this group of species that I refer to as the “usual suspects” will make appearances throughout my story.
The winter after first meeting George was particularly severe and it put tremendous stress on both the usual suspects and visiting migrant birds. It was so cold for such an extended period that almost all the bodies of water in the park were completely frozen. There was one spot on Central Park Lake (hereafter called the Lake) that remained accessible. According to one widely disseminated though unsubstantiated theory, the constant flow of water into the Lake from Tanner’s Spring as it is popularly known, supposedly the only natural stream in the park, kept a portion of it from freezing. Here hundreds of waterbirds were able to find food and liquid water, as opposed to frozen water, to drink. Joining the ample Mallard population were some Black Ducks, two dozen Northern Shovelers, one dozen Wood Ducks, some Buffleheads, precisely two American Coots, numerous Ring-billed Gulls, one Great Blue Heron, one escaped domestic Long Island Duck and one domestic Muskovy Duck.
I cannot tell if I stood by a female or a male Great Blue Heron because the sexes look so much alike. I might add that these birds never really look blue to me in or out of a picture or water. Personally, I would have named the species the Great Bluish-Gray Heron, but that is a subjective opinion. What is indisputably objective is how this bird could remain nearly motionless for hours in the nearly frozen water exploiting people’s largesse to its own personal advantage. This opportunistic heron would deliberately stand close to those who came to toss bread to the assorted hungry birds on the water. The Great Blue Heron had learned that the bread not only attracted birds but it also attracted fish. When a fish nibbled on a piece of bread within its reach the heron lunged at it. On one particularly freezing day the Great Blue Heron stood so close that I could see ice crystals clinging to its feathers. From that vantage point I watched the Blue Heron catch more than one fish. You might appreciate this scene a bit more knowing that the Great Blue Heron is not a little bird. It is between forty-six and fifty-two inches long from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail with a wingspan from seventy-seven to eighty-two inches.7 Its stature, I presume, is why these herons are called “Great” and I have no quarrel with that description.
It was here on this same wintry Lake that I met a Mallard that aroused my latent paternal instincts in a big way. Sadly, this bird had a severe diagonal break across his beak. His beak was so mutilated that his pink tongue was visible even when the beak was closed. I felt sorry for him because of his injury and because the other Mallards constantly pecked him and he could not retaliate in kind. One day I brought some seeds especially for him. After I threw a few to him where he floated on the Lake, he paddled straight toward me, climbed out of the water slipping and sliding on the ice until he stood at my feet. His neck was stretched as far as it could be and his eyes stared into mine. I lowered my hand with the food and the Mallard unhesitatingly pressed his beak into it. He ate the seeds so furiously and with such abandon that half of them flew into the air. Five of the other Mallards and the escaped domestic Long Island Duck that had been watching from a distance came out of the water to snatch the spilled food lying on the icy ground. I was so amused by the boldness and frenzied eating habits of the beak-challenged Mallard that I decided to name him Daffy after the wildly exaggerated cartoon character. I returned nearly every day to feed this Daffy during the rest of the winter. Some of the other ducks continued to cash in on Daffy’s good fortune as they shoved and pushed each other out of the way to get the food he dropped. It made me feel good to help Daffy and it looked to me that he felt pretty good about it too. Some birders said that I should not have fed him; that I should let nature take its course; that I should never intervene in the outcome of the survival of the fittest. I just could not bring myself to accept that.
In the heavily wooded thirty-eight acres known as the Ramble I found another spot where birds found some relief during that harsh winter. Zoe and a number of dedicated bird-watchers maintain a dozen bird feeders in a particular spot called Evodia Field, in the Ramble during the winter. Several different species of birds coexist here, at times begrudgingly, to get their share of the free breakfast, lunch and dinner. The first time I came to watch the birds at these feeders I thought I saw undulating waves on the ground. With the aid of binocular magnification I found I was actually watching fifty foraging White-throated Sparrows turning over fallen leaves to find bugs, seeds and who knows what else to eat. House Sparrows, House Finches, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, one White-breasted Nuthatch, Mourning Doves, Dark-eyed Juncos and a few contrarian Red-winged Blackbirds that had not migrated like the majority of their kind were feasting on the seeds above them. Noshing mainly on suet were two Red-bellied Woodpeckers and three Downy Woodpeckers. For any winter bird-watcher this would be a satisfying scene but for a beginner like myself it was absolutely fabulous.
When spring approached, my observations increased in length and frequency in direct proportion to the moderating weather. In April, I made my first attempt to study the annual spring migration. I became familiar with colorful birds I never imagined visited these latitudes. I used to think that colorful birds were only seen on television programs about the Amazon, the South Pacific or Equatorial Africa. I discovered that I could find some amazing beauties if I looked for them in the right places at the right time of year. I learned firsthand that some birds like the Northern Waterthrush or Ovenbird remain long enough in the park to rest, find water and food and then move on farther north in the spring migration. Others like George’s Red-winged Blackbird cousins or the Baltimore Orioles stay the season to raise a family. In the fall migration these visitors move south while birds like the White-throated Sparrows or Dark-eyed Juncos come to the park to enjoy a milder winter than they could expect to find in their breeding grounds. As peculiar as it may sound some birds find it easier to feed in Central Park during the winter than in territories more northern. “What kinds of food do they find here?” I hear you ask. Seeds, nuts, dried fruit and insect larvae are examples.
When George left the pond after our first season together I decided that I would record my visits with him from the moment he returned during the spring migration until his departure in the following fall migration. At the time of my decision I could not be absolutely sure George would return, but based on my assessment of his resourcefulness, determination and the habits of his species I had faith that he would be back. If any Red-winged Blackbird would survive the stress of winter or a northward migration of hundreds of miles surely it would be one of the pluckiest and sharpest, right? When and if George did come back I could have no idea where his story would lead me but I was confident that by following George a compelling tale would unquestionably unfold. All I had to do, I assumed, was watch, listen and then write it all down. The Club George leader would do the rest.
Copyright © 2006 by Bob Levy