Glenn Phillips

In the process of pro­tect­ing birds, you pro­tect plants and insects and fish, and you pro­tect the whole sys­tem, and in the end, even peo­ple.

Glenn Phillips is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the New York City Audubon. It is not, as many wrong­ly assume, a “soci­ety” – though it is affil­i­at­ed with the Nation­al Audubon Soci­ety. The NYC Audubon is just an “Audubon” – the name car­ried by John James Audubon, the Haitian-born, French-Amer­i­can ornithol­o­gist who paint­ed birds into the world’s sub­con­scious and lived his last years in Wash­ing­ton Heights. Today, Audubon means birds and the NYC Audubon means birds in the 5 bor­oughs. Of course, that’s only part of the sto­ry.

So, are you strictly birds?

We are a bird con­ser­va­tion orga­ni­za­tion. Birds is what the Audubon name brand implies. That said, my own back­ground is in plant ecol­o­gy, so I’m inter­est­ed in using birds to pro­tect plants. Native plants, par­tic­u­lar­ly the rare ones, can be unin­ter­est­ing to the gen­er­al pub­lic. They’re kind of eso­ter­ic. Birds are beau­ti­ful and active and they fly. They cap­ture people’s imag­i­na­tions. Birds are a great stand-in to pro­tect whole ecosys­tems. In the process of pro­tect­ing birds, you pro­tect plants and insects and fish, and you pro­tect the whole sys­tem, and in the end, even peo­ple.

Do you have a favorite New York City bird?

There are so many real­ly cool birds in New York City, but one of my favorites, it’s not the most beau­ti­ful bird in New York City, is the cat­bird. They nest in all five bor­oughs and in almost every major park. They are not shy birds. You can real­ly watch them do their thing. I think I feel some kin­ship with them because they make real­ly messy nests. That’s one of the ways you can iden­ti­fy them, by how slop­py they are. They are very sophis­ti­cat­ed urban birds, I think.

OK, but what’s the weirdest bird you’ve seen around here?

The most inter­est­ing bird I’ve seen in New York City is the Scott’s Ori­ole, which is a south­west­ern bird, a bright orange and black bird. There was one in Union Square a few win­ters ago. Weird bird in a weird place. But it’s New York City.

Do you feel sympathy for pigeons?

I do. Pigeons have all sorts of neat behav­iors. They’re abun­dant in the city, and I feel like they’re a crit­i­cal piece of the food chain in New York City. I think that’s one of the real­ly impor­tant things about pigeons — they’re food for oth­er birds.

Red-Tailed Hawk (Pale Male)Does anybody eat them?

Lots of birds do — the wild ones.

No, no. But what about people. Are people, you know, hungry people on the street, catching pigeons and eating them?

I’ve nev­er heard of any­one catch­ing pigeons as a food source. I have heard of peo­ple catch­ing pigeons to sell to hunters. There are places where peo­ple will release pigeons to hunt for sport. It seems sad to me. It doesn’t seem quite right to be cap­tur­ing pigeons in New York City just to ship them some­where else so they can get shot. I cer­tain­ly don’t approve, and I’m not sure it’s legal.

New York City is par­tic­u­lar­ly well-sit­ed on the Atlantic Fly­way. It’s real­ly a great des­ti­na­tion for bird­watch­ing.
There’s a rumor that all New York City sparrows can be traced back to a group of sparrows that were brought over in the 1800s by a single crazy Shakespeare fanatic. Are you familiar with this story?

That sto­ry is actu­al­ly star­lings, not spar­rows. Yes, Schi­ef­fe­lin intro­duced star­lings and he was try­ing to intro­duce all of the birds of Shake­speare to New York City. None of the oth­er species sur­vived, most­ly because a lot of them are migra­to­ry species. You take a migra­to­ry bird out of its migra­to­ry path­way and it doesn’t know what to do with itself. Star­lings are not migra­to­ry birds, and although they were slow to get start­ed, they even­tu­al­ly became ubiq­ui­tous. They can be quite prob­lem­at­ic, so I’m not proud that New York City is one of the first places where star­lings were intro­duced in North Amer­i­ca. It’s pos­si­ble that every star­ling in North Amer­i­ca descend­ed from Schieffelin’s star­lings.

Great Egret in Central ParkBut what about sparrows, the other bird you just can’t miss in NYC?

House spar­rows were intro­duced from Europe to a few parks in Man­hat­tan and Brook­lyn. There were thou­sands of hors­es pulling things down our streets back then, which meant there was a lot of horse manure, which meant there were a lot of flies. House spar­rows were the solu­tion – they are com­fort­able liv­ing in urban set­tings, and peo­ple thought they’d eat a lot of flies. In fact, house spar­rows are pri­mar­i­ly seed eaters. Now they’re a major agri­cul­tur­al pest.

OK, but what about falcons and hawks. I’ve read that a number of hawks have been found dead on the NYC streets.

Four have died recent­ly.

A lot of people say rodenticides killed them. Do you think rodenticides are to blame?

In all like­li­hood, yes. Roden­ti­cides are by far the biggest cul­prit in the death of adult birds in New York City. A few years ago, a study was con­duct­ed that found vehi­cle col­li­sions to be the num­ber one cause of death for young birds, espe­cial­ly when they are learn­ing how to fly. But for adult birds, roden­ti­cides are a big prob­lem. The biggest cul­prit is a killer chem­i­cal brod­i­fa­coum, the active ingre­di­ent in d-Con. It’s incred­i­bly tox­ic stuff and it caus­es a huge num­ber of acci­den­tal poi­son­ings, pri­mar­i­ly in oth­er wildlife, but also in peo­ple and pets. There are oth­er roden­ti­cides out there that are equal­ly as effec­tive for rats, but less dead­ly for birds.

So what should the city do?

I think brod­i­fa­coum should be banned out­right every­where. I cer­tain­ly think there’s no rea­son why any­one should be using it in New York City. In fact, the EPA has tried to ban over-the-coun­ter sales and the parks depart­ment has agreed not to use it. Even the city’s fore­most expert on rodent con­trol agrees that it’s not nec­es­sary to use brod­i­fa­coum in New York City. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the out­rage hasn’t stopped the peo­ple who live across the street from putting it out in front of their homes. Also, con­ces­sions and oth­er third par­ties in park space con­tin­ue to use it.

canada-warbler-city-atlas-rr3What about cats? Aren’t cats the best organic form of pest control?

No, cats kill small ani­mals. Cats kill birds. One study found that a sin­gle well-fed house­cat – it wasn’t fer­al, it had a home – killed over a thou­sand birds and small mam­mals in a sin­gle year. It didn’t need to eat them, it didn’t eat them for food. It killed them because that’s what cats do. Cats live health­ier, longer lives and they do less dam­age to the envi­ron­ment when they’re kept indoors. They are not wild ani­mals, they are an exotic, inva­sive species, and they belong indoors.

Ask­ing a per­son to get excit­ed about a teeny tiny bird that’s at the top of a tree that you can bare­ly see is hard work to do. Start with the big things: herons and egrets
Back to birding. Where can I find some birds in NYC and when should I go looking for them?

New York City is par­tic­u­lar­ly well-sit­ed on the Atlantic Fly­way. It’s real­ly a great des­ti­na­tion for bird­watch­ing. Some of my favorite places to go: Prospect Park in Brook­lyn, Cen­tral Park in Man­hat­tan, Jamaica Bay – Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a spec­tac­u­lar place for bird­ing – Cort­land Park in the Bronx, the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den in the Bronx, Alley Pond Park in Queens, and Clove Lakes Park in Staten Island. I’d also say Con­fer­ence House Park in Staten Island. I’ve given you a huge list already. There are dozens of spec­tac­u­lar bird­ing sites in the city. Check out our web­site for a list.

As for when you should do it: Now. There is almost not a bad time to go bird watch­ing in New York City, but some times are more spec­tac­u­lar than oth­ers. Ear­ly May might be the best. Start­ing at the begin­ning of May and run­ning until about the third week of May, the bulk of migra­to­ry birds pass through New York City. The diver­si­ty in the spring is high­est. Usu­al­ly, around May 12 is peak diver­si­ty in New York City. Of course, the same thing hap­pens in the fall migra­tion: the birds that came through on their way north in the spring – and then some, because they’ve got all the young com­ing with them — return on their way south. There are a lot more birds going south than going north. The draw­back in the fall is that they take their time, so they come through in waves, where­as you get this huge pulse of birds mov­ing through in the spring.

As for when you should do it: Now. There is almost not a bad time to go bird watch­ing in New York City, but some times are more spec­tac­u­lar than oth­ers. Ear­ly May might be the best.
It’s been a pretty early spring. Is the peak going to arrive earlier this year?

Well, it’s been com­ing a few days ear­lier, but not sig­nif­i­cant­ly ear­lier, because the birds aren’t mak­ing their deci­sions to migrate based on the tem­per­a­tures here. The sig­nals they respond to occur where they are, in the near trop­ics – the Domini­can Repub­lic, Hon­duras, Brazil — down there, not here.

Well your organization clearly loves birds, and so do I. But some people just don’t get it. What can we do for these people to show them the, ahem, flight?

First, start with easy stuff. Ask­ing a per­son to get excit­ed about a teeny tiny bird that’s at the top of a tree that you can bare­ly see is hard work to do. It may not be worth it. But take your friend out to a wildlife refuge in the next few weeks. Huge num­bers of snow geese are gath­er­ing on their way north; big, easy-to-see birds. Start with the big things: go out on one of our sun­set eco-cruis­es in sum­mer­time and see the herons and egrets com­ing back to their roost­ing sites. The­se are big birds. Big birds are a good place to start.

When you learn how to pay atten­tion to details, look­ing at birds, you can pay atten­tion to details look­ing at any­thing.
I don’t know. I’ve seen how New Yorkers react to Canada geese.

Canada geese elic­it a wide range of respons­es from peo­ple, because they’re a lit­tle over­abun­dant. If you’re some­what new to bird­watch­ing and you’re not well-trained to help peo­ple find birds and know what they’re look­ing for, it can be frus­trat­ing. Get your friends out to Jamaica Bay. Get them out to Bryant Park with a pro­fes­sion­al. We do walks there with the Bryant Park Cor­po­ra­tion. Train your­self to use binoc­u­lars, to know how to look at birds. Learn how to pay atten­tion to details you might not ordi­nar­i­ly see.

magnolia_warblerthumbWhen you learn how to pay atten­tion to details, look­ing at birds, you can pay atten­tion to details look­ing at any­thing. I think that too often peo­ple don’t pay atten­tion to the details. They gloss over things, they make gen­er­al­iza­tions and they fail to under­stand what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing. We make crit­i­cal mis­takes man­ag­ing our­selves and our world when we do that. To me, the answer to the prob­lems of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion is bird­watch­ing.

About Glenn Phillips:

Glenn began work­ing in the envi­ron­men­tal field at the ten­der age of eight, when he launched a trav­el­ing envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion pro­gram by bring­ing his col­lec­tion of rep­tiles and amphib­ians to local kinder­garten class­es for hands-on pre­sen­ta­tions. At about the same time, he began watch­ing and learn­ing about birds, inspired by the bur­row­ing owls, west­ern mead­owlarks, and log­ger­head shrikes that inhab­it­ed the fields between his home and his school in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Before join­ing NYC Audubon, Glenn helped estab­lish the Prospect Park Audubon Cen­ter, which was rec­og­nized as the pre­mier site in Brook­lyn for envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion from its open­ing in 2002. Glenn was also respon­si­ble for coor­di­nat­ing activ­i­ties with the Lef­ferts His­toric House and the Brook­lyn Acad­e­my of Sci­ence and the Envi­ron­ment, a pub­lic high school oper­at­ed in part­ner­ship with the Brook­lyn Botan­ic Gar­den and the NYC Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion; he has also worked at the New York Botan­i­cal Gar­den (in the Bronx).

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Pho­tos of Canada War­bler, Red Tailed Hawk, and Great Egret by David Speis­er (lili​birds​.com)

Pho­to of Glenn Phillips by Mau­reen Dren­nan

NYC Audubon Hawk-Cam

NYC Audubon on “Bird­ing in New York City” — “Few peo­ple asso­ciate New York City with wildlife or bird­watch­ing, but the truth is that in the City’s parks and green spaces, and along por­tions of the 578-mile water­front, you’ll find some of the best places in the world to watch birds.”