Across the globe, birds face many perils that threaten their survival. It’s not surprising that human behaviors cause many of the dangers that menace our avian friends. And New York City is a microcosm of the global threat to avian populations.
We recently spoke with Denise Kelly, founder and president of the Avian Welfare Coalition, about some of the most serious hazards facing the myriad species of birds who dwell in New York City or pass through our airways on their annual migratory journeys. While not an all-inclusive list, Denise identified four particularly hazardous conditions that urban birds must navigate in the big city, and solutions that New Yorkers can take to mitigate the risks.
Bright Lights, Big City
Millions of birds are injured or killed each year as a result of collisions with tall buildings and glass structures during peak bird migration periods. Many species of birds rely on constellations to help them navigate their flight paths. Excessive outdoor lighting, especially in and around urban centers, can cause birds to become disoriented and collide with buildings and other glass structures in their path. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 500 million to a billion birds perish each year in the U.S. as a result of these collisions.
In December 2021, the New York City Council followed the lead of numerous communities across the country by passing Intros 271 and 274 – critical “Lights Out” legislation aimed at reducing light pollution and the threats created by non-essential lighting from buildings owned or leased by the City. The Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, The Avian Welfare Coalition, NYC Audubon Society, Wild Bird Fund, and a host of other members of the Lights Out Coalition supported this important legislation.
Lights Out Coalition founder and chair, Kathy Nizzari, says she started the Coalition to support efforts to get the legislation passed. “Before I knew it, 26 organizations joined us – from avian societies to animal welfare organizations to environmental groups and scientific researchers. In a true showing of the power of community collaboration, we were able to get these crucial bills passed unanimously. As a result, the lives of hundreds of thousands of birds will be saved as they navigate our night skies each year, just by the simple act of turning off unnecessary lighting in City buildings.
“This year we plan to continue this campaign with legislation addressing private buildings,” Kathy continues. “If you could save a life by switching off a light you don’t need, wouldn’t you do it?”
In addition to turning off unnecessary indoor and outdoor lights and closing window shades, there are additional ways New Yorkers can do their part to help prevent bird collisions. Check out some suggestions from the Wild Bird Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Clean Up Our Act (and Our City) for Birds
No one wants to see trash and debris littering our streets and parks. But for urban birds and other wildlife, these nuisances can be deadly. Materials that are especially harmful include plastic soda can holders (those connected plastic rings known as yokes used to hold together multi-packs of canned drinks), used face masks, wire and fishing lines (often found discarded around park lakes and waterways and which can entangle birds), and discarded fish hooks that can be ingested and prove deadly to birds and other urban wildlife.
A recent example of the dangers of carelessly tossed trash involved a duck in a Central Park lake spotted with a plastic yoke around her neck. Over the course of several days, rescuers and NYC Park Rangers braved bitter cold temperatures and frozen rocks in attempts to capture the duck to remove the plastic appendage. But the wily duck repeatedly eluded their attempts, and is still at large and at risk of injury or death should the yoke cause her to become trapped. Attempts to rescue the duck are ongoing.
While there’s no quick fix for reducing urban debris, New Yorkers and visitors to our city can reduce the risks to birds and wildlife (and create a more livable environment for everyone) by being vigilant in discarding their trash. For example, a simple way to ensure a plastic yoke doesn’t become a death trap for a wild creature is to cut the plastic rings before discarding it, preferable in an appropriate trash receptacle.
“The problem of discarded trash that can be hazardous to birds and other animals is rampant, but is also underreported,” says Denise. “Just take a good look in the wooded areas of the city’s parks and surrounding waterways to see how much more needs to be done to clear the debris for the benefit of animals and humans. Ultimately, it’s up to New Yorkers and visitors to dispose of their trash responsibly.”
To combat the crisis of urban debris in New York City, NYC government, community groups, and civic organizations can sponsor cleanup projects, such as designated “Spring Cleanup Days” in city parks and other target areas, to collect and dispose of trash – especially in areas where birds and other wildlife frequent. To learn about ways you can get involved, visit the NYC Parks website or the NYC Department of Sanitation website.
Slow Down for Birds
The sight of an injured or dead pigeon in a gutter, bike lane, or on the street is distressing. But it’s not at all uncommon in New York City. Fast moving vehicles are responsible for countless injuries to birds, not to mention being a hazard to people. To avoid these deadly encounters, drivers, cyclists, motor bikers, and skateboarders need to obey, (and face fines for violating) traffic laws, and reduce their speed when they see a bird in their path. In less densely populated areas of the city and beyond, they need to be mindful of wildlife crossings.
If you discover an injured bird, don’t just walk away. Read about what you can do to help on the Wild Bird Fund website.
Report Birds Kept Illegally
Earlier this month, NYCLASS and Long Island Orchestrating for Nature rescued 17 sick and malnourished ducks and a goose from an illegal slaughter operation in Forest Hills, Queens. These mistreated birds were being kept in deadly cruel conditions outside a home, in subfreezing temperatures, with no shelter, food, or water. Fortunately, now they are receiving veterinary care, and will be placed in sanctuaries and loving homes where they will receive lifelong care.
While this heroic rescue garnered significant media attention, incidents of birds illegally kept and bred in squalid backyard operations are not as uncommon as you might think. It’s only because a neighbor reported this particular situation to animal groups that these ducks were rescued.
All too often, captors of illegally held birds tire of having them and release them to the wild. Unfortunately, ducks and most other avian species that have lived in captivity don’t have the skills to survive in the wild. They never learned to forage for food or escape predators and other dangers, and they usually suffer horrific deaths.
In New York City, it is against the law to keep certain bird species. These include roosters, ducks, geese, turkeys, eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, vultures, emus, ostriches, and other large or predatory birds.
Resources to Learn More About Protecting Birds and Wildlife