The American Robin

An Urban Success Story

by Michael Fritz-Graham

“I’ll take Manhattan!”… and they have, by storm and popular demand. Possibly the most famous and loved bird in the USA, the American Robin Turdus migratorius was once only a common transient and irregular winter visitor in inner urban Manhattan, only regularly nesting in the suburbs and in the largest city parks. New Yorkers would hear their beautiful caroling in the middle of the night all over Manhattan echoing in the moonlight in March and April, but then they would all but disappear from late May until early autumn. But not anymore!

The Robin phenomenon started around 2003 or 2004, and it seems that any sheltered ledge or light fixture in the smallest possible garden, terrace, or rooftop is open and acceptable real estate for this red-breasted thrush. Robins can now be seen in almost any urban area of Manhattan. This was not the case five years before. In a time when so many of our native urban birds like the Common Nighthawk and Chimney Swift are disappearing, Robins are not only stable but thriving in a city near you.

Robins are approximately ten inches long, have a grayish upper body, darker, almost black head, white eye-ring, throat and belly and of course, their trademark brick-red breast. They can be found in every state of the continental U.S., every province of Canada, and even down into Mexico at certain times of the year. In the US, they are the most well known member of the thrush family and have become extremely adaptable, living in almost any available habitat. They are the state birds of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin and are featured on the two-dollar Canadian bill.

Their famous nests of mud and straw can be found in an astonishing list of places near human habitation. The list includes sheltered ledges, lamp-posts, busted chimneys, trellises, arbors and even statues, mailboxes and hanging flower pots. They are second only to wrens for their outrageous choice of nest sites. Their beautiful nests are so sturdy that other animals often utilize them after they are abandoned. Everything from Mourning Doves and Common Nighthawks to insects and even dormice have used the Robin’s former homes for nesting and roosting.

“A song, a story, and a legend”… the Robin has been celebrated in all forms of music and art: e.g. “The Ballad of Cock-Robin,” “Rockin’ Robin,” and, “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along”. They even have a color named after them—Robin’s egg blue. Everyone knows that Robins are the original harbinger of spring and are often a child’s first introduction to the world of birds and nature. In other words, they are literally the singing, living, lawn-ornaments of America.

They are genuine kings of the turf and must be appreciated and protected. It’s truly exciting for New Yorkers to see this native bird among the Starlings and House Sparrows. I have watched even the most jaded Manhattanites stop to admire and marvel in disbelief that Robins are living in this concrete jungle. They are regal; dashing birds that give the city much needed color and beautiful music. They more than hold their own. They are strong and loving parents, displaying real American spirit in the cement forests of the United States.

You can attract Robins to nest in your area by building a nest shelf (the instructions can be easily found online). Remember to put the shelf in a quiet sheltered area because it is not an ornament to attract unwanted attention from predators. Don’t be surprised if a House Finch or Mourning Dove decides to take over your shelf. If you live near water, you may also end up with a Barn Swallow or a phoebe.

Planting native fruiting and evergreen trees and shrubs like Eastern Red Cedar, Bayberry, Inkberry, Hawthorn and Mountain Ash will insure the survival of our true wild heritage and also provide nesting sites, food and shelter for many species of birds, including Robins.

For my European friends, your Blackbird Turdus merula is probably the closest relative you have to our Robin. Juvenile Robins look amazingly similar to your Fieldfare Turdus pilaris with their spotted breasts and light brick-red chests. For my friends in Asia, your Brown-headed Thrush Turdus chrysolaus and Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus look almost identical to our Robin.

About the author

As a lifelong conservationist, I have many special memories of my Adirondack homeland, but not all my fondest memories take place in the wild. One of my most magical experiences took place right in New York City. In May of 1999, I was spending an evening renting movies with friends. After everyone went to sleep, I remained awake in my window-side bed on the top floor of an old five-story building. It was an unusually cool, clear night for the city. I could make out Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, and the North Star above. The scent of bourbon roses and apple blossoms wafted up with the cool breeze from the churchyard below. I drifted off briefly and awoke to the echoing sound of a Robin, serenading the night from the rose hedge below. I was caught up in the moment when I suddenly became aware of the reverberating calls of two Common Nighthawks orbiting the sky around me. The night chorus had begun and I was wrapped up in it. The nighthawks sailed, fluttered dove-like all around the silent building like giant moths. I could barely make out their silhouettes in the faint crescent moonlight. It was as if my window bed was a small projection booth into the sky and only I was listening to this nocturnal symphony and watching the scenario unfold while the whole city slept. I was absolutely lost in a trance buried in the secretness of this microcosmic other world from the other side of midnight. It seemed to be a separate entity from the city, as elusive as a will-o-the-wisp coming to life only in the dead of night then disappearing the hours before dawn. I do not even remember falling asleep. All of the audio and visual elements remain in my mind to this day. The Robin, the nighthawks, the apple tree and roses. And the luminous galaxy above it all with the Manhattan skyline glittering in the background like a jeweled bracelet. True magic from a true chapter in the ongoing tale of an urban birder.

Michael Fritz-Graham, New York City

August 2009

Monk (Quaker) Parakeets in New York City

by Michael Fritz-Graham

How The Quakers Landed.

Urban legend has it (now documented) that c.1967 a large, live shipment of monk parakeets left their native South American home in route to the pet shops of lower Manhattan. Shortly after landing at JFK airport the large crates fell and broke releasing the parakeets who took off in all directions.

Since then, small, very local colonies of monks have turned up in various areas of the tri-state region: Pelham Parkway, Bronx. Brooklyn College campus and the Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn, NY which I visited on a cold March day. I had heard and read about these green Martians and wanted to investigate for myself. I was accompanied by my friend, photographer Kazuki.

We were immediately taken in by these intelligent, peaceful and beautiful birds. They built their huge stick dome nests among the tops of the gothic cemetery gate, hanging like ornaments on a Christmas tree. They alternated between observant curiosity and, “as if we weren’t there”, oblivion. Some hid and cavorted within the monstrous weeping beeches and thick stands of hemlock and incense cedar. Other monks played and worked together rearranging and rebuilding the nest structures. And (lucky for us) some small groups of five or six monks would fly out from the tower, circle and land exposed atop the row of small weeping Chinese mulberry trees for head-bobbing meetings.

Amazingly pigeons, Mourning Doves and even one very cranky, over-territorial Northern Mockingbird sat and roosted among the quakers within inches of the nests in complete harmony with absolutely no aggression from the obviously much stronger quakers.

Human De-Conservationism.

Extinction and the “Starling/House Sparrow Syndrome”.

Around the 1900 mark, four of the worst avian ecological disasters possible occurred in the USA. First, the heartless persecution, slaying and ultimate disgraceful extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the beautiful Carolina Parakeet. The Carolina Parakeet was the only member of the parrot family ever to be native to and breed within the USA. They were abundant and even nested as far north as the Great Lakes and the Catskills in New York State.

At around the same time, some very ignorant people brought and introduced two of the worst, most destructive agricultural and garden pests in the history of the world. The Common Starling and the House Sparrow soon overtook and overpopulated every area from Alaska and Canada south to Argentina and the Falkland Islands. These two non-native birds have been directly responsible for decimating the population of some of the most famous and loved native birds of the USA (which the monks live with in total harmony), including Purple Martin, Eastern Bluebird, Red-headed Woodpecker and many more species. They have basically achieved this through competition for hole and nest cavities and relentless aggression.

So what is my point? How is all this pertinent to the monks in New York City? My point is that the monks have shown none of these negative signs of behavior in the almost fifty years since arriving in the tri-state area. They don’t compete with other birds for nest sites or territory. They seem very happy to live on tree and weed seeds and buds and also eat many harmful insects. Monks are no stranger to many of the United States’s native birds. Long before the colonists arrived such birds as the Common Nighthawk, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Martin, House Wren and many others have been wintering five to six months each year within the native range of the Monks in South America. They have been coexisting and interacting for centuries and obviously the parakeets fit perfectly into the ecosystem here. Most importantly, they maintain very local, contained colonies and show no signs of taking over the U.S. I also believe that the quakers are possibly filling the ecological niche of their extinct distant cousins, the Carolina Parakeet. Both were native to similar temperate regions of the Americas.

Kazuki and I left Greenwood Cemetery with an admiration and respect for these wonderful birds. People can learn so much from their intelligent and gentle behavior towards each other and towards other birds and their loving caring family and social structure. We should welcome these green gems to melting pot of urban America.

Michael Fritz-Graham
New York City
April 2009

Chimney Swifts

Swift… ly disappearing from our urban skies

Michael Fritz-Graham discusses the demise of the Chimney Swift in New York

What Is That?

Twittering, chattering little acrobatic cinders with wings have been swooping in and out of your chimney stack. They’re not bats. They’re not swallows. They look like small flying cigars. They’re that skydiving spirit of the brick and cement stacks, the Chimney Swift. What the Common Nighthawk was to the city evening sky, the Chimney Swift is to the sunlit day sky. At least for now. Following in the sad path of the nighthawk, Chimney Swifts have disappeared by 45% from all of their urban range in eastern North America. BBC (Breeding Bird Count) and state radar maps confirm this sad fact.

There’s Something In My Chimney

Chaetura pelagica are small sooty gray swallow-like birds that now nest only in chimney stacks, silos and abandoned buildings. They are five inches long and depend solely on flying insects as their source of food. They build their nest of twigs and saliva inside these structures. Their disappearance is a big mystery. Some cite pesticides and habitat loss. In addition, newly developed automatic furnace switches can asphyxiate and kill them if the furnace turns on during the breeding season (previously, New York City laws stated furnaces only had to be on between mid-October and mid-April, sparing the chimney swifts during their breeding season here.) So PLEASE, PLEASE cover your chimneys with caps or secure screens if you have an automatic furnace switch or if your chimney is made out of metal. These beneficial birds can be trapped and die inside metal or steel chimneys. Otherwise, encourage and enjoy these beautiful, comical little native birds that will reward you by eating thousands of mosquitoes, flies, and other insects. To attract swifts to nest in your area, you can find out how to build a chimney swift tower on many sites online.

The Neo-tropical Migrant Mystery

The Chimney Swift, the Common Nighthawk, the Purple Martin, and Whip-poor-will all share one common, unfortunate bond. They cross the Caribbean en route to their winter home in the Amazon basin in South America. I believe somewhere there lies the answer to the devastating decline of these birds. Pesticides, jungle deforestation and even reports of the horrid hobby of using these birds for target practice on a large scale in many South American countries are all possible causes. We need to be in contact not just with ornithologists and conservationists in these countries, but also with government officials. Only they can truly educate the people as to the importance of protecting, and not destroying, these migrant birds.

Michael Fritz-Graham

March 2009

The Uncommon “Common” Nighthawk

by Michael Fritz-Graham

There is something incredibly sad, even tragic about a summer night in New York City without that magic spirit of the starry sky, the Common Nighthawk Chordeilies minor. They would sail and dive among the lamp posts and moonlit rooftops while their ‘beezle-burb-peent’ calls would echo from above. These calls are now a part of history for over 95% of these mysterious native birds have disappeared from urban areas in New England, the mid-west, the mid-atlantic and now even the south-east.

The Common Nighthawk is not a hawk at all. It is a cousin of another nightjar, the Whip-poor-will, which is also experiencing an unprecedented drastic decline. Nighthawks are brown and gray, cryptic, swallow-like birds who feed on thousands of insects a night and are an extremely beneficial native bird. Many reasons have been cited for their disappearance including crow and gull predation, loss of gravel-roof habitat and pesticides. However, I believe the major problem exists in their winter home and on their migration routes. Between the fall of 1994 and summer of 1995 there was an 80% reduction of these birds from the New York City area.

This was my sixth summer of returning to eight key former nighthawk hotspots. I returned two nights a week from June first to September first, on clear, calm, moonlit nights. Nighthawks had been very common to almost abundant in all these areas until the summer of 1995. The sky was starry but empty. I heard American Robin and Northern Mockingbird singing in all these areas late at night, but still have never heard a single Common Nighthawk since the late spring of 2002.

Northern Mockingbirds are a good meter of what’s living in the area. They can only repeat what they hear. I studied each mockingbird’s repertoire in all eight areas. They were all an exact repetition of the other: an American Robin, a Northern Cardinal, a Blue Jay, a Common Starling, a Northern Flicker and even car alarms. End result: the mockers had never heard a nighthawk. Despite this sad fact I will continue my personal research, returning to all eight areas this coming summer, in hopes that the nighthawk may return.

I hope that by bringing this precipitous decline to the public’s attention, I can reinforce the fact that the environment and conservation of native flora and fauna need to be the number one priority in this country now. The nighthawk is a special bird of American folklore, story and song, sacred to the American Indians and a true urban legend. Action must be taken quickly to save this spirit of America’s night sky.

Michael Fritz-Graham
November 2008