Making Rounds With New York’s Bird EMTs

Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

Just after 6 a.m. on a recent Monday, Calista McRae is in downtown Manhattan, taking a declining loop in the morning mist from 4 World Trade Center at 1 World Trade Center to Brookfield Place and back. McRae is 34, with a springy, quick stride, and she will repeat this trip until 9 a.m. and return almost every day during the bird migration seasons in the spring and fall. She carries two shopping bags, the larger of which is a FreshDirect tote printed with images of fruit and the phrase “This summer, life is peach”. While walking, we hear a little rustling coming from the big bag. “It’s a good sound,” she said.

McRae finds a dead yellow-throated warbler at Brookfield Place.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

McRae is one of more than 30 Audubon volunteers in New York City who search for injured and dead birds in city malls. They are part of the group’s Safe Flight project, identifying injuries and deaths and documenting particularly dangerous places. In doing so, McRae and others rescue the birds that have collided with the reflective glass surfaces of tall buildings – tending to the injured, picking up the dead. A few minutes earlier, she had seen a black and white warbler on the ground, stunned but alive, and it was the source of the noise in her tote. She gently put it in her own little brown paper bag – smaller than a lunch bag – then closed it with a miniature black binder clip. “The bags are breathable,” she explained. The small paper bags are then placed in a larger paper bag and stored in the FreshDirect tote to minimize shock and stress. Rustling means a bird is weird by the sack, but weird means alive, McRae said.

On the south side of 4 World Trade, she sees a beige and brown bird motionless with its paws folded on the sidewalk. It’s a Oven Bird, and it’s dead. “I think I missed that,” said McRae, who had passed this spot earlier in the morning. She picks it up and puts it in her other tote, a plastic shopping bag, separate from the survivors.

New York City sits on the Atlantic Flyway, the broad corridor where birds travel from Central or South America to breeding grounds as far north as the Arctic Circle. Many migratory species, including the majority of songbirds, travel at night, and the bright lights and glass buildings attract and then disorient them with reflections of greenery or sky. When they hit a window at full speed, they strike themselves unconscious and fall. New York City Audubon estimates that 90,000 to 230,000 migratory birds die each year in New York as a result of collisions with buildings.

Perhaps an hour after starting his walk, McRae spots a brown tuffet on the sidewalk of West Street, near Liberty Street. Another oven bird. But this one is alive, sitting very still. McRae walks over and gently draws a white net around the bird. She then puts her black baseball cap on top of the net, slowly walks under it, and skillfully places the bird in a paper bag. “I don’t like to use the net,” she says. But fourbirds – “they’re tough.” She says unlike other birds, they try to fly away despite injuries, which makes them particularly vulnerable to the risk of crashing into a window again.

Male Indigo Sparrow, previously found by Calista, recovering at the Wild Bird Fund; Parkins holds a common yellow-throated warbler that did not survive. Photos: DeSean McClinton-Holland.

Male Indigo Sparrow, previously found by Calista, recovering at the Wild Bird Fund; Parkins is holding a common yellow-throated warbler that didn’t …
A male indigo sparrow, previously found by Calista, salvaged from the Wild Bird Fund; Parkins holds a common yellow-throated warbler that did not survive. Photos: DeSean McClinton-Holland.

The volunteers working on the Safe Flight Project don’t just collect stunned birds individually – they aim to quantify the extent of this problem. They record deaths and injuries in a New York City Audubon database called dBird. The data collected is helping environmentalists estimate the total number of collision fatalities in New York City and identify problematic hot spots. In doing so, they can approach buildings and policy makers on the implementation of mitigation techniques.

McRae’s destination later this morning is the Wild Bird Fund, where she and other Avian-Spirit Good Samaritans bring the wounded. A bird like this warbler “essentially suffers from a double concussion” – hitting the glass and then landing hard on the ground below, says Rita McMahon, director and co-founder of the Wild Bird Fund. On cold days, which are common during fall and spring migration, unconscious birds can fall into hypothermia within moments.

McRae brings in the patients.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

When an EMT of birds like McRae brings a patient to the Wild Bird Fund emergency room, which is on the Upper West Side, the triage process involves a lot of observation and waiting. The bird is resting – “so many times, if you leave them alone, they’ll be fine,” McMahon said – and given good food (like mealworms) and kept for at least 24 hours. . The birds are examined by a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who checks their weight, species and injuries. Treatment may include drops for an eye injury or a low-dose anti-inflammatory drug for head trauma. Staff and volunteers also ensure that data is recorded in dBird. For critical cases, there is an incubator in the intensive care unit. For the less severe, a mini soft-sided pet carrier will usually do the trick. Birds are never caged: “They don’t know how to get out and they will damage their feathers,” McMahon said. The attendants do not let the birds fly immediately upon arrival as they could strike hard surfaces inside the clinic. Once the birds are feeling their best, there are various places at the Wild Bird Fund where they can spend time together, with “perches everywhere” and solar lights for light and warmth. “The company always makes the birds feel more secure – they are part of a flock, even if they are not the same species.

In the spring, the recovering birds are released back to Central Park, as they will not encounter a glove of glass-covered buildings during the remainder of their journey north. In the fall, they’re whisked out of town or to the outskirts of New York – places like Great Swamp in New Jersey or Breezy Point in Queens – so their path south doesn’t take them through the Lower Manhattan window maze. During the fall and spring migration, the Wild Bird Fund may receive 30 to 50 birds per day, but McMahon has had days with over 100 patients. The survival rate is “50 percent at most”. Birds found to be unable to survive in the wild must be euthanized under state law.

Pet carriers and boxes, instead of cages, for retrieving birds; Apollo the pigeon keeps an eye on things. Photos: DeSean McClinton-Holland.

Pet carriers and boxes, instead of cages, for retrieving birds; Apollo the Pigeon keeps an eye on things. Photos: DeSean McClinton-Holland.

“It’s a half full, half empty glass,” McMahon said. She called it a “cruel twist” that New Yorkers enjoy so much is deadly for so many birds, especially the young “newbies” making their first flight through town in the fall. “It’s heartbreaking to hold this natural gem of a creature and know it’s gone forever,” McMahon said.

A city of glass towers can’t do much about it, but Kaitlyn Parkins, senior conservation biologist at New York City Audubon, says there are a variety of techniques that help birds recognize glass as a solid barrier. “You have to put a visual indicator on it,” Parkins said. Sometimes school children decorate the exterior glass with tempera murals, for example. More complicated and expensive approaches might include gluing a patterned film against the glass.

Earlier this year, a law came into force requiring bird-friendly glass to be used within 75 feet, where most collisions occur. But the law doesn’t require existing buildings to renovate their glass unless they replace “all exterior glazing,” a New York City building department. note exposes. “We stopped the bleeding, basically, but we still have all these buildings in New York City. [that] are problems for the birds, ”Parkins said. (A spokesperson for New York City Council member Robert E. Cornegy Jr., chair of the housing and buildings committee, did not answer questions about whether the group supported policies that would require mitigation devices in existing construction.)

Hummingbird and mallard, recovering at the Wild Bird Fund. Photos: DeSean McClinton-Holland.

Hummingbird and mallard, recovering at the Wild Bird Fund. Photos: DeSean McClinton-Holland.

Brookfield Properties commented when asked about bird strikes at Brookfield Place, saying, “We know that waterfront buildings are particularly vulnerable, especially during migration seasons. We adjust light levels in the conservatory and public spaces (and we encourage tenants to do the same) during migration seasons to minimize strikes. This is something we take seriously and will continue to examine. ” (Full disclosure: new York The magazine’s editorial offices are located at Brookfield Place.) Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for the Durst Organization, which operates, manages and owns a minority stake in 1 World Trade, said that “the base of the building is made up of a metal screen with glass fins that has a minimum reflectivity and attenuates collisions with birds. . Barowitz also said, “This is a very important issue for us, and it’s something we spend a lot of time on, working to minimize the number of bird strikes against our buildings.” Management of the other World Trade Center buildings did not respond to a request for comment.

While McRae’s efforts are inherently Sisyphus – the way things are built now, there will always be more dead birds, and a lot of them – she isn’t cynical about the work she does. . She works on a small scale, lowering her voice for the comfort of rescuers, for example, but she also sees the big picture. “Injured birds are really just a drop in the bucket,” McRae noted, saying the data the group collects could push building owners and the city to take greater mitigation action. Otherwise, “it’s just going to continue year after year after year.”

A post-recovery version in Central Park.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

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