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Birding for Beginners

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New York City kids are more likely to recognize the sound of a city bus than the tune of a bird song. But Noah Burg, who leads the Museum’s seasonal family bird walks for Members, is working to change that, one nascent birder at a time. 


Woodpecker perches on a tree trunk.
A Downy Woodpecker seen on a Museum birding visit to Central Park.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Family bird walks begin indoors with a primer on identifying birds and an opportunity to practice using binoculars to observe 100-year-old taxidermy specimens from the Museum’s Ornithology Collection. Binoculars are provided, as is a field guide for beginning birders. 

You can download a version from the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation below.


Then, just as Steven Spielberg angled his cameras in ET to see the world from a child’s perspective, Burg, who is working toward a Ph.D. degree in biology, leads the group through habitats in which birds are most accessible to a child’s eye. 

“By design, we focus on birds that are low down, easy for kids to see,” he says. The first habitat? The sidewalk!

“We start birding as soon as we walk out of the building,” says Burg, noting that the most common urban birds are non-native, introduced species. Taken out of their native habitats, pigeons traded the cliffs of India for tall buildings; starlings and sparrows, the natural cavities found in Europe for roof eaves in New York. 


Two pigeons sit on the edge of the rooftop of a tall building, providing the birds with an aerial view of New York City.
Pigeons are an iconic New York animal, but they’re not native to the region. 
Courtesy of ZeroOne/Wikimedia Commons         

“This is a city of immigrants, and this applies to some of our most iconic city birds as well,” Burg says. “These birds were brought to New York by humans—they didn’t make the journey on their own. They are well suited to living where people are.”

Next, Burg leads the group in search of a greater diversity of species in Central Park, which Burg describes as “an oasis of green, an island within a sea of inhospitable territory, where part of the excitement is you never know what you’ll see.” 


A group of birders stand in a row, resting their elbows on a fence and hold binoculars up to their eyes.
Birders see what they can see in Central Park.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

In spring on the open lawn, there could be White-throated Sparrows, American Robins, and Common Grackles. Near a mix of woods, stream, and pond, Mourning Doves might be seen feeding in the less dense forest and other birds—Gray Catbirds, Blue Jays, Cardinals—are likely to come down from the tree canopy for a drink of water.

At Central Park Lake, where people rent boats, you’ll get hardier birds, ones more accustomed to humans, like Mallards, Double-crested Cormorants, and Canada Geese. Near the quieter Turtle Pond, novice birders can look for wading birds like the Great Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron or catch a glimpse of Red-winged Blackbirds among the reeds.


Great Egret perches on a partially submerged rock at the edge of a body of water, which is lined with plants, rocks and fallen tree branches.
A Great Egret spotted on one Museum bird walk.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Burg encourages his birders to learn to distinguish bird songs using free resources online, including the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He even plays some calls before the group heads outdoors—but never uses them during the walks. (Playing recorded birdsong outdoors is frowned upon by birders, as it can unnerve territorial birds from various species who interpret the song as a threat to their space.)                                                                                                  

With an introduction to some of the best birding places in Central Park made, and tips for beginning birders imparted, Burg, his charges, and their parents head out of the park. “We don’t go very far,” says Burg. “Our goal is to make the walk fun and accessible to the kids.”

Keep an eye out for information about bird walks, bat walks, and other nature walks presented by the Museum here. 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.