Short-Lived Celebrities: How to Make Our City Safer for Wildlife

The now world-famous Eurasian Eagle-Owl known as Flaco has died. Released from his enclosure at the Central Park Zoo by unidentified vandals in early February 2023, Flaco’s story drew intense media attention within hours of his escape. Initial recapture attempts were vocally opposed, and in some cases actively thwarted, with pushback spearheaded by the perennially controversial Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter community. When the captive-raised owl began hunting for himself and public resistance to the trapping efforts subsequently increased in volume, the retrieval mission was called off. Well-intentioned Flaco fans rejoiced in his newfound freedom, while many scientists and birders voiced their concerns about the long-term prospects for a non-native apex predator in New York City, as well as his potential impact on the local environment. The saga ended up lasting just over a year, with Flaco gradually expanding his territory beyond the confines of the Park and making forays to various neighborhoods of Manhattan. Eventually, the owl was found dead at the base of a building on the Upper West Side, initially suspected to be a victim of a collision but later determined to have likely fallen to his death. Necropsy results eventually confirmed that his overall health was impacted by several varieties of toxic rodenticides as well as an avian viral infection, apparently picked up, respectively, from his rat-based diet and recently developed taste for pigeons. Nature-lovers everywhere, including those who cheered for Flaco’s flight from the zoo and those who wished he’d never left his cage, are united in their sorrow over the tragic demise of this majestic creature.

Regrettably, Flaco is not the first celebrity bird to suffer an untimely death on the mean streets of the Big Apple. The NYC birding community has scarcely had time to recover from news of the passing of Rover, a Connecticut-born Bald Eagle who made headlines several years ago when he began hunting gulls on the Central Park Reservoir and hanging around in Prospect Park. The conspicuous presence of this regal raptor was rightly celebrated as a glowing testament to the recovery of his species, a triumphant modern conservation success story. Just a few days before Flaco met his end, Rover was struck by a vehicle on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Uptown Manhattan, most likely either while scavenging roadkill or flying low with freshly-secured prey.

Not unlike Flaco, several native owls who have taken up residence in New York City over the years have also had their tenures cut unceremoniously short. Barry, a remarkably confiding female Barred Owl, charmed observers for many months before she collided with a Central Park Conservancy vehicle, her reaction time impaired by fatal levels of accumulated rat poison. Later, a Great Horned Owl known as Geraldine made her own go at City life, lasting for over a year despite the handicap of an injured leg before eventually disappearing.

New York City’s original celebrity bird, and indeed one of the first individual wild animals to achieve worldwide fame, was Pale Male the Red-tailed Hawk. First documented in 1991, long before the days of eBird and social media, Pale Male set early standards for the high-profile lives of feathered superstars in Gotham. The seasonal drama surrounding his breeding efforts at his cushy 5th Avenue nest site made him a media darling around the globe, and there was plenty of controversy surrounding his survival status in the intervening decades. He inspired books, songs, and documentaries over the course of his legendary reign. In May 2023, the bird presumed to be Pale Male was taken in by Central Park Rangers who found him grounded and unable to fly, and he expired a few hours later after being brought into rehabilitative care. Bloodwork revealed that the cause of death was likely renal failure, a rare case of old age being the apparent killer for an urban-dwelling raptor. In contrast, several of his 8 different mates and many of his descendants are known or suspected to have died of poisoning by rodenticides, with Pale Male perhaps being spared this grim fate due to his preference for dining on pigeons. On a brighter note, there are now countless pairs of Red-tails breeding throughout the Five Boroughs, a far cry from the olden days when Pale Male’s first nesting attempt was an unheard of novelty. It’s clear that much has changed for urban naturescapes in recent decades, but there is no denying that there are still inherent dangers facing birds of prey that set their stakes in New York City.

While the tragedies of these celebrity raptors are mourned throughout New York and beyond, they represent only a small sample set of the annual death toll for wildlife in the City. With the eyes of nature-lovers all over the world turned towards our urban environment, a critical question takes center stage: what can we do, as individuals and as a community, to make New York City’s greenspaces safer for birds and other animals?

The first, most widely-known major threat to urban birds is the risk of collisions with buildings. Hundreds of millions of birds die as a result of window strikes in the United States each year, with the annual total for such deaths in NYC alone estimated to range from 90,000 and 230,000. Many species of birds migrate predominantly at night, and the electric glow of skyscrapers and other artificial light sources can be extremely disorienting to these nocturnal travelers. Even in broad daylight, windows can reflect the sky or reveal vegetation and plantings on the other side of the pane, leading confused birds to crash into them at lethal velocities. When favorable conditions for major migratory movement bring high densities of transient birds to our cities, mass collision events can leave sidewalks littered with tiny, lifeless bodies, as recently seen on a horrifyingly grand scale in Chicago last October. The biannual journey between the Neotropics and the boreal forest is arduous and harrowing enough as it is, and the added complications of urban obstacle courses built along major migratory flyways makes the ordeal too much for many birds to bear. 

Fortunately, this is one problem that we know how to solve, and every individual who lives in the City can do their part to help mitigate the toll that window strikes exact on our migratory songbirds and resident raptors. The likelihood of nocturnal collisions can be greatly reduced by simply turning off unnecessary light sources after dark, and citywide Lights Out initiatives are gradually gaining traction with local legislators. For day-flying species, unobtrusive decals or glass treatments are easily applied, reasonably affordable, and shockingly effective at preventing fatal crashes. There are many successful cases of formerly notorious avian death traps, such as the Jacob K. Javits Center and Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, documenting dramatic decreases in the number of collisions each migratory season by switching to bird-safe glass. Of course, in a city as rich in reflective buildings and all-night lights as New York, we collectively have a long way to go to make meaningful progress towards this effort. That said, it is crucial to bear in mind that every little bit counts, and even small-scale changes in practices at your home or place of business may well end up saving lives. Project Safe Flight, a volunteer effort associated with NYC Audubon, has fantastic resources available for those who wish to take action on this front in the ongoing battle to protect our birds.

Birds of prey in urban environments are especially vulnerable to bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals. This process, by which poisons consumed by prey species are subsequently passed on to the predators that feed on them, is perhaps best known to the general public with regards to the pesticide DDT, which threatened populations of Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, Ospreys, and various other birds on a continental scale throughout the middle portion of the 20th Century. Widespread outcry from environmentalist groups and concerned citizens eventually led to a nationwide ban of DDT in 1972. To this day, however, the insidious effects of manmade toxins continue to impact our natural ecosystems.

Rodenticides, including anticoagulants like warfarin and bromadiolone, are particularly prevalent in New York City. Rats that ingest poisoned bait often do not typically expire right away, and their altered behavior in this weakened state makes them easy targets for hungry raptors. The birds then suffer from the increasingly debilitating effects of the rodenticides over the course of many meals, resulting in anemia, bleeding and bruising, and impaired coordination that may lead to death before toxicity levels themselves prove lethal. Though the use of rat poison is strictly limited within Central Park and other major greenspaces, there are no such restrictions in many smaller City parks or the surrounding neighborhoods and sidestreets. Intoxicated rodents may wander from areas where application is permitted into locations where they are likely to be picked off by birds of prey on the hunt. Actively rodent-proofing residences, businesses, and public areas by sealing potential access points and eliminating food and water sources is one way to reduce the need for rodenticide usage. Furthermore, nontoxic alternatives like snap traps are effective control methods that pose much less secondary risk to local wildlife.

In a curious twist, one of the greatest threats to our continent’s avifauna is also one of the issues that we as individuals have the most control over: our pets. Domestic cats, including both outdoor pets and free-ranging ferals, are the number one direct cause of death for birds throughout the United States. It is believed that several billion individual birds and small mammals perish in the jaws and claws of our beloved feline companions each year, and a variety of imperiled species like beach-nesting Piping Plovers are particularly vulnerable to these introduced, non-native predators. Although modern petcare practices have resulted in far fewer dogs roaming the streets without supervision, stray and off-leash dogs pose a similar danger to native wildlife as well.

The fix for this major source of bird mortality is glaringly simple. Keep your precious pets inside. Indoor cats invariably live longer lives, safe from vehicular collisions and predation by larger carnivores, and their potential negative impact on native wildlife can be reduced to near zero. Folk remedies for this persistent problem, like collars outfitted with jingling bells, are woefully ineffective, whereas simply preventing a cat from wandering the neighborhood neatly resolves the matter of their own safety and that of the local birds. If you wish to provide your kitty with some outdoor enrichment time, do so in the safety of a covered catio or via supervised leash-and-harness time. Don’t think dog owners are getting a free pass on this issue either. It is imperative to respect leash laws throughout New York City’s parks, especially in urban migratory stopover habitat and at shoreline nesting colonies. Even a putatively playful dog can be an extreme source of stress for songbirds and shorebirds that are invariably disturbed by dogs roaming where they don’t belong. For the sake of both our furry friends and our feathered ones, take the easy win for wildlife and don’t let your pet roam unfettered.

Of course, the deadliest obstacle facing wildlife around the world is wholesale habitat destruction. Cities by their very nature contribute to the degradation and fragmentation of native habitat, and NYC’s track record on mitigating this issue has historically been less than stellar. Even in our protected parklands, construction projects and new developments threaten the few remaining pockets of intact natural spaces. Plastics, pesticides, and other pollutants have ravaged our waterways, and the specter of climate change looms in the not-too-distant future for those ecosystems that do remain. However, even within my own lifetime I have witnessed dramatic and rapid changes for the better in the environment of coastal New York, and I truly believe that dedicated effort can bring about meaningful improvements in relatively short order. Implementation of green roof infrastructure, saltmarsh restoration projects, and the ongoing clean-up of New York Harbor have all produced shockingly positive results in recent years. One way to ensure that space is made for nature throughout the Five Boroughs is to get involved with City-centered conservation groups like NYC Audubon, volunteer rehabbers like the Wild Bird Fund, and site-specific organizations like the various Park Alliances. Showing support for political programs and candidates who promise to fund agencies such as the National Park Service or the NYC Parks Department is yet another actionable objective that can have concrete benefits for wildlife in our region.

In the face of frequently discouraging news stories about famous and beloved birds dying young, it is crucial to maintain some perspective. Our City’s raptor risks are only apparent because populations of these charismatic creatures have now rebounded and begun recolonizing urban spaces, as my dear friend Dr. Dmitriy Aronov, one of the individuals behind the recent bird-safe modifications to the Zuckerman Institute, sagely points out. “We finally have raptors in the City thanks to nationwide conservation efforts,” Dmitriy stated. “When I was growing up in the 90s, I couldn’t imagine Bald Eagles or Peregrine Falcons hitting buildings in Manhattan because we didn’t have any here.” These conspicuous keystone species serve as indicators for the overall state of our local environment. For all of the shortcomings of New York’s long-term relationship with nature, there are undoubtedly victories worth celebrating and striving to replicate. We have ravens nesting on our bridges now. We have whales foraging off our beaches again. We have more people than ever interested and invested in creating safe spaces for wildlife wherever possible, and we are more readily able to connect with one another and present a united front than any other time in history. It is up to all of us to ensure that Pale Male, Rover, Flaco, and the countless multitudes of birds that have met their end in this City since its inception will not have died in vain. The battles we fight on nature’s behalf are well-worth the effort required to secure victory. Take action where you can, join forces when you’re able, and hold tight to the hope that what we do can, and will, make a meaningful difference.