Harry Mount

New squawk

Harry Mount on the return of the egret and other beautiful birds to the Manhattan skies

Text settings

While Rudy Giuliani’s zero tolerance policy took care of crime, the Audubon Society, America’s RSPB, which celebrates its centenary this year, has been taking care of the birds. After decades when the only bird life that flourished in Manhattan was of the Bianca Jagger/Jerry Hall variety — and even they came close to starvation — New York has become one of the greatest bird-watching sites in the world.

Within sight of the Empire State Building you can see 500-strong flocks of great egrets, snowy egrets, glossy ibises, cormorants and night herons, emigrés from southern climates nesting in colonies on the islands of New York harbour. For most of the 20th century, they abandoned the city, flushed out by the effluent and smoke of the factories of Queens and New Jersey. Now, with the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the efforts of the New York City chapter of the Audubon Society, they are flourishing within the shadow of the Rockefeller oil refineries in Queens, unfazed by the big metal birds flying out from nearby La Guardia airport.

The Audubon Society is named after the great American naturalist, John James Audubon (1785–1851), the Louisiana son of a Spanish Creole mother and a French naval officer. Audubon devoted his life to drawing birds; his triumph was the publication of Birds of America (1838), with its 1,055 images of all the birds in the country.

In 1905, when the society was founded, rich New York women had taken to wearing the egret’s bright white lacy feathers — and sometimes whole egrets — in their hats. New York’s egrets were hunted to extinction; their feathers had become worth double their weight in gold. By 1910 the society had successfully lobbied for the passing of the Audubon Plumage Law and egrets were safe from the whims of fashionable ladies for ever.

The victories of the Society continued through the last century and into this one: the greater flamingo of southern Florida that winters in the Bahamas, the puffins on Eastern Egg Rock off the coast of Maine, the whooping crane (at 5ft, America’s tallest bird), the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the Californian condor, the spotted owl, the cerulean warbler and the red knot — all of them have survived because of the Society.

Most prominent of the Society’s victories came last year, when a rare red-tailed hawk, nicknamed Pale Male, took up residence on the window ledge of a New York apartment building, fledging 23 chicks. The building’s owners dismantled the nest, to huge protests. The National Audubon Society, together with the New York City Audubon chapter, waged a campaign to return Pale Male’s nest to the window ledge. After more than two weeks of nightly vigils, a 10,000-name petition and nearly 5,000 letters to the building board’s chairman, the nest was restored.

I didn’t see Pale Male on my trip up the East River in a bright yellow New York water taxi. But I did see a peregrine falcon, wedged into the angle of a pillar of the Manhattan Bridge, 100ft up in the air.

Hunched against the steel shelter, staring listlessly into the middle distance, he looked like a hardened New York smoker, banished to the outdoors by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-smoking laws. Peregrine falcons became virtually extinct in the 1970s because of the accumulation of DDT in insects and, in due course, the smaller birds that form the peregrine’s diet. With the banning of DDT, the peregrines that had before colonised cliff-faces across America started nesting in the artificial cliff-faces of New York’s skyscrapers. With 16 pairs in Manhattan — among them a pair on the Brooklyn Bridge, a pair on the Presbyterian Hospital, a pair on the George Washington Bridge, and a pair overlooking the banker vultures of Wall Street — New York now has the second largest colony of peregrine falcons in America.

Our boat chugged on, passing Bristol Bay, the chunk of Manhattan coastline built up with debris from bombed-out Bristol, brought over from Britain as ballast during the second world war. ‘Still British soil,’ said our learned guide from the Audubon Society, Gabriel Willow. Opposite the UN headquarters sits tiny U Thant Island, named after the second secretary-general of the UN. The island is dominated by a flimsy peace sculpture — a stark semi-circular skeleton frame of steel struts which is now home to a 44-strong flock of double-crested cormorants.

The cormorant could be the UN mascot. It is a black, menacing, voracious bird; it kills the trees in which it nests. Unlike other birds, whose feathers contain oil to deflect water — thus ‘like water off a duck’s back’ — the cormorant absorbs water, so it can sink further in the search for fish. To dry off, the cormorant spends hours with its wings outstretched, Batman-style, as one example of the breed was doing, staring balefully at the doomed UN building when we sailed by. The UN diplomats are off to Brooklyn soon while their offices are rebuilt and expanded at vast expense.

Several great black-backed gulls — the biggest gulls in the world — swooped overhead as we continued north. ‘They like french fries and garbage,’ said Mr Willow. ‘They flourish in New York.’

Then, just beyond Hell Gate — the Dutch for ‘Beautiful Water’, but also very choppy — we hit the jackpot: perhaps the most romantic bird-watching site on earth. Behind us lay a foreshortened view of Manhattan, tip to toe, from Harlem to Battery Park. Ahead of us was Riker’s Island, New York’s maximum security prison — dream solitary confinement accommodation for the Birdman of Alcatraz. This home to murderers, rapists and now Robert De Niro’s cleaner, on remand for allegedly stealing Mrs De Niro’s jewellery, has a fine view of North and South Brother Islands, two little uninhabited outcrops teeming with birds.

Dominating North Brother Island is the abandoned quarantine hospital where Typhoid Mary — Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who infected 47 New Yorkers in the 1900s — was banished for the last 20 years of her life. Pavement kerbs, lamp-posts and fire hydrants peeped out from a coating of vines and poison ivy in the shadow of the lowering red Gothic building.

Swooping in and out of the hospital’s black window cavities were gulls, cormorants and herons, but no egrets. For some unknown reason — ascribed by the superstitious to Typhoid Mary and the ghosts of the dead and diseased — the egrets nest only on South Brother Island, a wing’s flap away. There, in the lower branches of the trees, sat 45 pairs of snowy egrets, their bright yellow feet standing out in the dusk. At the shore sat several great egrets, feeding with their yellow bills, stock still on their black feet.

And then, as darkness fell, two night herons, black-crowned, grey and stocky, with black backs and yellow legs, woke from their daytime sleep and drifted off to their Central Park feeding grounds.

Hegel said, ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk’ — i.e., philosophy understands reality only after the event; it cannot prescribe how the world ought to be. Only after the night heron has spread its wings can you understand the beauty of birds and New York.