Cities for Birds Too

Cities for Birds Too
Published: May 09, 2021
While enjoying the sights and songs of birds around us, we might ask how they experience backyards and parks, tall glass buildings and brighter and brighter streetlights. Timothy Beatley, a professor of sustainable cities, takes readers on a global tour of urban environments ripe for remaking with birds in mind.

Cities for Birds Too, journal of wild culture ©2021.jpg

Elizabeth Carlen studies the evolution of pigeons in New York City. “Basic things, like what a pigeon's range is, how long they live — people probably assume we know all that already," she says. "But we don't.” [o]


The Bird-Friendly City: Creating Safe Urban Habitats
by Timothy Beatley
Published by Island Press, April 30, 2021
272 pages, 53 photos and illustrations

Chapter 1: The Benefits of Birds in a World Shaped by Humans

Birds are remarkable because of the many benefits they bring to our world. From their roles as ecological linchpins in ecosystems around the world to the joy felt by a solitary person watching them hop on the ground near a park bench, there are myriad reasons to work hard to ensure a safe environment for birds. Fascinating studies reveal the contributions birds make to our emotional well- being, their ability to boost economies at both local and global scales, and their ecological importance. There are also compelling ethical arguments for preventing hazards to birds because of their inherent worth as living creatures.


Our attraction to birds runs deep. The pleasure and joy we feel when they are around are undeniable, and for many of us their presence is a key aspect of our innate affiliation with and love of nature and of living systems. This connection is called “biophilia,” a love of life and living things. There are many who speak of the power of birds and the importance they play in their lives.


Birds deliver a powerful dose of the nowness of life.


We want and need birdsong in urban areas. Cities are more enjoy- able and more livable, and we lead more meaningful lives, when we hear them around us. We see it in the earnest song playing of a Northern Mockingbird, the family antics of Cardinals, the curiosity of an American Crow. I have often believed that the hours spent by Turkey Vultures thermaling in the air — yes, looking and smelling for the next meal — could also be explained in another way: that they are engaged in a joyful activity, biological but also deeply enjoyable to them. And it is certainly something joyful for earthbound humans to watch.

Viscount Grey of Fallodon’s 1927 book The Charm of Birds is an eloquent treatise on the many reasons we are drawn to birds. There is an entire chapter titled “Joy Flights and Joy Sounds.” The sight and sounds of Curlews in spring, to him, suggested “peace, rest, healing, joy, an assurance of happiness past, present and to come.”

There is sheer joy and joyfulness in seeing the flights and hearing the sounds of birds, and, just as important, they seem to be engaged in feeling joy as well. “The main purpose served by flight is utilitarian,” Grey said, “to enable birds to reach feeding-places, to escape from enemies, to change their climate; but they also use flight to express blissful well-being; by this as well as by song they are gifted beyond all other creatures to convey to the mind of man the existence in Nature of happiness and joy.”


London birds, journal of wild culture ©2021


Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, wrote eloquently about the importance of awe and wonder in our lives and of the need to impart this especially to our children as they grow up. From an early age, she wandered the hills of her childhood home in Pennsylvania in search of the wonder of birds and other animals, a love she carried throughout her life. In an early (1956) essay published in the Woman’s Home Companion, she wrote:

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

In a recent visit to the Cool Spring Nature Preserve, a thirty-two acre preserve and birding center in West Virginia owned by the Potomac Valley Audubon Society, I spoke with avid birder Nancy Kirschbaum, who told me she has been birding since the age of twelve. “I was a kid who loved animals. You can’t see lions in your backyard, but you can see birds in your backyard,” she told me. “The rest is history and a lifetime of birding.”

In discussing the more recently developed technology that lets us dissect the nuances of birdsong, British sound expert Julian Treasure said, “Over hundreds of thousands of years we’ve found that when the birds are singing things are safe. It’s when they stop you need to be worried.”

For the experienced listener there are many unique sounds to hear: the drumming of Woodpeckers and Snipes, the yodeling of Redshanks, the churring of Nightjars.

For me, birdsong has delivered doses of hope and optimism and pleasure. Some of my earliest memories involve birds and listening to their songs and calls. My favorite is the flute-like melody of the Eastern Wood Thrush, a song I look forward to hearing every spring and that immediately takes me back to my childhood in Virginia.

A recent essay in the New York Times by a doctor specializing in palliative care makes the point well. Dr. Rachel Clarke, with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, wrote of her experience with patients in hospice care, at the end of their lives, and the “intense solace some patients find in the natural world.” She related the words and thoughts of one patient, Diane Finch, who had terminal breast cancer and was grappling with how to preserve herself in the face of death:

Somehow, when I listened to the song of a blackbird in the garden, I found it incredibly calming. It seemed to allay that fear that everything was going to disappear, to be lost forever, because I thought, “Well, there will be other blackbirds. Their songs will be pretty similar and it will all be fine.” And in the same way, there were other people before me with my diagnosis. Other people will have died in the same way I will die. And it’s natural. It’s a natural progression. Cancer is a part of nature too, and that is something I have to accept, and learn to live and die with.

Clarke related the experience of another patient who wanted to keep the windows open and to “keep on feeling the breeze on my face and listening to that blackbird outside.”


Red-tailed hawk, Manhattan, journal of wild culture ©2021

The number of known Red-tailed Hawk nests in Manhattan has more than doubled in the past six years. Photo: François Portmann.


Clarke ended her essay by noting the immediacy of nature and the value that it has to patients nearing the end of life. “What dominates my work is not proximity to death but the best bits of living. Nowness is everywhere. Nature provides it.”

And birds deliver a powerful dose of the nowness of life. Their energy, animation, and constant purposeful movement embody life itself and vitality itself.

I think it is difficult to overstate the poetic pleasure and joy of see ing or hearing a bird in the course of an otherwise routine day. That we are drawn to the beauty of birds has been demonstrated recently by the way an errant Mandarin Duck has fascinated the entire city of New York, it seems. Residents and tourists (and lots of media) clamor to Central Park to see him. The remarkable beauty of this creature is undeniable, even if his origin remains unclear. More recently, the arrival of a European Robin in Beijing, China, was met with similar throngs of birders and casual watchers.

There is a beckoning otherness that birds exude — an invitation to take a moment to look around, to enjoy a daring movement or a melodious song, to slow down and to be deeply mindful of time and place.

Birds uplift us in so many ways. They are common kin, co-occupying the spaces of homes and cities, and at the same time impossibly beautiful, exotic, otherworldly. A glimpse of the color of a Cardinal, the screech of a Blue Jay, or the knowing gaze of an American Crow gives us a jolt of energy and optimism and sheer happiness. It is interesting to consider the hidden public health benefits of birds. There are countless moments during a typical day when we experience an uplift from a bird sighting or sound, not to mention the times when individuals intentionally set out to watch and listen to birds. The stress-reducing and mental health benefits of birds in cities are immense and uncounted, though no less real.


We value the presence of birds, and we benefit from them in ways that can be translated into the language of economists: they generate extensive consumer surplus for us; we value seeing and hearing them far beyond what little we are asked to pay in the market economy. We know that a house in a leafy neighborhood sells for a much higher price than a similar house in a neighborhood without trees and, thus, without birds and birdsong. The Chimney Swifts that migrate through the Cool Spring Preserve, where I spoke with birder Nancy Kirschbaum, eat a lot of insects, including mosquitoes: each Swift consumes some six thousand insects per day.

A series of essays in the book Why Birds Matter: Avian Ecological Function and Ecosystem Services make a strong case for the value of birds beyond our enjoyment in seeing them and hearing them. They perform many important ecological functions, including pollination, seed dispersal, and nutrient cycling. Swifts and Swallows consume a large number of mosquitoes, and in many agricultural areas there are sizable economic benefits associated with control of crop-eating insects.

The ecological benefits of the waste management and community sanitation services provided by vultures contribute significant economic value. We ignore the ecological functions of birds at our own peril. There has been a dramatic decline in the numbers of Vultures in South Asia, especially in India, where they are despised and have been poisoned with diclofenac, an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory medication used by veterinarians. The result has been a health crisis and a rise in the number of human deaths from rabies — as vulture populations have declined, feral dog populations have risen, and so, in turn, have the numbers of rabies cases.

For communities and cities, events that take advantage of growing ecotourism and bird-watching can generate sizable amounts of income, employment, and tax revenue. As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology points out, “birding stands out as a powerhouse in the outdoors economy.”


 Feminist Bird Club, journal of wild culture ©2021.jpg


A large percentage of the human population enjoys watching birds. According to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, the most recent survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, some forty-five million Americans engage in watching birds. The vast majority of this bird-watching happens around the home, according to this survey. This total figure of bird-watchers is a high figure, to be sure, but it actually seems too low.

It is estimated that American consumers spend $1.8 billion on birding equipment (e.g., binoculars and spotting scopes) and $4 billion on bird food. These are just a few of the ways we spend money on birds.


Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, implores us, in his foreword to the book Why Birds Matter, not to lose sight of the intrinsic value of birds, their inherent worth, irrespective of the value humans place on them: “Apart from all these human-assigned, instrumental values, there is the intrinsic value of the [birds] themselves: sentient, social beings amazingly adapted to some truly challenging conditions.”

The fact that these are creatures that evolved millions of years ago from dinosaurs might suggest that they have a special right of existence. We humans are certainly not free to cause extinction of their species or inflict undue harm on their populations and individuals.

I like very much the ideas of the late eco-feminist Val Plumwood, who many years ago advocated for a more agency-based moral theory of animals and nature. The “others,” including birds, with whom we co-occupy the planet are not simply extras on a human stage set; they are species and individuals that exert creative agency. Plumwood argued for the need to overcome the sense of separateness and otherness of the natural world, and she encouraged us to see the agency, wisdom, and intelligence of the non-human world.

Birds help us do this to an unusual degree. They are natural ambassadors between the limited sentient world we have defined as human and the large natural world beyond: it is our world as well, we are a part of this community of life, and birds tug at us to join in: to see ourselves, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, as a plain member of this community of kin. And when we adopt this view of birdsong, it changes our outlook profoundly. It shifts from sound to voice.


Birds are a living form of poetry. From Shelley’s “To a Skylark” to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” birds have found their way into the literary and poetic world. Birds figure in important ways in the poetry of more contemporary writers, such as Mary Oliver, who wrote frequently about the red bird and the remarkable things she would do and her depth of resonance.

In the attention and care we give to the birds around us, in their ability to induce us to break free from narrow self-absorption, birds expand our horizons and help us to see a world we would perhaps otherwise neglect.

We will need all of these arguments — economic, ecological, ethical — on behalf of saving birds. As Jeffrey Gordon put it, “We need as many arrows in our quivers as we can get.”


Genetic damage to birds, journal of wild culture ©2021

Lining their nests with cigarette butts can have interesting benefits, but dangerous consequences as well. From a study by Monserrat Suárez-Rodríguez et. al.



Cities have historically formed on rivers and shorelines and harbors, places that facilitate commerce and transportation, but these are precisely the places that are essential habitat and migration corridors for birds. Jim Bonner, executive director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, told me, “Birds are still coming through urban areas because they were doing it before they were urban areas. Just because we’ve built a lot of buildings and suburbs around it, that doesn’t change their migratory paths.”

So cities must play an important part in the future of birds, and, as this book will explain, many cities are beginning to take aggressive steps to make room for birds. Many cities, such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Toronto, Ontario, lie on important bird migration routes, with millions of birds passing through these urban environments. Cities have important opportunities to modify the design of buildings and glass facades, which kill almost a billion birds each year, and to modify and control the lights that confuse and kill. Cities can work to enhance bird habitat in important ways by planting trees and retrofitting rooftops planted with bird-friendly vegetation. Urban residents can take steps to reduce predation by domestic and feral cats, which likely cause the deaths of as many as four billion birds each year in North America alone.

We sometimes (usually) forget that cities are home to many different kinds of birds. A city such as New York contains a variety of different and often essential habitats for birds. Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science for New York City Audubon, spoke to me of the organizations long-term monitoring and research regarding wading birds. The Harbor Herons project monitors long-legged waders on seventeen islands in and around New York Harbor, from Jamaica Bay to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. This busy environment is home to Black-crowned Night-Herons, Great Egrets, Double-crested Cormorants, and Herring Gulls. New York City, perhaps surprisingly to some, is home to 80 percent of the state’s population of Black-crowned Night-Herons. There is a small colony of Common Terns on Governors Island (directly across from Lower Manhattan, monitored by a small webcam) and many species of shorebirds, including Sandpipers and more than fifty pairs of nesting Oystercatchers. As New York and many other coastal cities rediscover and begin to celebrate their inherent connection to water, perhaps there will be a rediscovery of the waterbirds with which we share these shorelines and waterways.

It is often a “delicate dance,” Elbin told me, working to protect and foster appreciation for birdlife in a bustling city that often has other priorities in mind. She told me about the Gulls she is studying on the roof of the Rikers Island prison, just a few hundred feet from the end of one of the runways at LaGuardia Airport (a population the New York State Department of Health seeks to actively control), and about New Yorkers laying their beach towels a few feet from Piping Plovers. But at the end of the day, there is an understanding that even a megacity such as New York is bird habitat and that the quality of life in such places is enhanced immeasurably when we find ways to accommodate this birdlife. “‘Oh my goodness, I never realized!’” is how Elbin described the reactions of New Yorkers when they hear about some of the bird diversity living around them. “Once people realize they’re here [the birds, that is], it’s like looking at one of those magic eye pictures,” she said. It changes their perception of the city and perhaps of their own position in the busy urban tableau.

It is impressive to hear from Elbin how much attention and deference birds are afforded in New York. Many cities over the past couple of decades have developed new programs and efforts to help birds, both terrestrial and aquatic. There has been special and growing appreciation for the ways that urban lights and buildings represent clear dangers to birds living in cities or migrating through cities by the millions.


Fatal Light Awareness Program, journal of wild culture ©2021

Ribbon or string hung on the outside of the window can be an effective collision deterrent, one of many options featured on the Fatal Light Awareness Program website. Photo by Jeff Acopian.


These new efforts include lights-out programs, in cities such as Chicago and Toronto, designed to reduce the disorientation and mortality of birds during peak migration periods, as well as new bird-friendly design guidelines designed to reduce window and building strikes. Cities including San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, now mandate bird- friendly building facades, and a number of other cities are following suit. The political support for protecting birds seems to be changing in a hopeful way as legislation to enact bird-friendly design requirements   has been introduced at state and federal levels, with a real prospect of passage of these measures.

Remarkable organizations are working on behalf of birds. Toronto’s Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) is a citizen-led force conducting daily collision monitoring in that city and raising awareness of the urban dangers to birds. Citizens in Phoenix, Arizona are working to enhance habitat for Burrowing Owls; a developer in the United Kingdom is installing Swift boxes in new homes; and in a neighborhood near Santa Fe, New Mexico, residents are working together to monitor, celebrate, and make room for the threatened Juniper Titmouse.

This is a hopeful book that tells the stories of cities—and the people, organizations, and leaders in these cities—and the powerful work they are engaged in to protect, preserve, and celebrate the birds with which we share our urban spaces. ≈ç


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Interview with Timothy Beatley by John C. Cannon*

JOHN C. CANNON   Can you talk about where the idea came from for this book and how you got started?

TIMOTHY BEATLEY   It fits into this larger vision about cities, and this idea that we are on an increasingly urbanized planet. We have to think about how we need nature all around us where we’re living and working. It’s about this conception of cities not as being opposed to nature or absent of nature, but rather, being abundant and biodiverse, environments in which we are immersed in nature, ideally. That’s our vision of what a biophilic city is, and we’ve been helping to push along this global network of cities.

The idea of a biophilic city in part is about sharing space with many other forms of life. We already do that, but there are so many ways that we could be designing and planning with other species in mind, understanding that cities are these places where we want to see other life-forms. Our lives are richer and more meaningful for having those connections.

Birds are pretty ubiquitous in most places that we live, and they add so much to our lives. That’s kind of my starting point. While I can’t claim to be a birder, I’ve been a lifelong bird lover. I think for a lot of us, that may be a meaningful category. Birds have brought a lot of joy and meaning to my life going back to when I was a kid. There are lots of things that we can be doing and now are doing in many cities, everything from bird-safe building design and bird-safe windows, things cities like San Francisco, Toronto and now New York are adopting.

CANNON   The book struck me as hopeful. Are you optimistic that we can solve these problems?

BEATLEY   It’s hard to be optimistic, given the seriousness, the magnitude of the changes that are happening globally. Climate change is part of that. There is massive alteration of habitats and all the ways that we seem to be rapidly causing ecosystems to unravel. If you look at the numbers from the 2019 Cornell study in the journal Science that showed that we had 3 billion less birds, I think that was a remarkable wake-up call. I hope it certainly stirred a lot of people to think about talking about birds in a way that they hadn’t before. But globally, 40% or more bird species are in decline. It’s not a very optimistic picture, and it doesn’t seem like we’re able or willing to tackle these bigger problems.

The Biophilic Cities agenda is addressing the profound inequality that exists in American cities that connects to diversity and birding.

That said, my personal tendency is to look at the glass as half full. What can we do — that’s actually one of the attractions for a lot of us in urban planning. In urban design, the idea that you can retrofit New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center with bird-friendly windows, and we show that it’s radically safer — a 90% reduction in bird fatalities. It is possible to do things that change the world in meaningful ways. I think that’s the message about cities. There are also things you can do as a homeowner. Just planting native species of plants can have a huge impact. I think to be pessimistic would imply that there isn’t anything meaningful that you can do. That’s really what the book is about, telling these stories of people and programs and policies. There are realistic avenues for change.

CANNON   You write about the need to increase diversity in birding and open these species up to different communities.

BEATLEY   There’s so much more that could have been included about this topic of diversity and birding. I tell the story of driving to North Carolina to hear J. Drew Lanham, and he’s a Black birder and wildlife professor who is well-known in the birding world and one of the first people, I think, to raise the alarm about how difficult it is to bird while Black. He tells the stories of how he felt in vulnerable, dangerous situations. He’s just trying to count birds or listen to birds. And then I tell a story about driving to this North Carolina event and passing several of the largest Confederate flags I have ever seen on the highway to listen to this wonderful birder and wildlife professor talk about nature.

It’s a matter of equity and justice, like so many things about the natural world. Those of us who are white and fairly affluent get to enjoy these wonderful things. As you look at the maps of cities and realize, even today, how segregated they are by race and income. In cities like Richmond, Virginia, one of our partner cities in the Biophilic Cities network, you look at the red-lining maps from the 1930s. They closely correspond to the distribution of forest canopy cover from trees, which corresponds to heat. Those neighborhoods of color have much lower levels of tree canopy and have much higher vulnerability to heat. I get to be in a really leafy neighborhood with lots of wonderful things to listen to and hear and experience like birds. We believe that nature is a birthright. We have to think about the equitable biophilia. Part of this Biophilic Cities agenda is doing everything we can to address the profound inequality that exists and the structural racism that exists in American cities and that connects to diversity and birding.

I think it’s part and parcel of the larger patterns of inequality and the lack of inclusiveness in so many aspects of our society and culture. Birds are such a window to experience and connect with that. Everyone needs that opportunity.

CANNON   What messages do you hope the book leaves with its readers?

BEATLEY   One message should be that we need to elevate the importance of birds everywhere in every city. There are many things that cities could be doing to emphasize the importance of bird life. ≈ç

* Interview from Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform.


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TIMOTHY BEATLEY is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia where he has taught for over twenty-five years. His primary teaching and research interests are in environmental planning and policy, with a special emphasis on coastal and natural hazards planning, environmental values and ethics, and biodiversity conservation. Some of his other books include Resilient Cities and Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design (Island Press).

The Bird-Friendly City, copyright © 2020 Timothy Beatley. Excerpt reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.




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