By Keith Michael
August is when a wave of baby birds appears in the trees, on the park lawns, and from the windowsills. Recently fledged, their metronomic chirps to “Feed me, feed me” are a familiar sound of summer. My corgi Millie’s metronomic bark to “Feed me, feed me” is, likewise, a familiar sound of any season—when she’s not taking an afternoon nap like now. Shh.
For these fledglings, after a couple of crowded weeks in the nest with on-demand takeout food flown in by their sleep-deprived parents, I interpret this combination of freedom and their realization of the arduous work of do-it-yourself dining as both a relief and a consternation.
Of course, it’s only the common neighborhood birds that nest and produce chicks that we see—exotic birds set up housekeeping elsewhere. But then, our “regular” West Village birds, far from being a shabby list, include spectacular red Cardinals and gaudy Blue Jays, svelte suede Cedar Waxwings and star-sparkled Starlings, iridescent black Grackles and vocally acrobatic Mocking-birds. Our “everyday” red-breasted Robin is a real looker and our feline-mimic, the Catbird, is a classy study in gray-is-the-new-black. Our “specialty birds” are Barn Swallows that make their mud-cup nests under some of the Hudson River Park piers, and American Kestrals, small orange-and-blue falcons, that I know make their home in the vicinity. After years of watching, I’m still un-sure whether the Chimney Swifts that dart and chatter over our village streets in the evenings are resident homemakers or tourists from far-flung neighborhoods. (If anyone has actually seen Chimney Swifts diving into or emerging from a local chimney, I’d love to know about it!)
Quite frankly, I’m most entertained by fledgling House Sparrows. Partially, this is because their growing antics are played out right on these cobblestoned streets, so it’s easy to watch them, but also, there are so many House Sparrow chicks to provide so many opportunities to watch them grow up. House Sparrow populations in their native Europe have been on the decline for decades but, for some reason, they seem to be doing just fine on this side of the Atlantic. In fact, I like to think fondly of New York City as a sort of nature preserve for this, frequently maligned, introduced species. Whether there is scientific evidence for it or not, I enthusiastically attribute this breeding success to the design of NYC traffic lights.
The open-ended pipes that support the wires cantilevering stoplights out over our grid of intersections make perfect affordable housing for House Sparrows. Stop at any intersection and you are likely to hear the faint chirruping of hungry toddler sparrows echoing from within these pipe oases. Most intersections have two to four of these T-bar poles with a two-family fly-up crossing each pole—that’s four to eight possible nests per intersection multiplied by the thousands of intersections in New York. Each sparrow couple is able to produce three to four broods per year with an average of four chicks per brood. If you start “doing the math” you’ll soon find that a stupendous number of feisty new sparrows can become native New Yorkers every year!
Baby sparrows are collections of tidy fluff with big mouths. Their wing feathers grow out faster than their tails so they often look round and nearly tailless. When they fly, because they are so light, it seems like they barely need to flutter their wings to get off the ground, and even the slightest breeze will blow them willy-nilly. The first few days after parachuting down from their intersection-view nest, the chicks follow their parents around in insistent sibling-gangs. It really seems like the parents, the dads with the black bibs and the moms modeling a lovely assortment of browns, are trying to get away from the kids more than they are trying to keep returning to feed them. This might be a tough-love approach because the fledglings quickly get the idea of how to find a smorgasbord of things to eat on their own. Soon, the chicks have grown their new feathers and have become nearly indistinguishable from the grown-ups.
The kids are out of the nest.
Inexplicably, sensing that I have just typed the word “out,” Millie perks up from her slumber. Might it be time to go out for an evening walk and then dinner?
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow Instagram @newyorkcitywild