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By Keith Michael

It’s a wrap on 2021 and time for the 16th Annual West Village Bird of the Year Awards: The Millies! After the virtual 2020 Zoom ceremony, we are thrilled to be back in person at the traditional LIVE location on this selfie-ready corner of West 4th and West 12th Streets where my Bird #1, a rosy-hued House Finch, hatched my NYC birding obsession. Sadly, “in person” this year is lonely without the award’s corgi namesake, Miss Millie, at my ankles undermining the pomp and circumstance of these esteemed proceedings. Thank you for joining me.

THE MILLIES NAMESAKE. And her award-winning smile.

As a refresher, the founding criteria for consideration for The Millies are as follows: birds must be seen in, above, or from the five boroughs of New York; voting is weighted toward those birds observed during Millie’s daily walks in the West Village; and additional points may be lauded to those candidates actually seen by the award’s namesake. In homage to Millie’s unexpected departure in March 2021, the Awards Committee voted unanimously that her unwavering past patronage should be honored by imagining the blocks Millie would have walked around, and considering the disregard she might have had for these ground rules, while weighing the attributes of each new feathered candidate.

On to the AWARDS!

Let’s begin with two categories that Millie fervently disapproved of and frequently used their presentations of as an opportunity to nap conspicuously or harrumph off in protest for a snack.

EXTRALIMITAL.

Millie always snubbed this honor because “no way was she going to get in a carrier to go on a train or ride in a car just to see some celebrity bird outside of NYC!” Honorees might have been a winter Snowy Owl on a city-forsaken beach or the summer Dickcissels of Croton Point Park in Westchester County, but the obvious cool bird deserving this award was the Roseate Spoonbill in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island who charmed anyone who took the LIRR on a pilgrimage to see this “think pink” beauty. 

NOT A BIRD.

Millie also had eye-rolling disdain for this award due to the “cute-ness” factor that has, historically, tipped the scales toward the winner. Likely candidates have been Humpback Whales and Bottlenose Dolphins as seen from the deck of the American Princess out of Sheepshead Bay; hordes of Fiddler Crabs at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn; or the playful Striped Skunks in Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan. The hands-down winners (with heaping dollops of cuteness and cherries on top) are the five kits of a Red Fox family admired from afar on Staten Island.

TWICE AS NICE.

There were quite a number of dynamic duos in 2021—birds that presented themselves as a matched set with seemingly choreographed unison in their resting, foraging, or flying. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) in Queens featured synchronized swimming Wilson’s Phalarope twins, dueling (dualing) Lesser Yellowlegs, and apparently air-traffic-controlled Glossy Ibises soaring overhead. My favorite was a duplicate pair at the opposite end of Queens: scythe-billed Whimbrels beachcombing at Breezy Point.

BEST BARBERSHOP QUARTET.

For a Four Times As Nice Award, how about a counter-pointing foursome of American Oystercatchers?

JUST BECAUSE.

Lauded as one of Millie’s whimsical “Hurrahs,” this decoration goes to birds notable for, well, just because. This year’s recipient is a Royal Tern family on Plumb Beach. 

COLOR MY WORLD.

A gold star has traditionally been affixed upon the brightest, most pigment-saturated bird around. This year I’m thrilled to honor a bird notably lacking in color. Put your hands together for a leucistic Bank Swallow that swiveled birders’ heads at JBWR. There’s not enough time here to explain the difference between a leucistic and an albino bird, but it’s worth looking up!

NOW YOU SEE THEM, NOW YOU DON’T.

On the other end of the rainbow from the flashy birds are those who use a different strategy: just disappear. An American Woodcock in Bryant Park, a Wilson’s Snipe in the Bronx, and Ruddy Turnstones scurrying along a Queens breakwater, all used their wily camouflage to avoid being seen. The envelope please. Oh, where’s the envelope? (Ha! Millie used to kerplunk on the winning announcements.) This year, I was ever-so-lucky to have seen not only one, but four nearly invisible Screech Owls.

FEMALE BIRD OF THE YEAR.

The 2021 Audubon Photo Awards added a new Female Bird Prize to encourage attention to the frequently subtler splendor of the womenfolk. It’s about time. Through the year, I’ve often swooned over the blended reds and olives of female Northern Cardinals, but the surprise damsel who wins my kudos is a Ring-necked Pheasant, literally a chick, seen strolling down Brooklyn’s Marine Park Salt Marsh Trail.

CUTEST KIDS.

This award has been reserved year after year for the Piping Plover hatchling fluff balls that are a textbook illustration for cute. (Oh, I nearly forgot that, in the past, I would need to distract Millie with a treat during this presentation. Any laudatory conversation involving cuteness that wasn’t about her was NOT tolerated!) But wow, the new cute kids on the block were a pair of Great Horned Owl youngsters, seriously vying for adorableness with those Red Fox kits.  

ARCHITECTS OF THE YEAR.

Location. Location. Location. The construction aptitude that birds have for nest-building is humbling. They’re self-schooled wunderkinds. The nest that took my breath away as the real estate grab of the year was built by an Osprey pair that chose the winged splendor of the Bronx Victory Memorial in Pelham Bay Park as their pied en l’air for the summer. Take THAT, oh Billionaires’ Row.

AVIAN SPECTACLE.

Quick. Quick. Snow Geese against the New York City skyline.

GOODNIGHT, GRACIE.

Sheer avian grace must be acknowledged for Great Egrets whenever and wherever one sees them.

ESTEEMED VISITOR CITATION.

In any other year, the fantastic appearance of a Snowy Owl in Central Park for several weeks, after nearly a century’s absence, would be the no-contest winner of this gold leaf illuminated honor. However, we present this plaque in memoriam of an ill-fated wandering Wood Stork who made headlines from an obscure retention pond on Staten Island. 

MILLIE’S WEST VILLAGE BIRD OF THE YEAR.

Millie always insisted that at least ONE West Village bird had to be celebrated in these festivities. I think she would have winked at the irony of honoring the birds who perhaps annoyed her the most: Hudson River Park’s winter visitors, the diminutive Brant Geese. It’s also fitting that these geese might have been some of the last birds that she, likewise, annoyed during her eventful life.

NEW BIRD OF THE YEAR.

Remarkably, this year there were not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, but SIX contenders for this coveted prize. Runners up are the aforementioned, and awarded, Roseate Spoonbill and Wood Stork, extralimital Hoary Redpolls, both a Purple Gallinule and a Black-bellied Whistling Duck that warranted multiple trips on the A Train until I finally saw them, and, drum-roll please for the winner: a super-celebrity Gray Kingbird at Staten Island’s Great Kills Park that was both a first time record for New York City and was cooperative enough to hang around for me to see it!

BIRD OF THE YEAR 2021.

Usually, this award is kept as a well-guarded secret. Nevertheless in my September WestView article I promised that this accolade would be showered upon Barry, the Central Park Barred Owl. Now for the surprise. As royalty herself, I’m sure that Millie would have cheered for The Baroness being additionally lauded with a posthumous LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD for her contribution to elevating NYC’s morale during the pandemic, and inspiring a new generation of birders. Hers was a life that ended far too soon. As we bid adieu to 2021, I am filled with gratitude for Millie’s oft-missed inspiration for my writing about birds, for all Millie’s fans who have kept her corgi spirit lively, and for WestView for giving the time and space for my avian ramblings about our charmed West Village.

Visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.  

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