Listening on Rooftops

View from The Rooftop

View from One Bryant Park


I couldn’t have picked a better day than yesterday to visit the rooftops of Manhattan!


One goal of New York City Audubon’s Project Safe Flight program is to figure out how migratory birds cope with big cities along their migratory route. When spring migrants head up the Atlantic Flyway and encounter New York City, what do they do? Do they fly on one side of Manhattan or the other? Do they fly higher or lower than usual? Do they fly up the avenues? We have our theories, and now we are testing them.


Research has already been done–including work by NYC Audubon Board member Andrew Farnsworth–on night flight calls of migratory land birds. The technology exists to record and analyze the calls, so we can find out who (what species) is calling. The challenge today is: Where can we install the microphones?


So I called Helena Durst, a vice president of the Durst Organization (one of the city’s most environmentally conscientious developers) and an enthusiastic supporter of NYC Audubon’s Lights Out New York. Thanks to Ms. Durst, I got to spend the morning with a member of her staff,  Lauren Leppla, touring five fabulous rooftops. From the 945-foot-tall One Bryant Park to a 286-foot-tall building at 733 Third Avenue…. What a view! Each building engineer who took us to the roof was gracious and keen on helping us with the project.


Some of questions we are looking to answer: Are birds flying closer to rivers, or are they flying over the center of Manhattan? Are night flight calls correlated with collisions? Are more birds flying over higher or lower buildings? Darker or brightly lit areas?  Green spaces or developed land? Lots of questions to answer. We’ll also be teaming up with Fordham University professor Alan Clark in using radar to visualize migration. But on this glorious day in March, I just got to see the city from a bird’s eye view.


And it was great!


–Susan Elbin



One Comment

  1. Christopher Hayes says:

    I remember walking in Greenwich Village in the late 1990′s and bumping into a friend, Nick, an opera fan and remarkably tenacious Central Park birder and naturalist (who for years returned to a remote forest nook in northern New Jersey to visit a rare wild Lady Slipper which he eventually got to see bloom after an untold number of journeys.) So there we were, chatting on Bleecker Street at about five in the afternoon, when the foot traffic and honking horns were rising to a crescendo, and Nick pointed up and said, “Do you hear that?” Filtering out the cacophony of the city, I could just make out a long screeching wail of a call and looked up. Sure enough, a teeny, tiny speck, almost invisible to the eye and maybe a 1000+ ft. up, was circling. There it was, a Night Hawk looking for a mate. But for Nick and a few other hardy birders, sailing along, utterly unnoticed by the million plus souls slogging away on the ground down below. My wife who was with us stood agog, amazed by Nick’s sublime appreciation of NYC’s natural wonders.

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