Staten Island’s Freshkills Park includes varied types of habitat including grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands. Photo: James Dunham/CC BY-SA 2.0
The greatest global threat to birds is habitat loss and degradation. New York City, the most densely populated major city in the United States, is nevertheless traced by a vast network of viable bird habitat: 30,000 acres of forests, grasslands, wetlands, and islands, and 578 miles of waterfront. Over 350 species of birds—almost a third of all the species in North America—depend on this habitat during the year. Millions stop here during migration as they travel along the Atlantic Flyway, one of the world’s great bird migration routes. Many species nest here, while others journey here from the far north to find refuge in the wintertime.
Both large and small green spaces in the City may provide critical migratory stopover, nesting, and wintering habitat. And such spaces have many additional benefits. They provide opportunities for connection to birds and nature often lacking in underserved communities. Green spaces, including green roofs, also reduce energy consumption and fossil fuel use by mitigating the “heat island effect” in our metropolis. Coastal habitats protect low-lying communities from flooding and storm surges—protection that is ever more urgent in our warming world. (All of our bird species and their habitats are being impacted by ongoing global climate change, in ways that scientists are still working to understand. Read about National Audubon’s research on the impact of climate change on birds.)
Four Decades of Habitat Conservation
In 1978, a cadre of regular Central Park bird watchers successfully opposed a Central Park Conservancy plan to “restore” the Ramble through changes such as tree removal. These fledgling bird-habitat activists soon founded the New York City Audubon Society—and launched 40 years of dedicated habitat preservation. Through the years, we have often achieved victory through collaboration with partner organizations exclusively dedicated to habitat protection. Our “Buffer the Bay” program, worked with the Trust for Public Land and the American Littoral Society to preserve priority lands around Jamaica Bay. Other successes have included the conservation of the grasslands of Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, the Harbor Heron Islands, Goethal’s Bridge Pond on Staten Island, and Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn-Queens border. Read more about the history of NYC Audubon’s habitat conservation work (PDF).
Bird-Friendly Habitat Management
Many assume that natural areas are “best left alone” and do not require active management. But our city’s habitats, having been transformed over hundreds of years, often require human intervention to be productive for wildlife. All areas have been impacted by development—and some are now entirely different habitats than they once were. Much of our original bird-friendly native flora has been replaced by introduced plant species. Keystone animal or plant species, which once played critical roles in sustaining a habitat, may be entirely missing.
Bird-friendly management practices are needed to make these natural areas richer and safer for birds and other wildlife. Native landscaping, proven to increase bird diversity and abundance, is key for any bird-friendly habitat. (Learn more about why native plants are important for birds, and about planting for birds in New York City.) Carefully employed policies such as mowing schedule or water-level maintenance make habitats more productive as nesting and foraging areas. Improved stormwater management is critical to the City’s wetland habitats. (Read about stormwater and water quality issues facing NYC.) And regulations protecting nesting areas of vulnerable ground-nesting birds from both people and domestic animals must be enforced. (Learn more about the danger that free-roaming and feral cats pose for birds.)
Our urban green spaces are a very scarce resource—and pro-wildlife policies can conflict with other priorities of both park managers and the public. NYC Audubon advocates for the allocation of city, state, and federal funds for the conservation, restoration, and maintenance of New York City’s natural spaces, as well as for the funding of natural resource agencies and their staff, at all levels. It is important that stakeholders hear from constituents who support bird-friendly policies and program funding—and that the public is offered opportunities to learn about the value of the wild habitats in their communities. Learn more about how you can help advocate for bird-friendly legislation and policies that affects issues such as land use choices in New York City.
Priority Habitat Types
NYC Audubon identifies vulnerable bird habitats in the five boroughs and works to protect them. Every habitat type in the City requires a specific set of policies and maintenance regimens to best support migrating or breeding bird populations and other wildlife. Read about each main habitat type below. We also create and conduct research on green roofs and other green infrastructure—manmade habitats that both help maintain our harbor’s water quality and provide novel and much needed habitat for birds in dense urban settings.
Forests and Upland Parks
As millions of migrating birds fly over New York City in spring and fall, they encounter what must be a bewildering spectacle: an inhospitable landscape of cement, rooftops, and macadam streets. But this vast “gray-scape” is marked, here and there, with inviting shapes of dark green—the City’s forests. NYC Audubon works to protect these critical woodland habitats and encourages bird-friendly forest management throughout the City’s five boroughs.
Great and Snowy Egrets in New York Harbor. Photo: Yigal Gelb
The Harbor Heron Islands
In the waters that divide New York City’s five boroughs, hemmed in by development and crisscrossed by bridges, ferries, and tunnels, lies an overlooked, scattered wilderness: the islands of the Harbor Herons.
Double-crested Cormorants, American Oystercatchers, Atlantic Brant, and more in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens. Photo: Don Riepe
Coastal Wetlands and Beaches
With its 578 miles of waterfront and vast salt marshes, New York City truly deserves the nickname “City of Water”: its waterfront is longer than those of Miami, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco combined.
Grasslands and Capped Landfills
Plains, prairies, steppes, veldts, llanos, and pampas: these names from around the globe conjure up a certain kind of vast, sweeping ecosystem, the grassland. And though these grassland types may differ in some specifics, they are all alike in that grasses (plants in the family Poaceae) are the dominant plant species, often accompanied by sedges, (Cyperaceae) and rushes (Juncaceae). Grasslands tend to occur in areas where water (and sometimes temperature or soil quality) is inadequate to support shrubs and trees. This open ecosystem is often maintained in part by fire and/or grazing by animals, and may occur naturally or under the purposeful management of human beings.
Herring Gull eggs on the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center Green Roof. Photo: Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
Green Roofs and Infrastructure
Historically, NYC Audubon has advocated for the conservation of natural areas in New York City with two primary goals in mind: the preservation of habitat for birds, and the safeguarding of ecological services that protect both people and wildlife in our city. Projects such as Buffer the Bay (1987), Buffer the Bay Revisited (1993), and Jamaica Bay Coastal Habitat Restoration Project (1994-1996) aimed to protect land surrounding Jamaica Bay as bird habitat, and as a buffer from storms and flooding.
The green roof of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Photo: Dustin Partridge
Green Roof Researchers Alliance
In 2017, NYC Audubon convened a working group of green roof researchers at the request of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The new group’s aim: to provide accurate information on the benefits of green roofs and to broaden awareness of green roofs among decision-makers and the public, in order to accelerate green roof installation across the City.
NYC Water Quality, Stormwater Issues
New York City’s human population—over eight million people—poses a set of distinct challenges to our wetland ecosystem.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on Bee Balm. Photo: BudOhio/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Plants for Birds
In New York City, we can help provide all these things by enriching the landscape for birds. In our highly managed greenspaces, which plant species we choose to include can have a strong impact on the health and diversity of our land bird population, and on our ecosystem in general.
An iconic bird of eastern woodlands, the musical Wood Thrush is enormously helped if we reduce carbon emissions: It could lose 60 percent of its current range, forced north into what is now boreal forest, if global temperatures rise 3.0 degrees, but mostly stays put after 1.5 degrees. Source: Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, by National Audubon. Data visualizations and design: Stamen Design
Birds and Climate Change
The most critical threat to birds and our planet at large, Climate Change affects all habitats in different ways. Rising sea levels are particularly ominous for coastal communities of both birds and people, but many non-coastal bird species may also be adversely affected by rising temperatures. According to National Audubon’s climate report, Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, two-thirds of North American birds are at increasing risk of extinction from global temperature rise.