The story of Pale Male is, in a sense, a New York City version of The Beverly Hillbillies, in which a country bumpkin can’t quite comprehend the citified ways of his new neighbors. But what does New York really look like to a bird? According to Audubon Society president John Flicker and Cornell University “urban bird” specialist Mindy LaBranche, the city can be a surprisingly advantageous environment for any bird who stays away from co-op boards.
City birds dine mainly on grass seed and bread crumbs, not trash. Still, trash is good for our feathered friends: Flicker says that garbage “resembles carcasses in some ways,” and carcasses would be part of their diet if they lived in nature.
Jet turbines purée small birds, who get sucked into them—but the danger goes both ways. “A goose or a crane could blow out an engine,” says Flicker. In 1975, a DC-10’s engine failed after gorging on some gulls at takeoff, causing the plane to overrun the runway and burst into flames. Now JFK has procedures to prevent the collisions, including booming cannons and even specially trained scary falcons.
Clifflike ledges mimic birds’ natural habitats—and help them keep watch on their enemies. But windows are not an urban bird’s friend: “They see the reflection of sky and think it’s an escape route,” says LaBranche, who’s currently testing ultraviolet window decals, invisible to humans but clearly seen by birds’ eyes. Some Manhattan buildings have used netting over their windows for incoming birds to bounce off.
Flicker says that birds lost in stations will eventually escape (“They instinctively move toward light and air”), but LaBranche believes they’ve no desire. “They’re not confused. They’re there intentionally,” she insists. There have even been reports of birds riding the subway. “They’ll hop on at one stop and go to the next,” says LaBranche, citing food-bearing commuters as the draw. “They also ride the ferries.”
Flicker says Pale Male was once attacked by eight to ten crows (“he took them on one at a time,” as if in a kung fu movie), and another hawk was recently driven into the East River by a flock of gulls. The NYPD’s scuba team rescued it from the frigid water.
Humans “do all sorts of nasty things” to birds in the city, says LaBranche, but pigeons can recognize facial expressions and even remember the faces of hostile pedestrians, thus helping them fly clear of an attack.
The city’s biggest hazard to people doesn’t worry the birds. Flicker says city traffic is far less dangerous than rural traffic “because it moves slower.” LaBranche takes it a step further: “Pigeons don’t get hit as much as other birds. They’re used to the way things move in the city.”