Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Mystery Bird

The morning walk from my apartment to the subway is one of the highlights of my day. It begins on the steps of my beautiful brownstone, continues past the non-Starbucks coffee shop on my corner, heads across Columbus Ave, and then passes around Theodore Roosevelt Park--which borders the northern and western sides of the American Museum of Natural History--before ending right at Central Park West.  Not only do I pass clusters of latte-drinking, paper-reading, bench-sitting fellow Upper West Siders with their colorfully swaddled children, all-terrain strollers, robust retrievers and bright-eyed spaniels, but I also get to tip my hat to the stone effigy of one of my favorite presidents, good old TR, his chest thrust forcefully at the morning sun. Most importantly, on the entire walk I see more trees than buildings.

However, one morning last week I was startled out of my usual reverie by a mysterious avian interloper. I had crossed Columbus and was turning left on the sidewalk when I noticed an unfamiliar-looking bird eyeing me from the top of the low iron fence surrounding TR Park. I stopped. It continued to look at me. I waved. It looked away. Then it looked back. I frowned. It blinked. At that point I had to keep walking, because another feature of my morning subway walk is that I give myself exactly six minutes to get to the B train platform, which means that 30% of the time I actually miss my train, and on that morning I had a 9:30 am phone meeting with India (yes, that would be the nation). 

But the bird's unknown identity nagged at me for the rest of the day. Why didn't I recognize it? I'm by no means a bird expert, much less an amateur ornithologist, but I do really like birds and will often stop when at the beach or in the park to watch them. Plus, my tenure as a volunteer docent at the 2004 Presidio exhibit of Andrew Jackson Grayson's Birds of the Pacific Slope paintings resulted in a verbal exchange between me and my sister that made it into the family pantheon of all-time best quotes (it includes a nod to both Christopher Guest and the American Kestrel). I've also unsuccessfully lobbied my mother to build a barn owl box under the eaves of her house in San Francisco, and have ridden my bike several times up towards Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, where one can watch the raptors migrating on the Pacific flyway circling and circling (they're afraid to cross open water, which I find fascinating, and which they have to do in order to get over the Golden Gate and continue their journey thousands of miles south). And finally, where would I be without my family's very first pet, our blue-fronted Amazon parrot, Picolé, who my parents brought back from Brazil in the 1970s?

Picolé: The best parrot that ever lived
When I was in Cambridge last month, I spent an afternoon in the Harvard Museum of Natural History; at one point I entered a special exhibit on colour and animals, and staring at me from a glass case was Picolé. It wasn't him of course, but because this stuffed bird looked so much like him, and because it's been nearly a decade since he died, I almost started to cry. By myself. In any empty museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

The bird in the Theodore Roosevelt Park was nowhere near this exotic, however--my best scientifically impossible guess was that it was a cross between a robin and a chickadee. So I began my search from those two points of reference, and in the process I identified several of the other birds I see around my neighborhood. For example, UWS denizens often encounter the ubiquitous European Starling, who at this time of year spends his/her time hopping around the tulip planters surrounding sidewalk trees, or pecking at things on the park lawns. The starling is often found in the same vicinity as the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the Brown Creeper, both of which I hoped might be my mystery bird but are neither big enough nor, for lack of a better word, bushy enough around the breast (poor diction is yet one reason why I would be an unscientific ornithologist).
European Starling, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper
Nor was the mystery bird a Mourning Dove, a bird with which I'm quite familiar because two like to come visit me on my living room windowsill as I get ready for work in the mornings. Given my hetero-centric mindset, I used to think that they were a cute little boy-girl dove couple coming to coo over each other in my adoring presence, but as NCT helpfully pointed out, they have the same coloring and thus are both girls. So now I thinof them as the cute little girl-girl dove couple coming to coo over each other in my adoring presence.

Leaning towards the lavender?
Several more days of investigation plus one late afternoon visit to Central Park with NCT ended with me, I think, correctly identifying my mysterious friend. However, this ID did not occur before I, while sunk knee-deep in my bird-guessing hubris, excitedly misidentified a docile loon as a raptor. NCT and I were standing by the pond in the Ramble when a large-winged bird flew overhead and then landed with a beautiful skimming motion on the water's surface. I'd like to think that I was distracted by the wingspan size and thus didn't notice the obviously non hawk-like silhouette and landing, but having a witness did not help my case. In any event, I maintain that the bird was not a loon but instead some sort of merganser, but NCT maintains that I'm just saying that because I only like the word "merganser" due to its frequent appearance in crossword puzzles I can't finish. Touché. Regardless, it definitely was not a raptor of any persuasion.

This is not a hawk
Anyway, while I wouldn't bet money on it, I believe that what I saw was a squat, very brownish-breasted American Robin that looked like the following beauty:

That said, please let me know if you have any better-informed theories/guesses as to what my mystery bird is!


  1. Are you sure it was a robin? Because a robin is a pretty straightforward bird to identify. I would think that you would have got that one immediately. Second, are you sure that your lesbian "morning doves" aren't just flying rats, AKA NYC pigeons? I realize that "morning dove" sounds cleaner, and perhaps more romantic, but I vote pigeon. Finally, did you come across any blue-headed starlings in your research? If so, are those the girls or the boys?

  2. why are you teasing us about the all-time-best quotes from you and larkin?

  3. That's what I thought, too, but some of the photos I saw of robins, especially the browner-breasted ones, look like the bird I saw. I'm still keeping my eyes and my cell phone camera at the ready when I walk by the park, however, in case I see it again. And yes, the mourning doves are definitely not pigeons--there's a whole flock of them (the doves, not pigeons) that hangs out on the trees in the garden next door, and a few like to fly up to my apartment and the balcony of my downstairs neighbor (they're also a topic of conversation in my building. Shape-wise they do look like NYC's official bird, but their colouring is pretty different.

    No blue-headed starlings off the top of my head, but I'll try to trap one in TR Park and bring it into work. It can be our little pet :).