The Universal Pleasures of Birding

December 23, 2019

A review by Sanford Sorkin

How to Be an Urban Birder, by David Lindo

WILDGuides, 2018

232 pages, softcover

Not every birding career is launched in the wilderness. I remember my own life-altering encounter: staring down at a Virginia Rail that had chosen to stand its ground and glare back, obviously asking why anyone unfeathered would want to perch on a narrow plank boardwalk in the middle of a swamp. It was a captivating experience, one that made me want to see more—and one that inspired me to acquire a camera to help me hold and share the beauty of it all.

That swamp where it all started for me was not in the wilds of Florida or Alaska or any such farflung birding mecca. The boardwalk I was standing on and the rail I was looking down at were in New Jersey—and not in Cape May but in northern New Jersey, in the very middle of the American megalopolis, where the human population density  approaches 5,000 souls per cramped square mile.

Birding in the city highlights the opportunities to bird close to home and to explore more accessible places. In his latest book, David Lindo has brewed a delightful mixture for birders everywhere. The reader follows Lindo to visit backyards, gardens, buildings, landfills, and wetlands in and around London, but the pleasure he finds and the lessons he draws are universal. We could just as easily be in Manhattan with Pale Male in Central Park, Common Grackles in Washington Square, or Peregrine Falcons terrorizing Feral Pigeons in Greenwich Village. Watching a pair of kestrels at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel makes me wonder if they are drawn by an abundance of prey or a shortcut to New York City.

Writing about urban birding anywhere requires a critical examination of the environment, structure, and organization of the modern city. Urban areas may not be as wild as remote valleys and mountains, but no habitat is truly pristine in the Anthropocene. Lindo points out that the health of many urban areas can be metered by looking at bird populations. Is the loss of the House Sparrow in London, for example, a bellwether of climate change? What other forms of pollution might be involved? Has the food supply collapsed? Have the birds been outcompeted by other species? Questions such as these might suggest that Urban Birding is full of environmental alerts and dire warnings, but Lindo’s message is that birding is more rewarding when there is also effective conservation underway. The cover image reflects a joyful attitude: a Western Jackdaw with a handsome batch of French fries, or chips as they are called in the London vernacular. This is a book about enjoying a hobby, being outdoors, meeting people, and caring about the environment.

Lindo’s accounts of his urban experiences are set primarily in London. But the idea of the urban is becoming more and more expansive, as our cities and towns grow larger and encroach more on the meadows and forests. The birds have reacted to these incursions, some by adapting to human presence, others taking up residence elsewhere. Climate change has entered the picture as well, with birds migrating along new routes and stopping over in cities for a small rest—and usually an abundance of discarded human food.

My own urban birding in London over the years has introduced me to over 100 species. It also confirms many of Lindo’s observations. For instance, it was delightful to encounter the Dunnock in Hyde Park, just as it is surprising, even worrisome, to have never seen a House Sparrow anywhere in the city.

Lindo is right: more time spent looking up confirms that there is much to see in the city sky. As an American in London, it is a treat to see a flock of 50 or more Carrion and Western Jackdaws mobbing a Common Buzzard over the Serpentine, or a Blackcap singing on a branch in one of the manicured Hyde Park gardens alongside the ubiquitous European Robin. A good American-in-London challenge is to differentiate between birds familiar to us and their British near-look-alikes: Goldcrests and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Eurasian Coots and American Coots, Eurasian Moorhens and Common Gallinules, Eurasian Wrens and Winter Wrens. If you are not a UK resident, urban birding can also be the occasion for a vocabulary lesson: I thought fly tipping might have something to do with fishing, when it actually refers to illegal dumping. You also get to learn about twitching and JCBs, and get used to another spelling of “gray.”