The Wildlife Conservation Society is conducting a breeding bird survey of the Bronx Zoo grounds, over a hundred years after the first (and until now, only) such count on the property.

plush-crested jay

Not Counted

Not only does the original count provide important information about a lost era, it has added historical richness because it was conducted and written up by legendary naturalist C. William Beebe. His account of the 1904 survey contains the expected – mention of birds that are now absent but for migration, like New York’s own state bird, the Eastern Bluebird. But lest you be tempted to pine for a false golden age, he also notes what isn’t there, including some extremely surprising absences like a lack of nesting Mallards (a lack which 2010 has rectified.)

Even more interesting is the fact that Beebe devotes almost two paragraphs to a spirited defense of the ‘sparrow hawk’ (presumably the Sharp-shinned Hawk), the Screech Owl, and the shrike as agents of pest control. In light of the kind of park management that went on at the time, it’s clear that his insight was much-needed and all to often unheeded.

Beebe’s love of the Sharpie was only equaled by (and, it seems clear, partly inspired by) his hate-on for the Black-throated Brown Warbler, “which only wholesale and systematic shooting has prevented from overrunning the park.” He was also leery of the then-unubiquitous Starling, of which he writes “This is a handsome bird and a fine whistler, but when we realize how surely he is elbowing our native birds out of their rights his beauties vanish and we perceive he is as much of a villain as the English sparrow.”

Clearly, C. William Beebe was a man well ahead of his time.

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Photo by Stavenn