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What’s in Flight
Winter 2024

Birds at suet feeder by Judy Howard

Winter in Carl Schurz Park is full of surprises, with unexpected avian vacationers and sightings of birds that are hard to spot in leafier times.  While some days, it may feel like the only birds in the park are voluble House Sparrows, don’t take these chipper brown birds for granted. Their disappearance is mourned in Europe, where diesel pollution, has killed over half the population, says British sparrow specialist, J Denis Summers-Smith.


Ruby-crowned Kinglet by Jay Zemann

One of the highlights this winter was the appearance of a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet, who delighted our birders for several months. This is the first Ruby-crowned Kinglet on record to overwinter here. It was often seen on the feeders. To survive the winter in New York, the Kinglet, which weighs the same as a nickel, has to eat an incredible quantity of food. ‘The equivalent for us would be at least 27 large pizzas a day,’ says ornithologist David Allen Sibley. 

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by Judy Howard 

Winter is a great time to spot our abundant woodpeckers drilling in the trees and flashing their bright head and neck colors. We have Hairy Woodpeckers (who are typically seen only in the winter); Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (who drill sap wells in trees that birds and insects feed from); Downy Woodpeckers; and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, (who are residents most months except the summer.)  Drilling tree holes exerts tremendous pressure on the Woodpecker’s head. Fortunately, ‘They have built in shock absorbers on the back of their skull to protect them from brain damage,’ explains Paul Sweet, Collection Manager of the Ornithology Department at the American Natural History Museum. 


Red-breasted Mergansers by Jay Zemann (male and female images)

From the Esplanade you can see (until April, when they migrate) flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers in the East River.  This is one of the fastest ducks. It can reach speeds of up to 81 MPH. The Red-breasted Merganser feeds by putting its head under water and ‘snorkeling’ along, looking for prey.  


Gadwalls by Jay Zemann (male and female images)

Our local over-wintering ducks like these Gadwalls and the Red-breasted Mergansers are cold weather experts.  They grow extra feathers. They have a special blood flow system to their feet and legs which stops their feet from freezing in the cold water, and they can drink salt water due to a special gland located above their eyes, which enables them to extract the salt and excrete it in a solution through the nose.

Kissing Cardinal WIF .jpeg

 Northern Cardinals by Jay Zemann

The sweetest year-round residents in our park are undoubtedly a pair of Northern Cardinals. These birds typically bond for life. The male is one of the most colorful birds in the park. He has brilliant red feathers, a black mask and an orangey-red bill. Whenever you see him out and about, the female is usually hidden nearby in the trees and shrubs. She is pale brown-green color with a striking red bill, and she is one of the few female birds that sings. 


Cooper's Hawk by Jay Zemann

Cooper’s Hawks start to appear in the park in December and are rarely seen after April. They are expert predators, capturing fairly large birds like pigeons, starlings and robins with their feet. They squeeze their prey to death or plunge them into water to drown.


Red-tailed Hawk by Jay Zemann

By February, our resident Red-tailed Hawks are starting to pair up (David Allen Sibley says to look out for birds with their legs dangling when they fly, as that is part of the Red-tailed Hawk's mating display). As winter transitions into spring these hawks make their first attempts at nest building. In previous years, pairs have been seen mating on balconies around the park, but as yet, no offspring has been reported. 


Blue Jay by Jay Zemann

House Finch by Jay Zemann

The Blue Jay, with its striking blue, black and white plumage, is one of the most colorful, smart and noisy birds in Carl Schurz Park. Blue Jays love acorns and will cache 3,000 to 5,000 acorns each fall. This helps them survive the winter months.  It requires an incredible memory to find them again. Fortunately, not all  are recovered, which means Blue Jays are a key species in maintaining the spread of our native oak trees.  


A gregarious flock of House Finches is often sighted on or around the bird feeders in winter. The males have a raspberry-colored face and breast. The dull-looking females are often mistaken for House Sparrows. These birds are not native to the East Coast. They originated in Mexico and the West Coast. They were introduced here in 1940.


Fox Sparrow by Jay Zemann

One of the prettiest American Sparrows (no relation to the European House Sparrows, says Paul Sweet) in our park is the Fox Sparrow. It has streaky reddish brown and grey-white plumage, and black and yellow bill. It can be spotted easily over wintering in our park, as it likes to forage for food among the leaf litter.

Northern Cardinal by Judy Howard 

Words: Lucie Young


Videos: Judy Howard 

Images: Jay Zemann


Check out our previous edition of What's in Flight


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