7 of the most surprising urban birds found in US cities

urban aviary
© Marc Martin / Urban Aviary / White Lion Publishing

Pigeons sure, but urban eagles and city vultures? A beautifully illustrated new book, Urban Aviary, spills their secrets.

Urban animals get a bum rap. We move into their turf, cover it with pavement and skyscrapers and garbage, and then complain about creatures like pigeons being dirty and in our space. (Humans are a funny bunch.) As far as I'm concerned, that these stalwart animals have figured out how to survive in our manmade environments is nothing short of triumphant. And you might be surprised by some of the species who have succeeded in this challenge.

A new book, Urban Aviary: A modern guide to city birds (White Lion Publishing, 2019) takes a look at members of the avian set who have successfully made themselves at home in cities across the world. Wonderfully written by Stephen Moss and beautifully illustrated by Marc Martin, the book tells the stories of 75 bird species – from Anna’s Hummingbird in Vancouver to the Zebra Dove in Kuala Lumpur – who have found a way to live, and often thrive, in metropolises across the planet.

But more than just a beguiling guide to birds, there's a crucial message in these stories. In the introduction, Moss explains that currently, more than half of the world’s population makes its home in cities. Given population projections and the general migration from rural to urban environments, it will become increasingly important to figure out how to co-exist with urban animals. In describing how many people will be living in cities as the human population expands, Moss writes:

This has crucial implications for the future of both birds and ourselves. If we welcome birds into our cities, by providing food, water and places to nest, we will benefit too. All the evidence shows that regular contact with nature improves our physical, mental and emotional health. If we shut out the birds, pushing them to the fringes and eventually providing nowhere for them to live, we will lose out as well. It’s a simple choice.

Here, here. That sounds like something straight from the TreeHugger Playbook! Cities are great; nature is great. Finding ways to allow them to co-exist, as contradictory as that may sound, is essential. By increasing metropolitan green space, planting more city trees, and celebrating the city creatures, we all win.

And with that in mind, I wanted to share some of the more surprising – and inspiring – birds who call cities home. While Urban Aviary includes birds from cities all over the world, I narrowed this selection down to ones from the United States, since they will likely resonate more with our largely American audience. These are my favorites, with small snippets of text from the book for a little bit of context.

BALD EAGLE: Denver, Colorado

In Denver, the capital city of the state of Colorado, local residents avidly watch a webcam showing a pair of breeding bald eagles that has chosen to nest on the Fort St. Vrain Generating Station to the north of the city.

COMMON NIGHTHAWK: Chicago, Illinois

Chicago’s nighthawks often nest on rooftops, an analogue to their habitat in the wild, where they nest on raised ground in prairies or grassland.

RED-TAILED HAWK: New York, New York

There are now at least thirty red-tailed hawk nests in New York, where the birds are easily seen as they float above the skyline searching for food – mostly pigeons and rats.

PURPLE MARTIN: Houston, Texas

The Texas city of Houston – famous for oil and NASA’s mission control – is one of the first places where purple martins are seen each year, with males returning from their winter quarters in South America as early as January.

BROWN PELICAN: San Francisco, California

Today, there are around 10,000 pairs in California as a whole. Brown pelicans head south in January to breed in southern California and Mexico, and then return to San Francisco in July or August, where, once again, large flocks can be seen flying high over the city skyline before plunging down into the bay.

GOLDEN-CHEEKED WARBLER: San Antonio, Texas

Even in Texas, the golden-cheeked warbler has a very limited range, essentially a narrow strip running diagonally from northeast to southwest through the centre of the state. This passes right through the city of San Antonio, where the warbler’s distinctive buzzing song can be heard from oak trees and junipers, where it makes its nest out of fragments of tree bark held together by spiderwebs.

TURKEY VULTURE: Washington DC

Once confined to the Wild West and other remote parts of the Americas, turkey vultures are now a regular sight over the United States’ capital city, Washington, DC. [Uhmmm, no comment.]

There is so much to take away from Urban Aviary, not the least of which is that nature is in our own backyards, there for marveling at and admiring, even if we live in the city.

For more information, visit White Lion Publishing. Urban Aviary: A modern guide to city birds is available for pre-order on Amazon.

7 of the most surprising urban birds found in US cities
Pigeons sure, but urban eagles and city vultures? A beautifully illustrated new book, Urban Aviary, spills their secrets.

Related Content on Treehugger.com