Another NYC Bird Watcher
posted: April 14, 2009
Recently I met with Dr. Robert DeCandido, PhD, known around Central Park as "Birding Bob." In addition to his observations about Mother Nature, he shared some keen insights into Human Nature. He's the latest addition to the Bird Watchers section of my Overlooked New York Website.

"The first bird that turned me on to birding, growing up in the Bronx, was a Cardinal in my yard. To see something red was really nice.

"Later, when I was playing stickball as a kid I saw a bird with a red head bringing nesting material up under a metal awning on a porch. It turned out to be a House Finch, which is a non-native species, and it had color -- it wasn’t just a common Starling.

"When I got out of college I started hitchhiking around the United States and I wanted to figure out a way to work in one of the nice places I was visiting. So I started working with Bald Eagles in Arizona, and Peregrine Falcons in California on government funded projects, and I went back to school and got my PhD in evolutionary biology and ecology.

"I wound up back here in New York City, working as a park ranger, and they couldn’t find anybody to lead the bird walks in the park, and so they asked me to do it. That was probably in the spring of ’94, and though I'm not a ranger anymore, I’ve been doing them ever since.

"Our primary group is on Sundays, and on a good day there might be 60 people who show up. It's a group of people that you get to know: you hear about their lives, or if they got laid off or how their book is coming along. We have a lot of talented people with great life stories and we watch each other change and mature over time.

"But there are different bird groups and they each have different auras about them.

"The Museum Group, for example, is a good place for singles, for people who want to meet one another. Our group, called The Bird Walks, has older people who are married and have kids. So for our group... yes, the birds are really pretty, and we look for rare birds and it's always fun to add one to your list, but if you took away the social part of the bird walks I don’t know if that would be good for the birding community or for yourself in the long-term.

"On our walks we try to make it fun and it’s relaxing and they learn a little bit, and get to move around. They start off as neophytes and they think, 'Wow, if I could just identify five birds in a year that would be amazing!' And then over time we watch them get really good, and then they can take it from there.

"Some of the bird walks you see are very serious and they're really focused on the birds. They're really quiet -- they don’t say a word -- and they're very disciplined and I go, 'Wow, I'm really impressed!' Me, I grew up in a big family in the Bronx, where it was rumble tumble and making noise, so that isn't my way.

"The Spring is the best time to watch the birds because they're all in their nice plumage and you can kind of be noisy and moving around because the birds are really concentrating on feeding. But then you have this thing between the groups: 'Oh, your group, they don’t know what they're doing; they're too noisy' and so on. So friction develops between groups.

"Take the Screech Owl project. Screech owls bred here in Central Park until the 1950s, and then they disappeared. Since they really don’t migrate, once you lose screech owls from a place, they are gone. So unless somebody comes and brings in some more, you ain’t going to get them back. In the 1990s, when I worked as a ranger for the Parks Department, we started a program to bring screech owls in and it was met with almost universal hatred: 'How could you bring in those poor little owls? It’s all for publicity! They'll never make it in the city! You're going to kill them!' It was crazy. It polarized the park. The flip side now is they're still here after 10 years, though they're hanging on by just a thread.

"Some people are going after me now because I do owl walks at night and I use a tape recording of a screech owl call to bring the owls in and it’s like, 'Bob! you are disturbing the owls, how could you do that?'

"They'll come right up to me and yell in my face. I watch their religious intensity and it’s scary, because here I am, making the owls known to people -- which the owls need in order to survive in the park, because the more people know about them, the more the Central Park Conservancy will notice and want more owls.

"The people who are attacking me are out in the park themselves seven nights a week watching the owls, so there's quite a disconnect: they say what I do is bad, but what they do is fine, because they care so much more about the owls than I do.
"You know, just because people like the environment, it doesn't make them any different than any other group of people. They think that they're holier than thou and living the Holy Life, but they have the same foibles, the same fears, the same mistakes as every other group. And the same anger toward other people.

"The environmental people are in some ways more conservative than other groups I’ve been in, because it's a matter of being Righteous: you have to be good to the environment, you have to behave a certain way, and they have their Rights and their Wrongs. That’s the scary part about it: when people feel they hold the moral high ground, it doesn’t matter what the facts are, they're going to justify what they do, because they feel they're doing the right thing and that's all that matters."