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Befriending Mr. Chickadee: Winter Birding in Central Park, circa 1900

"New York is the metropolis of sparrowdom." 
- from "New York's Winter Birds," The Osprey, 1900.

Looking back to 1900 to see how New Yorkers spent their winter, a few dozen people, maybe many more, were trying to tame chickadees in Central Park. New York City is known as one of the best birding spots in North America, and a search for winter birding activity in Central Park, a favorite spot, turns up several entertaining items from 1900, give or take a few years. What makes the following reading fascinating is that the bird observers of 1900 displayed an eagerness to prove a likeness between the feathered friends and their fellow New Yorkers.

from American bird magazine; ornithology, Volume 3 by Chester Albert Reed, 1903

1. "Winter Birds in a City Park" by James B. Carrington, Popular Science Monthly, Jan. 1900, p. 366

According to writer Carrington, a winter walk in Central Park is made pleasant by observing winter birds, among them, a hardy robin "who perhaps prefers the dangers of a northern winter to those of the long journey southward" and "the rugged and noisy English sparrows." The writer confesses a sympathy for the sparrows - "for they appeal to my sympathies much as the plucky little gamin newsboys of the streets do." Particularly thrilling for him is the sight of "Mr. Chickadee himself, with his jet-black head, throat, and chin, and gray cheeks."

A woman takes time to befriend a squirrel, from "Winter Birds in a City Park, "
Popular Science Monthly, January 1900.


When the author offered them peanuts, the chickadees became quite gregarious little friends. The feeding activity also attracted a white-breasted nuthatch, a brown creeper, and a flicker. And, hark! A splash of red! - "Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal spend their winters regularly in Central Park, and I hear or see them every time I go there." While becoming close to the birds, the author also learned a greater respect for wild life, and the essay ends on a serious note: "The cruelty of egg-collecting and the wanton destruction of birds for millinery purposes are becoming less tolerable every year in civilized communities."

2. "How the Central Park Chickadees Were Tamed" by A.A. Crolius. Bird-lore: a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the study and ..., Volumes 1-2  By National Committee of the Audubon Societies of America, National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals, National Audubon Society, 1899, p. 185

The author, noting the many chickadees in Central Park in the winter of 1898-1899, grew interested in taming them. He succeeded beyond his imagination, and several birds followed him around the park. He grew to appreciate their individual traits, so he gave them names - "Scatterer," "Little Ruffled Breast,""Boss," and "Little Greedy." He especially loved "Little Greedy," a chickadee that perched on his finger and liked to shove two pieces of peanuts in his little bill at the same time.

Central Park, January 2011

3. "New York's Winter Birds," The Osprey: an illustrated monthly magazine of popular ornithology, Volume 4, 1900, p. 62

While many of the birds had flown south, a few robins stayed back in the park. The author notes their change in behavior - "They are oddly unlike their saucy selves of last June. They fly in silence, light warily, and soon leave their perch at the approach of a human being."

Sparrows are the most common bird in winter. To our author, they are attracted to our famous sightseeing - "for they are an urban folk, loving the life and motion of the town, intimate human companionship, the sunshine of the wintry streets, and the thousand and one charms that make New York a place of irresistible attraction for birds and men."

Central Park, January 2011


4. "The Legend of the Salt," from Bird-Lore, by Frank M. Chapman, reprinted in ‪Connecticut school document, Issues 1-25‬ By Connecticut school document, 1904

A famous ornithologist, Frank M. Chapman, writing in Bird-Lore and reprinted here in a handbook for teachers, comments about the great opportunities for birdwatching in The Ramble in Central Park, a well-known destination for contemporary observers. During the winter, Chapman would walk over to The Ramble from his office at the American Museum of Natural History to eat his lunch with the birds. After he whistled their call, the tamed Chickadees came to visit:

"And in a short time we became such good friends that I had only to hold out my hand with a nut in it to have one of them at once perch on a finger, look at me for a moment with an inquiring expression in his bright little eyes, then take the nut and fly off to a neighboring limb, where, holding it beneath his toes, he would hammer away at it with his bill, Blue Jay fashion."

Chapman proposed the idea for the Christmas Bird Count. The first one took place on Christmas Day 1900. This page of the Audubon Society lists the cumulative bird species list and original places for the first count, including Central Park.

January 2011 images by Walking Off the Big Apple.









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