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New Apps Encourage Urban Birders To Look Down, Then Up

This week marks the height of the spring migratory season, when millions of birds fly through the five boroughs on their way North. The city can be a dangerous place for our feathered friends — but a group of bird-watching apps have started raising awareness and changing laws.

Maddy Foley has more.

((bird ambi up))


That’s a Northern Cardinal again, weep weepweepweepweep (0:07)

((ambi dip))

FOLEY_1: When David Barrett goes out for a day of birdwatching in Central Park, he packs light. Binoculars, check. Comfortable walking shoes, check.


David: And well, of course, my mobile.

Maddy: Fully charged?

David: Yes, fully charged. (0:06)

FOLEY_2: Double check.

FOLEY_3: Barrett runs “Manhattan Bird Alert,” a Twitter account that provides a constant stream of bird sightings to nearly 19 thousand followers.

Barrett has been competitively birding — yes, that’s a thing — for nearly a decade. But over the last few years, his smartphone has become a necessary field tool.

FOLEY_4: There’s Merlin, an app filled with pictures of birds and recordings of their calls…


So we can pick one out, like the Blue-Winged Teal… (0:07)

FOLEY_5: There’s an app for listing all the birds you’ve seen, called eBird…


eBird is your scoreboard (0:03)

((bird ambi down))

FOLEY_6: And now, there’s even an app for counting *dead* birds. Thousands of them dot the city’s streets every spring. Because while New York is at the heart of the East Coast migratory path, its tall buildings and bright lights are dangerously confusing from the sky.


We estimate between 90,000 and 230,000 birds die each year in New York City alone. (0:07)

FOLEY_7: That’s Andrew Maas, who works for D-Bird — “D” is short for “dead.” D-Bird is a crowd-sourced, mobile-friendly data collection site run by the New York City Audubon Society.

Birds, tired from their grueling flights, head straight for New York’s lush parks. But skyscrapers often loom nearby, creating an optical illusion for the weary travelers.


Birds will see the glass, it’ll reflect some greenery, whether it’s a park or some trees nearby, and birds will think it’s, like, a safe place for them to rest. (0:09)

FOLEY_8: Maas says D-Bird was born out of necessity. A few years ago, bird-watching apps first began appearing on phones. People started calling the Audubon Society in record numbers to report the dead birds they saw on their walks. And the Audubon Society realized they could mobilize, literally, this growing group of concerned citizens.

FOLEY_9: Paul Sweet is an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History.


Back before the internet and smartphones, you would basically only meet other birders when you were out birding. (0:14)

FOLEY_11: But services like D-Bird and eBird and Merlin have served as connective tissue.


It’s nice to see so many young people getting involved in birding and definitely a more diverse group of birders than perhaps would have been out there 25 years ago. (0:17)

FOLEY_12: Today, the D-Bird database has logged over 7,000 dead and injured birds. These numbers have served as the backbone to several recent pieces of bird-protection legislation.

FOLEY_13: In January, the bipartisan Bird-Safe Buildings Act was introduced to Congress. Last month, a similar bill was proposed in the New York City Council. Both pieces of legislation would require the majority of new buildings to use glazed, bird-friendly glass. And both have benefited from D-Bird’s crowdsourced data.

FOLEY_14: Some critics have said the bills go too far — bird-safe glass costs around 5 percent more than its standard cousin. So what if some birds die?


I mean, does a Blackpole Warbler really help humankind in any way at all? Maybe not.

FOLEY_15: Paul Sweet again.


Maybe it’s just great that we have them, that they’re a species that’s evolved over millenia to exist and live their life and we should just appreciate them for what they are. (0:25)

((bird audio up))

FOLEY_15: And that’s what’s at the heart of bird watching apps: appreciation. Something David Barrett is an expert in.


David: It’s a cute little sparrow, it has a delightful song, too, which I’ll play for you.

Maddy: So that’s how it works.

David: That’s how it works.

Maddy Foley, Uptown Radio.


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