Opinion | Ruffled Feathers Among the Birders of Central Park


Bob of the Park

In this short film, go bird-watching through New York City’s parks with Robert DeCandido, known locally as “Birding Bob.”

“May is, like, the prime time that birders come out to look for birds.” You know, the weather is warming up. So we’re getting southern air coming up. And in that air, besides all the trucks coming up from southern Manhattan, are migrant birds coming up from the tropics. For birders who come out to the park every day to see migrant birds to add to your life list, your year list, your county list, that’s the goal. Morning, Bob. Good morning, morning, morning. Hi, hi, hi. OK, first call I play is a vireo alarm call. So what I’m telling birds with this is there’s a problem. There’s a cat around. There’s an owl around or some idiot with a red hat. And the vireo has found it, and he starts making an alarm call. We want other birds come in and investigate. I just heard a little chip over here. See how close they’ll come in if I use these alarm calls? They’re trying to figure out where the problem is. And they look around. They’ll be here for about a minute, and then they go back to doing what they were doing. [imitating birds] Oh, wow. [imitating birds] Oh, Tennessee warbler. Tennessee warbler with a wing bar. He’s up here. [imitating birds] Hi. He’s very greenish, with a gray head. See the parula? Let me move the location of the tape over here. He might drop down here. The electronic calls that I use, most people would try to identify birds with them, like a field guide. Oh, see the redstart? See how he’s looking around trying to figure out where the sound is? I just took it one step further. For me, it’s like fishing, OK? I go out there with an audio lure. That’s the beauty of technology. It’s designed for one thing, and then it gets out into the world, and people creatively use it in other ways, you know? It’s good for business. We got a red light. What are you doing? Like I always say, if you’re going to get hit by a bicycle, yell, “I’m a lawyer.” They’ll stop. See if somebody comes down to take a look at us. You’re about to get blasted. Warbling vireo. They’re very successful in the park. [imitating birds] “Oh, two for one. Black and white on the right, magnolia on the left.” “Canada warbler, in the shrubbery.” Back in the early 1990s, the Parks Department had an urban park ranger program. And the urban park rangers were in charge of doing education in the parks. I happen to know the director of the urban park rangers at the time, and he offered me a job. Said, can you run our bird walks? Can you run the plant walks? Can you do the other natural things? And they wanted to do reintroductions of certain species. And then in 2001, administrations changed, and a new parks commissioner came in. And they said from higher up, why do we do bird walks? Why do we do species reintroductions? My whole life was Central Park. So that’s when I went out on my own and became an independent. Everybody should be able to go out in their local park and identify 10 birds, no problem. You know, robin, cardinal, but everything from there and be familiar with their local park. Look, I work with a lot of city kids. And when they walk in the park, everything is a roach. Or if they touch it, it’s going to be poison ivy. You know, why is that? Because we have very few people able to teach about the natural world. “You know, we’re all taught, ‘We go into nature, be quiet. Have respect for wildlife, nature.’ And here I come along, making loud sounds, doing everything antithetical to that. To say that I’m hated, you know, that’s mild.” [imitating birds] Birding in Central Park is political, where you’ve got cliques of birders doing one thing, cliques of birders doing another. Some of them get along with each other, some of them don’t. I don’t know any of them that get along with Bob. He fundamentally believes that the rules of society don’t apply to him. It’s the fact that he comes through playing loud amplified sound on speakers, which, frankly, is against park rules. That he’s constantly making this [imitating birds] that sound that he thinks attracts the birds. It doesn’t, actually. I’ve watched birds flee in terror from him many times. And that he’s constantly yammering, constantly yelling in their ears. Can hear him coming from a mile away. You’re going to have to just wait until he’s done. Unquestionably, he’s a fixture in the park. You cannot go birding in the park and not have experiences with Bob. It’s the way in which he behaves that irritates people, all right? The taping thing that irritates people. If he would shut the [expletive] up — and you can bleep that one out — then people would have much fewer problems with him, including me. “Birding Bob is probably the best-known bird walk leader here in Central Park.” Male Cape May! Male Cape May! And his whole idea of pulling the birds towards you in that way is just, it’s just not ethical. Imagine if you are a little songbird on migration, maybe for the first time. You’re tired. You’re in unfamiliar territory. There is danger everywhere. You come to this place, and you’re just, “Ah, I’ve got to get food and water so that I can get on with the rest of my journey.” Any disturbance at all is inhumane. Bob changes the behavior of birds more than anything else that happens in the park, more than the trucks going by, more than camera flashes. He’s the biggest disturbance. They’ve complained for years. And look, I’m a guy with a Ph.D., OK? I have the piece of paper that says I may know something about science and what I’m doing. That Ph.D. was earned doing research in New York City parks. I see this as a scientific instrument, a scientific tool. It helps me survey for birds. Good Lord, he’s not a scientist. I mean, he has a Ph.D. in what, botany? He’s not a scientist. Sorry. I’m a professional scientist. Nothing could be more hilarious than Bob’s assertion that he’s doing science. He is not doing science. He has no control experiments. He’s not measuring data or anything like that. No, that’s just total and utter nonsense. I’ve been grabbed by my backpack, and I’ve been thrown. I’ve been reported to the police as harassing birds and animals in the park, and the police have shown up. You have to have a thick skin for this because you’re going to run into a lot of social pressure to stop what you’re doing, you know? You’re going to get a lot of frowns, and you get a lot of people writing things about you on social networks. And it hurts. I’ve yet to harm a bird. After all these 25 years of making sounds, I’ve yet to see a bird drop from a tree dead. I’ve yet to see it shed its feathers. A snapping turtle! Oh, my God. This, be careful. This female latches onto your ankle or your finger, you could lose it. There are very strong, and they’re tenacious. We should tweet this out. She knows we’re here. So I think she’s doing her best version of “I’m trying to hide,” you know? It’s a native species, one of the last native turtles around. It’s a jungle out here. [reading phone] “Now I just wanted to come out and see another snapping turtle.” This is David Barrett. The man of the forest. Checking it out. Did you find the turtle? Never saw it. I think it escaped. No, no, we were just, we got —— Ah! You want me to take you over there? Oh, there it is. Of course. How could you miss it if you go this way 30 yards from where it was reported? OK, fine. I hang my head in shame. This will be a good photo. I want to get the relative size in with the fence. Let’s see if I can post this to the alerts. That was a flycatcher call. Was there a flycatcher? I’ve been hearing gray crested. “Yeah.” Wait, is that Acadian? No, that’s not even —— “I don’t know. Maybe it’s that robin.” Yeah, it’s not even a flycatcher. Let’s try interaction call, maybe. [imitating birds] Yes. Male magnolia. Right above us? OK. “I went to Harvard undergraduate and then went on for Ph.D. work in mathematics. And then I had a Wall Street career as a hedge fund manager. And it worked out very well. I got to like birding because it’s an intellectual battle. It’s a physical one, and it’s also a sensory one. And I’ll see double the number of birds I would see on my own when I go with Bob because the playback attracts so many more birds.” “Wow, chestnut-sided warbler.” “And the views one gets are much superior to what you get on your own.” “Male magnolia. Oh, there it is. There it is.” Some people have this deeply ingrained feeling or belief that what he’s doing is somehow wrong. It would be better if these people focused their energy on the things that really matter, on the things that have been shown to matter on a huge scale. Loss of forestation, loss of salt marshes, loss of habitat, insect loss. 30 years ago, there were far more insects for birds to eat. We’re talking about billions of bird lives. Prove to me that even one bird is being lost because of Birding Bob. “You know, Bob, he just wants to show people birds.” Hi, David. How are you? Hey, Robert. Good to see you. Good to see you. Yeah, see if we can get some owls now. This flashlight is magnificent. “Yes, that’s bright. That’s quite impressive.” Once we switch on that light, we’re going to attract insects. “Oh, I see. OK, that’s a good idea. So we have a dilemma here. Yeah, you should — you’re covered up. You should be good to go. Are we sure? This is the one that goes — yeah — toward the water. It does? Sure. We want to go — no, here. And then it makes a left turn here. OK, or you can take it that way too. OK. [spitting] Yeah, I’m getting insects in my mouth already. Doesn’t help when you’re Italian. I talk all the time. Mainly what we want is some open branches for them to land on. “Yes.” “There it is.” Where, David? I don’t see it. “No, sorry. That’s a leaf.” “This bird is very close. There he is. Damn.” I hate these freaking birds sometimes. Oh, I think we might be hearing it. Yeah, we’ll go down. No, maybe not. The owls are onto us. We may have to ride up to Van Cortlandt Park. I can’t do that tonight. OK. Now we’re officially in the Bronx. There’s too many trails. That trail, sorry. You hear that? “Oh, look right above us. Look. Look, look. Where’s your camera? This is a barred owl. There you go.” “Oh, this is big news.” This is the first barred owl in a New York City park in summer probably since the 1940s. “This calls for a Twitter. David is going to pull over when he sees this. Oh, this is big.” Wow. “My guess is this is a lone owl, and this is an unoccupied territory. He found it.” I think he was very happy to hear another barred owl. We did a good deed for the barred owls of Van Cortlandt Park, the one owl in Van Cortlandt Park tonight. There’ll be other owls wandering around this winter. He’ll find somebody. If he doesn’t, he’ll go someplace else, you know? I mean, look at all the people in New York City that don’t get married and have kids. Suppose he lives a happy bachelor life or a single, you know, woman life up here. Long day at the office. [yawns] “Barred owl at Van Cortlandt Park, well seen and calling. Some people are very visual with birds. They really enjoy the beauty of birds. You put a bird right in front of somebody, the colors, the movement. It makes a statement. They’re fun. I don’t need to see the birds anymore, you know? I’m watching what’s happening with people. And once people see things, they like them. If you allow people to have a good time with nature, they’ll want to protect nature. Having fun at parks, seeing the birds that are there, they’ll like that. They want more of it. And for me, that’s what’s important.”

Video by Jake Sumner

Mr. Sumner is a filmmaker.

If you grab binoculars and head to Central Park in New York, you may see a warbler, a robin and Robert DeCandido, also known as “Birding Bob.” If you can’t spot him, you’ll definitely hear him. Among dedicated birders, some consider his use of recorded bird calls a disturbance to birds and bird-watchers alike, while others see him as an eager advocate for the natural world.

In response to his detractors, Dr. DeCandido maintains that he’s doing his best to make bird-watching less daunting to hobbyists — and that no birds are harmed in the process. In the short documentary above, explore the sights, sounds, birds — and bird-watching drama — of the park with some of its most colorful characters.

Jake Sumner is a filmmaker in New York City.

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