Twitter is turning birds into celebrities and birders against one another

NEW YORK — In 2018 it was the Mandarin duck. In October it was the barred owl. Just weeks ago it was the snowy owl.

All three avian species catapulted to celebrity status after they landed in Central Park, becoming the subject of news reports from Manhattan to India and attracting gaggles of groupies, snapping away on their smartphones.

These rare glimpses of nature in the heart of New York elicit a dose of joy in the best of times. But those feelings of uplift are magnified during the pandemic, when so many people are seeking respite in the outdoors.

Behind these idyllic encounters with nature, however, a vigorous debate is roiling the city’s birding community.

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On one side are people eager to broadcast these flying visitors on social media, which they say allows birders to catch a glimpse of species they might otherwise never see.

On the other are birders who believe that indiscriminately publicizing the locations of sensitive birds attracts hordes of gawkers, who can disturb the animals, and violates the serendipitous aspect of birding.

Perhaps the most prominent of the avian paparazzi is David Barrett, whose Manhattan Bird Alert account on Twitter, which has more than 42,000 followers, has turned birds into boldfaced names.

“The main attraction of the account is the high level of bird photography and videography, but serious birders still do get their rare bird alerts,” Barrett said, adding that his account helped “make everyone’s birding more effective.”

But to Ken Chaya, president of the Linnaean Society of New York, one of the city’s oldest birding organizations, Barrett’s account seems focused more on self-promotion than protecting birds.

“There’s a fine line between sharing information about a sensitive bird and creating a flash mob,” Chaya said, adding that when you have tens of thousands of followers, “you can’t know all of them or how they behave.”

Barrett’s account also shares content from a contentious figure in local birding circles: Robert DeCandido, who leads bird walks around New York.

DeCandido’s critics claim that he harasses birds by luring them closer with recorded bird calls and by illuminating owls during nighttime excursions.

Debbie Becker, who for about 30 years has led her own bird walks in the New York Botanical Garden, described using recorded bird sounds as “extremely detrimental to the birds.”

“He’s playing a distress call,” Becker said, adding, “It’s like someone yelling ‘Help me!’ ”

But DeCandido said his tactics did not harm the birds, noting that “we change their behavior for a minute, then they go back to doing what they’re doing.”

“I have yet to stun a bird, knock it out of a tree, kill a bird,” he added.

Barrett said that as long as DeCandido’s tips and photographs were useful, he saw nothing wrong with sharing them.

Despite the back-and-forth among passionate birders, none of the celebrity birds appear to have been harmed by the spotlight.

The snowy owl landed in a fenced-off part of Central Park on Jan. 27, and park rangers kept overzealous onlookers back. Barrett sent a warning to his followers to give space to the snowy owl — the first spotted in Central Park in 130 years — and, in the end, crows and a hawk harried the owl more than birders. It left after a day. (More recently, a snowy owl, likely the same one, has been spotted near the Central Park Reservoir, the sightings dutifully reported by Barrett.)

Still, some birding groups said that letting others know the location of sensitive birds sometimes required more consideration than simply firing off a tweet.

Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, said “birding is built on sharing,” but “we think it’s very important to temper that impulse to share information freely with” understanding the real world impacts of doing so.

Kathryn Heintz, executive director of New York City Audubon, wrote in an email that “because owls are easily disturbed, we do not condone the public posting of owl locations.”

Of course, an owl’s arrival at one of the most visited urban parks on the planet would be hard to keep secret no matter what.

“A ‘celebrity’ snowy owl certainly draws a crowd — and it should,” Heintz said.

Crowds of birders have sometimes led to unfortunate outcomes. In rural Washington five years ago, a local man killed a northern hawk owl, a protected species, because he was angered that birders were photographing the bird in the area. He was fined $5,000.

The scene in Central Park is usually more placid. (Last year, however, an argument between a Black birder and a white woman became part of the national conversation over entrenched racism after the woman called police when the man asked her to leash her dog.)

The park is a popular birding spot because it is a home or stopover for many avian species that can be reached easily with the swipe of a MetroCard.

That has become especially true during the pandemic, when homebound New Yorkers have desperately sought safe and socially distanced pastimes.

Susan Schwartz, a writer who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said she and her husband — encouraged by the bird alert account — began spending up to 10 hours a day watching birds after wearying of life in lockdown.

“Otherwise my head would have exploded long ago,” Schwartz said.

For Barrett, 57, a retired hedge fund manager who lives on the Upper East Side, managing the account has practically become a job, though he derives no income from it. He said he spends almost every waking hour maintaining it.

On most days he follows tips about different birds gleaned from friends, followers and services like eBird, a website and app from the Cornell Ornithology Lab where birders report sightings.

As Barrett races around the park he converses with followers online, sharing sightings, photos and video.

On a recent frigid visit to Central Park, Barrett was deep in the Ramble, a wooded section that was teeming with avian life — several red-tailed hawks, one of which flew just above a reporter’s head; a flitting kestrel; and myriad songbirds, including titmice that Barrett fed by hand.

At one point Barrett pointed out a barred owl, very likely the famous barred owl, perched about 40 feet off the ground in a hemlock tree. The owl seemed unbothered by the small cluster of people pointing and taking pictures far below, and barely flinched when a Cooper’s hawk screamed and swooped by its branch.

Dera Nevin, 49, a lawyer who lives on the Upper West Side and frequently runs in the park, said she and a friend had taken a mid-run break to see the owl, which they located with a tip from a friend who follows the bird alert account.

“I think it’s doing wonders for educating people about birds,” Nevin said of the account.

Educating new birders is one of Barrett’s main purposes, he said, and even his critics conceded that Manhattan Bird Alert was an effective outreach tool.

“If you want to cause zero disturbance for birds,” he said, “stay home.”

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