Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Central Park Effect

Did you happen to see HBO's latest documentary, Birding: The Central Park Effect? It premiered last night, but, if you care to see it, I believe it will be showing a few times later in the week or you can watch it on HBO On Demand, if you have that feature. It's worth a look if you are interested in birding or birds or even if you just have a concern about the environment and what is happening to it.

I didn't see the show last night because I was watching the Astros game (Finally won one! Yay!) but I watched it today with my two cats. The bird photography and sounds were so realistic that it kept the cats' attention. In fact, it even had them jumping at the screen on occasion!

The film follows a group of regular birders in New York's Central Park through a year of watching the birds there. Some of them are fairly famous (at least in some circles) - people like authors Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Rosen - but most of them are just regular people, New Yorkers with typically busy lives who are also obsessed by birds.

One of the most interesting of the lot for me was a woman with terminal breast cancer who leads bird walks through the park and has done for many years. She explained what the park means to her, basically that it takes her out of herself and out of her pain and reminds her that she's still here. She's still alive. And there are still birds to see and to share with others.

Another featured birder was a young African-American man who said that his friends know that he is going to disappear in the spring and that they will not see him again until spring migration is over. He was particularly interesting to me, because, so often, especially in this area, birding is perceived as a very white activity. It's heartening to see that this is not true everywhere.

This man, Chris Cooper, had formulated seven reasons why birding is interesting and important. Basically, his reasons had to do with the beauty of the birds, the connection they give us to Nature, studying birds and bird behavior as an entry to the world of science, etc. His last reason was "the unicorn effect." Essentially, this means that you come to know birds through studying them in field guides. You memorize them long before you ever see them. And then one day you finally see that picture that you've been studying come to life in the field and it's like the sensation of watching a unicorn emerge from among a stand of trees. Any birder will know what he's talking about.

Those are some of the birders, but what of "The Central Park Effect"? This refers to the fact that migrating birds are funneled into this green oasis in the middle of a highly urbanized area, so that at the height of the migration seasons, you can get millions and millions of birds coming into the park to feed and rest. Because they have nowhere else to go! This is a boon for the birders, of course, and it's certainly a boon for the birds that there is such a place. It is also sad for the birds that it is one of the few such places left.

It's not only New York that has a Central Park effect. Cities all over the country, with their urban parks, have the same effect, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree. Houston, with its many parks and nature preserves, has many such oases to sustain the birds on migration or even during nesting. It's one of the reasons that ours is one of the birdiest places in the country. But most, if not all, cities have some such "natural" areas, even if, like Central Park, their "Nature" is completely planned and landscaped by humans. These areas are absolutely essential to the survival of birds and much other wildlife in our urban society.

One's own garden can play a similar role. Even a postage-stamp-sized plot that is planned and planted for the benefit of wildlife can be a haven and a life-saver for hungry birds and other animals. That is why the growing popularity of habitat gardening has been one of the more heartening trends in gardening over the last few years.  

While birding probably will never be considered by the general population as a "cool" activity, for reasons that Jonathan Franzen explains in the film, even those who are not bird-addicted may gain a better understanding of their relatives and friends who are by watching this interesting documentary.

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