Tuesday, October 04, 2005

An awesome spectacle -- but nobody notices

Pictured above is the three-tiered granite fountain surrounded by a half-circle of Linden trees standing in the large open area directly in front of the Plaza Hotel. It is officially called the Pulitzer Fountain, named after its donor, Joseph Pulitzer - the man who is better known for the prizes than the fountain he donated to the city in 1916.

Tourists, who abound in that area just south of the southern border of Central Park, seem to know the fountain's real name, as well as the official name of the large open area in which the fountain stands -- the Grand Army Plaza.New Yorkers simply call it the Plaza fountain and the plaza outside the Plaza. [To the fountain's north there's a large gilded statue of William Tecumseh Sherman, Civil War hero, which might explain the plaza's official name.]

Few, if any, of the hundreds of tourists passing by the fountain these days between the hours of six and seven, nor the many New Yorkers hurrying home from work at that time, pay the slightest attention to an awesome natural spectacle happening all around them as they pass by: A stream of at least a thousand --- yes, I mean 1000 birds come flying out of the south-east corner of Central Park just across the street from the Plaza and its plaza to roost for the night in those ten Linden trees surrounding the fountain.

The birds are all European Starlings and Common Grackles. There seem to be more grackles than starlings, although there are so many of them that it's hard to keep track. One great behavioral difference distinguishesthe two species, however: many, or most, or perhaps all the grackles stop at the fountain to drink and bathe before heading for their night roost. Around 6:15pm there are grackles around all three tiers of the fountain, splashing and drinking. As some fly into the trees, newly arrival grackles head for the fountain. But not a single starling may be seen among the grackles at the fountain. Why? Nick Wagerik had a thought: perhaps the birds' differing diets might make grackles thirstier than starlings.; i.e. perhaps starlings' food has a greater water content. I'll welcome any theories readers might have.

Scanning the trees from a bench across the street, I can see that the birds at the tippy-top of the trees are all starlings. But as night falls there is a lot of jostling and changing of positions of the hundreds and hundreds of birds in each tree. I'm not sure who ends up where.

Like at the American Robin night dormitory I've been monitoring since last April, once dark sets in it's hard to find the sleeping birds, even with a super- strength flashlight like the Sure Fire I use. I can usually find two or three.
They do not seem to tuck their heads under their wing when they sleep, as in story and song, neither the robins nor the grackles. They scruntch their heads into their necks, somehow, so the beak seems to be pointing up.

I monitored this amazing influx of birds last Sunday and Monday. The birds start arriving in small numbers by about 5:45 pm. By six they were arriving in groups of twenty or thirty. By 6:15 they were arriving in great numbers; there'd be a little pause, and then a thick cloud of birds would arrive -- perhaps one or two hundred at a time. Even more seemed to arrive at 6:20 and 6:25pm, when the light is fading fast. By 6:35 the numbers were diminishing. By 6:45, with the street lights going on up and down Fifth Ave, and the large fixtures outside of Bergdsorf's and the Sherry Netherland and A La Vieille Russie at 60th Street already brightly shining, the last birds could be seen straggling in. And then no more.

Though it is quite dark by 7 pm, now a tremendous din of bird squeaks and calls and cackles coulod be heard under the trees, slightly masked by the sounds of the fountain. All the birds were now in their roost trees, but they were not asleep.

I have no idea what is the purpose of all that noisy chattering before they settle down to sleep. For all I know they are wishing each other Good Night and pleasant dreams. In fact I have no idea about whether birds even dream.Tthere seems to be very little known to science about birds' sleep.

One thing I know: this exciting event is going on night after night in a busy, crowded part of the city, and almost nobody is aware of it.
It's not necessarily that people are not interested. It's that this huge number of birds somehow does not penetrate the human consciousness unlesspeoploe are alerted to it as I was by Ben. I've probably passed by that very spot on a number of occasions and noticed nothing.

PS As I noted in an earlier post, it was fellow birder Ben Cacace who first discovered the grackle night roost and alerted me to its location.