Thomas Hynes is the author of Wild City: A Brief History of New York City in 40 Animals. He will be hosting our upcoming virtual talks, The Celebrity Birds of NYC and The History of Oysters in NYC.<
New York City has a long history of celebrity birds, from Pale Male the red-tailed hawk to the mandarin duck. The city’s newest feathered fascination is the snowy owl of Central Park. It’s the first snowy owl seen in Central Park in at least 130 years. Last week it has returned nightly to the same perch, delighting birders, while simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of the park’s rats and water fowl. And this Saturday night, by the reservoir and in spite of the cold, it was the best show in town.
Our star, the SNOWY OWL, took the stage promptly at 6:35 pm at the Central Park Reservoir North Pumphouse! pic.twitter.com/606T58LSL5
— Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark) February 6, 2021
In times of better public health and maybe nicer weather, there would be dozens of other things to do on a Saturday night in New York City. But with no Broadway, concerts or sporting events to attend, the snowy owl has received top billing. On this chilly, but not unbearably cold Saturday night, a crowd of over 100 admirers had gathered by 5:30 to await the bird. Steve Martin was there! That’s the thing about snowy owls. They’re so unique and rare. Even Steve Martin must trudge out in the snow to see one.
The crowd was gathered along the reservoir’s running track, next to the northern pump house, and overflowed to Bridge 28, the beautiful gothic structure which spans the nearby bridle path. The owl had been seen every other night on one of the turrets on the pump house, which was built all the way back in 1864.
There was an excitement in the air. People were chatting. One person was explaining to their friend that New York City is in the middle of a migratory superhighway for birds. Two kids were messing around in the snow until one abruptly stopped their child’s play and said to the other, “I just don’t want to miss the owl.”
Finally, the snowy owl arrived at 6:34 p.m., one minute after the time it arrived at the same spot the night before. One voice called out ‘It’s here’ and an honest-to-god hush fell over the crowd. The friendly conversations were immediately replaced by excited whispers and camera shutter clicks. The owl considered the crowd for a few minutes turning its head around in that impossible owl way, before flying off to snag some waterfowl or, fingers crossed, a rat.
The delighted crowd applauded the snowy owl as it departed its perch to fetch dinner. One person said that it was the most fun quarantine activity yet. Another remarked that it was the best Saturday night he had in a year.
The chance to see this rare bird brought dozens of people to the park after dark and in the dead of winter. But, it also brought people together, to laugh, speculate, share owl calls, and sometimes shush one another. It was great to see the owl, but it was maybe even better to see so many other New Yorkers.
The snowy owl from last week’s visit to the ballfields
If you get the chance to go see the snowy owl, or really any bird for that matter, please keep in mind the Audubon’s guide for ethical bird photography, which reminds us to avoid causing birds any unnecessary stress or disruption.