The Redhead: a Data Portrait (1880-2018) of a Formerly Rare Duck in the NYC area
Updated: Mar 1, 2020
SCHEDULE NOTES! (a) This Sunday evening 4 March at 6pm - meet us for an Eastern Screech-owl/Great Horned Owl walk at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Meeting location: the golf course parking lot (free and ample parking) just off the Major Deegan Expressway - see directions below (call/email us for clarification); (b) In mid-March Deborah and I will be the keynote speakers at the Wings over Water Bird Festival in Blaine, Washington state:
- and Jeff Ward will be covering the 18 March (Sunday) bird walk.
Our bird photos come from Deborah Allen (see her links below), and show Wood Duck (Central Park) and Peregrine Falcon (Pelham Bay Park, Bronx) - and there are several other Deborah photos scattered through this Newsletter.
In this week's historical notes we focus on the history of the Red-headed Duck in the NYC area. We trace its status in NYC through time: rare to quite uncommon 1880-1930; and then gradually increasing in NYC in the 1950s through 1970s. Today in NYC, it is possible to see 15+ Redheads in one location (Staten Island) or more than 90 at times (Baisley Pond, Queens) - details below including recent Central Park information. This "data portrait" of the Redhead allows us to present more writings from John Kieran (2 August 1892 to 9 December 1981), beginning with his mention of a 1914 Redhead on the Jerome Park Reservoir (Bronx near Van Cortlandt Park). Kieran was born/raised and educated in NYC, and became a renowned sports writer for the New York Times and other journals. Indeed, Lou Gehrig’s Yankee teammates called on Kieran to write the verse engraved on the commemorative award they presented to their stricken friend during his retirement ceremony at Yankee Stadium on 4 July 1939. When not writing about baseball, golf or tennis he combed NYC parks, usually Van Cortlandt, Riverdale and the New York Botanical Garden grounds, and even Central Park. One passage presented below traces how he became interested in birds via meeting eminent NYC ornithologists including Ludlow Griscom, John Treadwell Nichols, Robert Cushman Murphy - all of whom have graced issues of this Newsletter in the last 15 years, and will again. It is said Kieran had the accent of a 10th Avenue taxi-driver, but spiced his columns with Latin phrases: Ter quaterque beati [three and four times blessed!]. He won the award for best nature writing (1959) from the John Burroughs Society for his Natural History of New York City. Does anyone remember the radio program, "Information Please"? That was John Kieran at his best.
Here is an on-line radio interview with John Kieran from July 1968: https://www.wnyc.org/story/john-kieran/
And an excerpt Kieran's nature writing : "But the tide of the young year has turned. The dark mornings are getting lighter each day. The sun lingers a little longer each afternoon. The buds are beginning to swell on the poplar, and the alder catkins are lengthening in the frozen swamp. Soon in the hush of dusk over the inland meadows we will hear the first shrill quavering notes of the peepers--the dauntless invisible heralds of ever-returning spring. Cheerfully I echo Browning; ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made . . .’ Reader, farewell. May your life and loves be as happy as mine have been.”
John Kieran in 1964
Deborah Allen sends Photos from our Area
Male Wood Duck, Thursday February 3, 2018:
Female Peregrine Falcon, Saturday February 24, 2018:
https://www.photo.net/photo/18459444/Immature-Female-Peregrine-Falcon Link to Deborah Allen photos on Agpix site: http://www.agpix.com/results.php?agid=DeAl12
Gneiss (metamorphic rock) formation, Pelham Bay Park
Good! Here are the bird walks for early to mid-March - each $10
1. Sunday, 4 March - 9:30am - Central Park Bird Walk meet at Boathouse Cafe.
2. Sunday, 4 March - 6pm - Eastern Screech-owls/Great Horned Owls of Van Cortlandt Park (Bronx):
a. How likely are we to find Eastern Screech-owls on 4 March, Sunday evening? Likely...on the five or so visits in the last 14 months, we have seen screech-owls on every trip. On some trips they have come in very close; on others, they have hid in the tangles of branches.
b. How likely are you to get parking at the meeting location (VC Golf Course Parking Lot)? Arrive by 5:55am and I'd give it 100% chance of parking free - and parking is safe here. The difficulty for some people has been finding the parking lot: it is along Van Cortlandt Park South at Bailey Avenue. That location is also the entrance to the northbound Deegan Expressway: as you get on that road stay to your RIGHT and go under the old train trestle: you are now in the parking lot and the Golf Course Club House will be obvious. Park somewhere in that area...Parking is free and the lot is open until 10pm. If you put the address of the Club House (115 Van Cortlandt Park South) in your GPS, you will end up somewhere else...so our advice is to check an on-line map and follow instructions above. Confused? Email or call us.
c. Can I get there by train? Yes! Take the #1 (Broadway Local) train to the last stop (242nd street) and I will meet you at 5:45pm. Please let me know you are coming by train so I can walk over to meet you. It is a 10 minute walk from the train station to the Golf Course Club House meeting location.
d. What to bring: Warm clothes; Waterproof shoes...! a camera.
3. Sunday, 11 March - 9:30am - Central Park Bird Walk meet at Boathouse Cafe.
The fine print: In March, our walks every Sunday meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approximately 74th street and the East Drive on the lake; it is NOT one of the buildings on the nearby Model Boat Pond). Bathrooms are nearby and ok; they open at about 7:30am. On Saturdays we sometimes meet at the Boathouse (74th street and the East Drive) at 9:30am - but check schedule on web site and here because we often go further afield such as NYBG in the Bronx. Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (= email@example.com). We have a new web site...if in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not, check the web site the morning of the walk: info will be posted on the main landing page as well as the "Schedule" page by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 7:30pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk! We end all our weekend Central Park walks at the Boathouse at about noon - you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Our Friday walks, we usually end up at (or very near) Conservatory Garden, most often at 106th street and 5th Avenue.
Here is what we saw last week (selected highlights). Not all species we saw are reported here - we list the best: Saturday, 24 February 2018 (Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx for nesting Great Horned Owls; start at 10am) - we guaranteed a Great Horned Owl nest for everyone to see - and we delivered (see Deborah's photo below). Afterwards, we looked for waterbirds (Red-breasted Mergansers, Great Scaup, Buffleheads) and also found 6-10 Harbor Seals looking like little half-moons as they sunned themselves on the rocks in the Long Island Sound. Sunday, 25 February 2018 (start at the Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am) - very heavy rain from about 8:45am until noon - the bird walk had been cancelled, wisely.
Great Horned Owl female on her nest in Pelham Bay Park, 24 February 2018 (Deborah Allen)
1923. Redhead Duck. No Duck has a more varied or irregular status in our area than this fine species. In parts of eastern Long Island it is locally a common transient, such as on Gardiner's Island and the Great Pond at Montauk. It also occurs regularly on East, Moriches, and Great South Bays. But elsewhere in the region it is a very rare bird, and fortunate indeed is the observer who sees this bird anywhere near New York City. According to William Dutcher (1907): “Locally common on eastern end of island but rather rare transient visitor as a rule elsewhere. 30 Sept. (East Bay) to 9 Jan. (Great South Bay) and 15 Feb. (Montauk) to 22 March (Montauk).
Central Park . Casual on the Reservoir, January 1, 1903 (Rogers).
Bronx Region [1923/1932]. Casual on Jerome Reservoir, March 21 to April 4, 1914 (numerous observers; indeed see John Kieran's article below about the Redhead and other ducks of the Jerome Reservoir); January 10, 1915 (Pangburn). According to Kuerzi (1932), a “rather rare transient and winter visitant in the Bronx”: 2 February 1926 (Cruickshank) to 4 April 1914 (numerous observers); 1 November 1923 (Kuerzi) to 28 December 1924 and 18 January 1925 (Kuerzi).
New York State . Formerly a common transient on the Hudson at Ossining (Fisher), still fairly common (Brandreth); almost unknown elsewhere. ------------------- 1958. Redhead. Central Park. Seven records, 11 November 1948 (Sutton) to 25 February 1956 (Carleton, Messing).
1958. Redhead. Prospect Park, Brooklyn. 14 October 1918 (Vietor); 14 October 1939 (Grant); 19 March 1911 (Vietor); 20 March 1914 (old Reservoir – Fleisher).
1974. Redhead. Central Park. Roger Pasquier does NOT mention the Redhead as a species seen in Central Park. However, Hugh McGuiness doing one of the first big year endeavors in New York state found two (2) on 1 January 1974 (along with 115 Canvasbacks and 100 Pine Siskins); a few weeks later on 16 February 1974 he found a lone Redhead (and 150 Canvasback, of which he remarked of the latter, “not uncommon in the 1970s”). In the Bronx in 1976, Irv Cantor recorded 17 Redheads on the Christmas Count at Pelham Bay Park (Bronx), the highest number ever seen on the annual count in that park that began circa 1935 through December 2017.
The status of the Redhead was similar for Donald Knowler in 1982 – he did not see it in his year-long survey of birds in Central Park (The Falconer of Central Park). The most recent record we have of a Redhead in Central Park is from 2011: on 23 November 2011 Andrew Farnsworth and friend found one on the Reservoir; prior to that, Anne Shanahan found five (5) in mid-January 1997. So this 21 February 2018 occurrence of a male on the Reservoir in Central Park is significant. ----- East River Lower Manhattan (2012)
A solitary male redhead duck can be found among a group of twenty or so lesser scaup drifting about in the area between the Downtown Heliport and Pier 11 (at the east end of Wall Street). For the most part, the redhead remains in close proximity to the pack of scaup, but he will occasionally work his way closer to the promenade along the FDR and Pier 11, providing good views.
2 February 2012 Chris Gadsen ==================================== Ridgewood Reservoir, Queens County, New York 18 March 2016
25 Redhead: a lot of preening and some displaying =================================== From: Andrew Baksh Subject: Queens and Kings Co. report on a brisk day Date: 6 January 2018
…At Baisley Pond [Queens] - two small areas of open water the most productive is all the way at the north end. The numbers of Redheads continue to hold steady and I counted 97 today a few more than my January 2nd count of 94. Other waterfowl numbers were down most notably among the Ring-necked Ducks. Down to 27 today from 43 noted on January 2nd ================================
Baisley Pond, Queens County, New York 14 January 2018
60 Redhead: Counted all that were visible, but some may have been cut off from my view by the reeds so likely more.
32 Ring-necked Duck
Ryan Serio ============================ 19 Redhead ~ Great Kills Park [Staten Island] 24 February 2018
In water off of beach center
José Ramírez-Garofalo =================================================== REDHEAD, from John Kieran, 1959:
"This matter is close to my heart because it was through the fact that the rear attic window of our house overlooked the waters of the Jerome Reservoir in the Bronx that I became acquainted with two noted ornithologists and was admitted to membership in the Linnaean Society of New York. It was during the winter of 1913-1914, at which time I had developed a lively interest in birds, that I began to take notice of ducks congregating on the reservoir. I saw them first from the rear window of the attic room in which I slept. I immediately armed myself with field glasses and went out to inspect the ducks at closer range by peering at them through the iron picket fence surrounding the reservoir. I remember that the first bird I brought in focus turned out to be a White-winged Scoter and, looking back, I recall seeing Canvasback, Redheads, Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, and, in all, fourteen different species of waterfowl on the reservoir that winter.
"Standing in front of a cageful of North American warblers in the Bird House at the Bronx Zoo one cold day, I met three elderly men who, from their talk, evidently were much interested in birds. I told them about the ducks on the reservoir and they were so much stirred by the news that we left the zoo together and plodded westward through the snow to the reservoir, where the ducks were duly seen as advertised. One of these men was a proofreader for the New York Daily Mail, a newspaper long since defunct, and under the pseudonym of "The Pelham Observer" he contributed occasional nature notes to a column on the editorial page of the paper. In telling of the ducks on the reservoir, he mentioned me by name as his guide on the expedition. It was the first time that my name ever appeared in print and I was naturally impressed by it.
"Incited by the public notice in the newspaper, two men from the American Museum of Natural History appeared on the scene the following Saturday afternoon and found me watching the ducks as usual. The men were Ludlow Griscom and Charles H. Rogers, who were then growing up as ornithologists under the great Frank M. Chapman at the museum. After they had checked on the ducks, they set off to prowl the Van Cortlandt Park region and I was invited to go with them, a privilege I properly appreciated. They made repeated visits to the reservoir during the winter and each time I seized the opportunity to tag along on their further travels and glean something from their store of knowledge of ornithology. Impressed by my enthusiasm and my faithfulness in keeping good watch on the reservoir ducks, Dr. Rogers suggested that I attend the meetings of the Linnaean Society of New York, a scientific group that met on alternate Tuesdays at 8 P.M. in one of the smaller rooms in the old building of the American Museum of Natural History. I attended as a guest for some months and then, nominated by Charles Rogers and seconded by Ludlow Griscom, I was elected a member of the society late in 1914 and have been a member ever since.
"I was naturally awed by the noted professional ornithologists and the keen amateurs among whom I found myself in these gatherings of long ago. The regular attendants at the meetings included that wonderful old gentleman Dr. Jonathan Dwight, the ultimate authority on gull plumages, Waldron DeWitt Miller, who never let a bird visit New Jersey without making note of it, Charles Urner, poet, printer, philosopher, expert on owls, and a most delightful companion indoors or out, genial Walter Granger, who had been to the Gobi Desert, and John Treadwell Nichols, Lincolnesque in stature and appearance and equally Lincolnesque in wisdom and kindliness, an ichthyologist by profession but a keen birder on the side and perhaps the best man in the field on the shore birds of North America. Of course, Charles Rogers, who was to rise to eminence as an ornithologist at Princeton, and Ludlow Griscom, who was to become Curator of Ornithology at the Agassiz Museum at Harvard, were faithful in attendance and now and then we had such wanderers as Roy Chapman Andrews, back from Mongolia, William Beebe, up from the ocean depths, Robert Cushman Murphy, returned from Peru, or James P. Chapin on furlough from the Belgian Congo. Being in the room with such men was inspiring; listening to them was an education. Ter quaterque beati [three and four times blessed!] were they in my eyes – and in my heart. I owe them much and here publicly acknowledge a debt far greater than I ever can pay."
Excerpt #2: "This, however, verges on the commonplace. It was a baseball game between New York University and some collegiate rival on Ohio Field above the east bank of the Harlem [Bronx] that resulted in a real ornithological record for New York City. About thirty and a few-odd years ago [November 1923] a group of lively young fellows formed the Bronx County Bird Club and often I heard and saw them going "a-whoopin' and a-hollerin'" through the cattail region of the Van Cortlandt marsh, clapping hands loudly at the same time. The din was supposed to - and frequently did - stir up rails that might otherwise be left unseen amid the cattails and marsh grasses. Three members of that lively group were Roger Tory Peterson, now internationally famous as a painter-naturalist, Dr. Joseph J. Hickey, for some years now an ecologist and ornithologist on the staff of the University of Wisconsin, and Allan Cruickshank, noted bird photographer and Audubon Society lecturer. On the afternoon of April 30, 1928, the then redheaded Joe Hickey, student at N.Y.U. and track athlete who won the outdoor intercollegiate one-mile championship in the Harvard stadium, had Allan Cruickshank with him at the ball game at Ohio Field when they looked up and saw a Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) wheeling about in spectacular flight above the diamond and the competing baseball teams. So far as I know, this is the only record for that more southern and western bird within city limits.”
Kieran, John. 1959. A Natural History of New York City. A Personal Report after Fifty Years of Study and Enjoyment of Wildlife within the Boundaries of Greater New York. Houghton Mifflin Company. 428pp.
Red-headed Duck, Central Park by Deborah Allen (21 Feb 2018)
John Francis Kieran
Born: 2 August 1892 at New York, NY (US) Died: 9 December 1981 at Rockport, MA (US) -----------------------
JOHN KIERAN, COLUMNIST, RADIO HOST, NATURALIST By ALBIN KREBS
Published: 11 December 1981
John F. Kieran, a sports columnist for The New York Times from 1927 to 1943 and a regular panelist on the popular radio and television programs ''Information Please,'' died yesterday at his home in Rockport, Mass., at the age of 89.
Mr. Kieran started his career as a sportswriter on The New York Times but came to be considered a walking encyclopedia, an ornithologist and naturalist, a popular radio personality, a classical scholar and a philosopher. As the author of ''Natural History of New York,'' he won the highest award given for natural history by the John Burroughs Society.
In the words of a friend, Mr. Kieran had ''the thought of a college professor and the accent of a 10th Avenue taxi driver.'' His impressive hoard of knowledge, on virtually every subject from the sex life of the aardvark to the process of zymosis, caused some to call him a know-it-all, and they often explained away his erudition by saying he merely had a photographic memory. That caused the normally cheerful and mild-mannered Mr. Kieran to bristle. His knowledge, he said, could be chalked up chiefly to the fact that he was an omnivorous reader. And, typically, he turned to Latin to explain himself: ''Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto (I am a man, and nothing pertaining to humanity is alien to me.)''
Native New Yorker
The irrepressible John Francis Kieran came honestly by his taxi driver accent as well as his predilection for collecting knowledge. He was born Aug. 2, 1892, in the Bronx, and attended Public School 103 in East Harlem, Townsend Harris High School and Fordham University, class of 1912.
One of seven children, he was the son of James M. Kieran, a P.S. 103 principal who later became a professor and then president of Hunter College. His mother, he said, was ''Kate Donohue Kieran, a public school teacher before marriage. Wrote poetry. No other signs of mental derangement.'' Naturally, in the Kieran home, good books were a way of life.
Through a top editor of The Times who was a family friend, Mr. Kieran in 1915 got a job in the sports department writing brief items for which he was paid at space rates rather than by salary. Then one night, after nearly every sporting event in the country had been rained out, Mr. Kieran was assigned by a golf-loving assistant editor to cover a match the next day. He turned in a report that elated the editor, who persuaded the sports editor to start giving regular coverage to golf, with Mr. Kieran assigned as the reporter.
Mr. Kieran served in France during World War I. He married Alma Boldtman on his return to New York and to The Times, which assigned him to cover major league baseball.
In 1922, Grantland Rice lured Mr. Kieran onto the sports staff of The New York Herald Tribune, promising him a bylined column. (In those days, all Times sports reporters wrote anonymously.) Mr. Kieran made another shift, in 1925, to the Hearst newspapers for, he said, ''more money and less prestige.''
First Bylined Column
In late December of 1926, The Times rehired Mr. Kieran and broke a long precedent. On Jan. 1, 1927, there appeared in the newspaper its first by-lined column of any kind, written by Mr. Kieran and named by him ''Sports of The Times.'' The column remains a Times fixture, whose regular authors now are Red Smith and Dave Anderson.
For its time, Mr. Kieran's was a rather extraordinary sports column. ''As to subject matter, I rambled scandalously,'' he said, tossing in quotations from Virgil, Plato or St. Augustine in a discussion of a baseball player's pitching style.
Early in 1943, Mr. Kieran left The Times again to write a general interest column for The New York Sun. By the time he joined The Sun, Mr. Kieran had established a national fame as a member of the panel of the ''Information Please'' program on the NBC radio network. The program began a 10-year run in 1938.
Mr. Kieran's wife died in 1944, and in 1947 he married Margaret Ford, a former Boston newspaper reporter. That same year, he became editor of an offshoot of the radio program on which he appeared, the ''Information Please Almanac.''
Mr. Kieran is survived by his wife and three children, Dr. James M. Kieran of Berkeley, Calif.; John F. Kieran Jr. of Howe, Tex., and Mrs. Beatrice Hendrick of Saginaw, Mich., 19 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren. ---------------------------------------- The World Was His Beat
W. G. ROGERS
11 OCTOBER 1964 – New York Times
NOT UNDER OATH: Recollections and Reflections. By John Kieran. Illustrated. 282 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00.
THE astonishing thing about John Kieran's life is its span and coverage; for a man his size he has had an enormous reach. He began when in his native New York City there were still lamplighters, horsecars, steam engines on the El and player pianos. He went on to the era of television and jets.
Then there is a stretch in another direction. He was chicken farmer, apple grower, sewerconstruction worker and how many friends ever suspected? boat concessionaire on the Central Park lake. He went on to be sports writer, nature writer, star gazer, bird watcher, plant and tree and flower detective, author of several books, versifier and member of the panel of experts on the radio program “Information Please.”
The still more astonishing thing, however, is that these activities were not compartmentalized; one grew out of another and tied into still another. When he spotted a bird at a ballpark, for instance, he put it to work: wrote it up in his baseball story, mentioned it in his nature column, identified it on “Information Please,” entered it in a book. This is called dovetailing unless it may be called moonlighting; anyway, it's the reverse of killing two birds with one stone.
“I humbly admit that I have been lucky,” he says. His family knew the Roosevelts though he went all out for Willkie and he talks like an unreconstructed Republican. A year of country life after graduation from Fordham in 1912 and a building job in the city dissatisfied him. Since he knew the then assistant managing editor Frederick T. Birchall of The New York Times, fee had entrée there. His golfing started his sports writing.
He visited the Mexican border as reporter and served in Europe in the Army Engineers in World War I. For all his praise of the sports writer's life he says comparatively little about it. He is busier regaling us with his merry and meaningful career with Clifton Fadiman on “Information Please.” He began at $40 a week, rose to $200, or the same as his Times salary, but he neglects to tell what he was raking in when the program went off the air in 1948.
He writes too, about hikes with Clyde Fisher of the Hayden Planetarium, artist Fred Nagler, and naturalist Edwin Way Teale; about touring Europe for the U. S. O. in World War II; about the songs of birds and the songsters at the Met. We get a glimpse of his ideas in general when he tells us he thinks Paul Gallico writes well, that he loves the “Nutcracker Suite” and when he quotes admiringly from Béranger, the Brownings and a host of poets right off the library shelf. Indeed, he's as full of quotes as any preacher in a pulpit.
KIERAN deserves our warmest thanks for being strict about the much abused English language. One day Ford Frick called out to a crowd of sports writers: “Who pinched my bottle of Scotch?” They all answered “Not me!” except for one voice: “Not I!” Frick said: “I heard Kieran.”
Does a faint nostalgic farewell sound in the closing pages? We hope it is not meant to be good-bye. There is something from a former time, pleasantly not of today, in Kieran's unembroidered account This is a methodical, explicit record the friends, the many “names,” the places, the jobs, as if, despite his title, he wrote really under oath. But the facts are good to read, and if you're interested in art, music, birds, stars or flowers, in baseball, football or golf, even in chickens or boats, you'll find what you like in this book.
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
Follow us on Twitter: @DAllenNYC
Ornamental Cherry tree, Central Park, April 2014
One last Redhead - 28 February 2018 at Point Pleasant, NJ