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Birds in the Hand: A Brief History of Bird Feeding in Central Park 1899-2019

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

Tufted Titmouse on Carine Mitchell's Hand, Feb 2019 by Deborah Allen

20 February 2019

Special Bird Feeding Issue

Bird Notes: Central Park Bird Walks in February and early March happen every Saturday and Sunday morning at 9:30am (only). Meet at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe. $10/person. Please consult the Schedule page of this web site for updates to the schedule, or directions to the meeting location (the Boathouse).

This is our first Newsletter issue since 20 January - our guess is that most folks did not notice. We had been in Minnesota for Great Grey Owls, and then Washington state where we hardly did any birding...and we come home to NYC to finish our kitchen re-model and replacement of a leaking oil tank. On the fun side, we are gearing up for another season (our 27th) of bird walks, and research on NYC's birds. This Newsletter has been published since 2002, every week...approx. 52 times per year. So the recent four week hiatus was much appreciated - by everyone.

In our Historical Notes we send reports of bird feeding in Central Park. By 1899 Anne A. Crolius had set up the first "official" feeding station in the Ramble for Black-capped Chickadees and others (no mention of Tufted Titmice!). As was the case, and continuing to this day, someone from the American Museum of Natural History (Frank Chapman) showed up and wrote an article on his experience with "tame" chickadees in the in the Ramble without mention of who started the fun. So our historical notes begin with: (a) an April 1899 piece about feeding chickadees in the Ramble (Frank Chapman); and then (b) a November 1899 article by Anne Crolius describing her original attempts to "tame" (by feeding) the chickadees and other birds of the Ramble starting in 1898; (c) is a brief 1924 note about bird feeding in the Ramble (still no mention of Tufted Titmice); and finally, (d) is a 1935 article about the Bird and Wildflower Sanctuary that was soon to be created at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx...whose name was changed some years later to the Wildflower Garden...which has since been transformed into a mix of native plants through which a cement lined hard-edge stream meanders (in a straight line). Something happened to the NYBG which once had a much closer connection to local plants and birds...

Black-capped Chickadee looking for food hidden in Jack Rothman's camera at the New York Botanical Garden (Bronx) in January 2015 by D. Allen


Good! Here are the bird walks for February

Each $10

All Bird Walks in Central Park

1. Saturdays in February 2019: 9:30am - meet at the Boathouse Restaurant

2. Sundays in February 2019: 9:30am - meet at the Boathouse Restaurant

The Boathouse Restaurant is located at 74th street and the East Drive within the park.


Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here:

Any questions send them our way: or call: 718-828-8262 (home)

The Bird Watchers of Central Park by George Tooker (1948)

Members of a Bob Bird Walk in the early days...artist rendition.

Do you recognize the Arch in the Background? Hint: It is near the Upper Lobe


The fine print: On Saturdays and Sundays, our walks meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!. Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above ( If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm 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 walks at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.

After Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers are the most difficult local birds to entice to perch on one's hand


Here is what we saw recently (brief highlights)

Sat-Sun 16-17 February (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am - February 2019 falls into the category of not much arriving from the south, and almost nothing from the north - we are in limbo until the weather warms a bit more. (Though to be fair, American Woodcocks are back and displaying in some parts of Staten Island.) So between the walk Sandra Critelli led on Saturday, and the one Deborah and I led on Sunday morning, the "usual suspects" are what we found...highlights being a very few Fox Sparrows; Hermit Thrush; Eastern Towhee; Cooper's Hawk; Red-tailed Hawk...the Mandarin Duck (59th street Pond). We also noted the absence of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the usual areas this winter (Pinetum eg.). The Owls of December (three species: Barred [5]; Northern Saw-whet [2-3] and Great Horned [1]) have gone elsewhere - probably north to breed. We found some northbound migrants: Red-winged Blackbirds on both days...and the winter continues to be an incredible one for Tufted Titmice - numbers have remained steady from November through February; bring some peanuts to the park and have titmice land in your hands. By comparison, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Pine Siskins that arrived in large numbers in late autumn, only remained for a few weeks. We know of a single Red-breasted Nuthatch in the park (Pinetum). Finally, though we did not see them this past weekend, a lone Chipping Sparrow remains in the park, as well as a Field Sparrow, possibly an early northbound migrant.

Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday, 24 February:

One of our favorite people, Ben King (Oct 2015), feeding a Blue Jay in Strawberry Fields (CP)



The Legend of the Salt (1899)


A GREAT many years ago a little boy, whom I knew very well, accepted the advice of an elder, and went out with a salt-cellar to make friends with the birds. But they would not have him, even with a 'grain of salt,' and it was not until he was considerably older that he learned he had begun his study of birds at the wrong end. That is, you know, the wrong end of the bird, for it is not a bird's tail, but his bill, you must attend to if you would win his confidence and friendship. So, instead of salt, use bread-crumbs, seeds, and other food, and some day you may have an experience which will surprise those people who would think it a very good joke indeed to send you out with a salt-cellar after birds. I have recently had an experience of this kind. It happened in the heart of a great city, surely the last place in the world where one would expect to find any birds, except House Sparrows. But Central Park, New York City, the place I refer to, contains several retired nooks where birds are often abundant. A place known as the 'Ramble' is a particularly good one for birds, and during the past winter, when it was not too cold, I have often gone from my study in the nearby Museum of Natural History to eat my luncheon with the birds in the Ramble. Many other bird lovers have also visited the Park to study and feed the birds, and, as always happens when birds learn that they will not be harmed, they have become remarkably tame. This is especially true of the Chickadees, who, under any circumstances, seem to have less fear of man than most birds. When I entered the Ramble they soon responded to an imitation of their plaintive call of two high, clearly whistled notes. And in a short time we became such good friends that I had only to hold out my hand with a nut in it to have one of them at once perch on a finger, look at me for a moment with an inquiring expression in his bright little eyes, then take the nut and fly off to a neighboring limb, where, holding it beneath his toes, he would hammer away at it with his bill, Blue Jay fashion. One day I induced one of them to pose before my camera, and, as a result, I now have the pleasure of presenting you with his portrait, as an actual proof that nuts are much more effective than salt, in catching birds. So, after this, we won't go out with saltcellars, but with a supply of food; nor should we forget to take a "pocketful of patience," which, Mrs. Wright says, is the salt of the bird-catching legend.


How the Central Park Chickadees Were Tamed

Anne A. CROLIUS****

IN the early part of the winter of 1898-99 Chickadees were unusually abundant in Central Park, New York City, and a friend and myself saw them come down and get some of the nuts we were feeding to White-throated Sparrows. We were, of course, much interested, and determined to see if we could tame them. They would take the nuts to a limb, eat all they wished, and hide the rest in crevices in trees or bushes, where, I think, they seldom found them again, for the impudent and ever wide-awake English Sparrow watched and got the pieces almost as soon as they were deposited. After feeding them in this way for some time, we tried to get them to eat from our hands, and finally succeeded by first placing our hands on the ground with a nut about a foot from our fingers, then a little nearer, then on the ends of our fingers, and lastly in the palms of our hands. There was a great shout when they hopped on our hands the first time, our delight being indescribable. Finding that kneeling or bending over on the ground was rather hard work, we tried holding out our hands when standing, or while sitting on the benches, and they very soon came, no matter where we were or in what attitude. The little creatures never seemed to get tired if we remained hours at a time, and it was indeed difficult to tear oneself away. Just as I would make up my mind to be off one would fly over my head calling chick-a-dee-dee in such a bewitching way as to make it impossible to leave. I would say to myself, "Just one piece more," then throw a lot of nuts on the ground and make a 'bee line' for home, never looking back for fear the temptation would be too great, and I should find myself retracing my steps. After a time they would come to me and follow me anywhere in the park, whenever I called them, and getting better acquainted I found the birds possessed of so many different traits of character that I named each one accordingly. One I called the 'Scatterer,' because he stood on my hand and deliberately threw piece after piece of nut on the ground, looking down as they fell with the most mischievous twinkle in his eyes, as much as to say, "see what I've done," then take a piece and fly away. This he did dozens of times in succession. I thought at first he would rather pick them up from the ground, but he came directly back and waited for me to do it. Another I called "Little Ruffled Breast," on account of the feathers on the breast being rough and much darker than the rest. He was the most affectionate, had a sweet disposition, and, like human beings of the same character, was often imposed upon, many times being driven off by the others when he was just about taking a nut. He was very tame, and had perfect confidence in anyone who would feed him. The third I named the 'Boss,' because he took the lead and carried the day. He was a beauty, spick and span in his dress, not a feather out of place, and plump and perfect in form. The fourth, dubbed 'Little Greedy,' was very fascinating, and I must confess to loving him more than the rest, having had a most novel experience with him. and one never to be forgotten. He came to me one morning, and, lighting on my hand, sang chick-adee-dee two or three times, helped himself to a nut, and, perching on my forefinger, put the nut under his foot, as I have seen them do many a time on the trees, remaining there until he had eaten it. I was thrilled through and through with the sensation and the perfect trustfulness of the little creature, and was sorry when he had finished. But why was he called Greedy? Because he usually took two pieces instead of one, and, strange to say, knew that he must have both the same size or one would fall out. It was very funny to see him with a good sized piece, his bill stretched to its utmost capacity, trying to fit in another. He turned his bill first on one side then on the other, thinking he could wedge it in by forcing it against my hand, and he succeeded in this wonderful feat by his perseverance and indomitable will.

****In a previous issue of this magazine, Frank Chapman provided accounts of experiences with the remarkably tame Chickadees that passed the winter of 1898-9 in Central Park, New York City. The present paper solves the mystery of their surprising confidence in man. - Ed.

This juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk is quite alive and well. So how did we get this image?


January 1924 in Central Park. Mrs. Mead spoke of her feeding station in Central Park where a Black-capped Chickadee (Penthestes a. atricapillus) and Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) feed from her hand. A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) was a constant visitor and up to a few days previous a Fox Sparrow (Passerella i. illiaca) was seen daily (but still no Tufted Titmice!).


Bird and Wildflower Sanctuary to be Created at the New York Botanical Garden (1935). Within a nine-acre area in the woodland between the new rock garden and the iris planting, birds and native flowers and trees will be encouraged and preserved, through the efforts of the New York Bird and Tree Club. The organization is now raising funds for this new project, which will be established as a memorial to Elizabeth Gertrude Britton. It has been suggested that sections of the fence to be erected early in the spring to enclose the sanctuary be dedicated as memorials to others. The club, of which Dr. Forman T. McLean is president, plans to induce birds to stay over winter by feeding them within the enclosure, and to preserve our native flora by planting wild flowers and trees of the New York region. Mrs. William Wallace Nichols of Scarsdale is chairman of the sanctuary project. The garden is cooperating with the committee aiming to establish this preserve.

Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD Follow us on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Monk Parakeets at a Backyard Feeder in the Bronx - yes they will eat suet (and a lot of it) in winter


We better put a pretty bird photo in this Newsletter so here one is, a Honeycreeper from Ecuador (January 2017)


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