The moment when David Barrett spotted the snowy owl through the fence at one of Central Park’s baseball fields last week, he knew this was going to be an event. Barrett, an experienced birder and the force behind the wildly popular Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert, immediately understood just how rare a sighting this was: A snowy owl hasn’t graced New York City since 1890. These owls live in the Arctic but are more nomadic in the winters, sometimes flying into Canada and the Northeast, but rarely as far south as New York City.
Barrett also knew this was exactly the kind of bird that was likely to draw a crowd. “I knew going into it this would be big,” he says. Not only was this the first sighting in any New Yorker’s lifetime, but the snowy owl is a species that is likely to get non-birders excited, too. The prospect of attracting so many people to the bird’s location weighed on him as he rushed home to tweet it out to @BirdCentralPark’s more than 40,000 followers.
But tweet he did.
“I run an information service,” Barrett says of his Twitter feed. “A bird in a public park is fair game for my tweets. A rare bird is something that people want to know about, so it’s my responsibility to get the information out. If I don’t do it, someone else will.”
Twitter and other bird-sighting sites like eBird have given a boost to the birding community in recent years. The sites have made celebrities out of a few lucky ducks (and owls and hawks), species that appeal to the less ornithologically-inclined among us. They’ve made birding accessible to newcomers and given avid bird watchers a space to share photos, tips, and exciting discoveries, helping many people to find not just a hobby, but a community. “We just see each other by user names to start, and then we bump into each other out birding and we make that connection,” says Ken Elkins, community conservation manager for Audubon CT and Audubon NY. Online, your age, experience, or background don’t matter, he says: “You can be part of the conversation.”
And Twitter accounts have helped rally bird rescuers. The Wild Bird Fund (WBF), a bird rehabilitation center in Manhattan, often tweets out calls for help, including the location of birds in need, to their more than 9,000 followers. “It is a resource because it's fast and people get it right away, and that’s a big boon versus email or anything we’d post on our website,” says Rita McMahon, WBF’s cofounder and director.
But not everyone in the birding community is thrilled about the idea of focusing the attention of the internet on a bird that’s not in need, and is likely to draw a flock of admirers. Crowds can make birds uneasy and affect their normal behavior. Birds may perceive all those humans as predators or competition for food. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how all those leering people with cameras, jockeying for position or slowly inching forward for a better look, are changing the bird’s behavior.
McMahon does not approve of accounts like Manhattan Bird Alert and worries about how the crowds of gawkers are affecting the animals. She isn’t supportive of the Twitter accounts that draw them. “I’d like them to stop,” she says. She points to the example of some owls that used to nest near Shakespeare Garden in Central Park. As their popularity grew, the eager public began to cut away the trees to get a better view. Because of all the attention, owls don’t go there anymore.
McMahon says that while the WBF uses Twitter for rescue calls, the organization never shares where it releases rehabilitated birds, even if they are very rare or popular species. “I don’t want that rare bird being surrounded by people!” she says. “We want it to be in peace. It does not need birders.”
Elkins says that Audubon CT has limited the number of owl sightings they’ve shared publicly, and that he often chooses not to post about some of his sightings if he thinks the bird is in a vulnerable position or if the ensuing popularity might cause a problem. “There have been some sensitive owls that I have found that I might just share with one other person,” he says. He might even avoid hanging around too long with his camera so he doesn’t attract passersby who will ask about what he’s looking at. “I don’t want people to linger around a bird that’s trying to hide for the day in its roost site,” he says.
Manhattan Bird Alert has grown considerably since Barrett first started it in 2013. In the beginning, the alerts were targeted to serious birders and would just share the species and location of the animal. Barrett also automated a system that would retweet others in the birding community who tagged the account. He chose Twitter because it was fast, easy to use, and didn’t require people to join a special group or even to have an account to see the content. He racked up a few thousand followers.
Then, in 2018, The New York Times featured Barrett in an article about young people getting interested in birding. The account’s following got a boost, growing to around 10,000 people. Later that year, the Mandarin duck arrived. The brightly colored duck, a denizen of East Asia, spent several months hanging out around a Central Park pond, attracting huge crowds and the nickname “hot duck.” Manhattan Bird Alert, which had announced the bird’s presence, suddenly became an international sensation. Barrett was interviewed by international media outlets and his Twitter followership swelled even more.
The account has continued to grow since, especially as many New Yorkers are turning to birding as one of the last pandemic-safe recreational activities left in the city. As the handle’s celebrity has grown, Barrett’s goals for the account have changed too. “I’ve realized I was fortunate to have something that suddenly appealed to so many people,” he says. “I wanted to do my best to make it the best I could make it.”
He’s gotten rid of the automation and now focuses on finding good photos and videos to share. He’s also given more space to popular species like owls, which appeal to a larger audience, than to species that might only get the most devoted birders excited. Barrett says he thinks about the account nearly every waking minute. He also runs accounts for bird sightings in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens and Long Island, although those are significantly less popular than his Manhattan account. “I’ve become the nexus of birding information,” he says.
That said, Barrett did take extra care before and after broadcasting the snowy owl’s presence. First, he noticed that the bird was hanging out in the middle of a baseball field and was protected by a fairly substantial metal fence that would help keep crowds at bay. Next, he alerted the city’s Urban Park Rangers so they could prepare for the crowd. And he tweeted out warnings for people not to crowd the owl or get too close. “I figured quite a few people unfamiliar with owls would be coming by. I wanted to make it clear to people that it would be improper to break the rules of the park to get a better view,” Barrett says.
Even though he has some reservations about sharing the locations of rare birds, Elkins acknowledges that a snowy owl in Central Park is something of a special case. “Central Park is so extremely public that somebody else is going to find it,” Elkins says. “There are enough other birders that the bird is not going to live a life of secrecy.”
Still, he warns watchers to err on the side of caution: Don’t stay too long, or spook the bird into flying. Definitely don’t feed it. Think about the specific environment the bird is in before sharing its location: Is it nesting? Is it safe in a high tree branch, or is it in a vulnerable position where it will be hard to for it to escape a crowd’s prying eyes? He recommends that newly-minted birders consult Audubon’s ethical bird photography guide and ask their more experienced counterparts before sharing a particularly exciting find.
As for Barrett, he thinks the flap over sharing bird locations online is misguided. “People who focus on the ethics of owl watching are misleading other people about what the real issues are in conservation,” he says. He points out that while thousands of birds die every year from collisions with buildings, habitat loss, and cat predation, very few—if any—have died from overexcited bird watchers. “There are real issues in conservation that should be addressed,” he says. “I think it’s important to keep things in perspective.”