Riverside Park Bird Sanctuary

By Sabrina  |  February 8, 2013  |  Points of Interest

In 1841, famed naturalist John James Audubon bought thirty acres of land and built his final home less than two miles north of what is now the Riverside Park Bird Sanctuary. His fields and forests were alive with birdsong, and he noted their “fragrant verdure, and fruits innumerable.”

In 1916, the Women’s League for the Protection of Riverside Park became the caretakers of what is now the southern part of the Sanctuary, by then a blighted landscape. In the decades of the League’s stewardship, many plantings and other improvements were undertaken. In the spring of 1926, the League dedicated this area as the “Memorial Grove of States,” where they planted 65 trees: one for an unknown soldier from each of the 48 states, Alaska, and the District of Columbia, and 15 in honor of such luminaries as Peter Minuit and George Washington. But members of the Women’s League were interested in doing more than expressing their patriotism; they also intended to create a haven for birds at the site. They began referring to the grove as the Bird Sanctuary. Indicating the success of their endeavor, the annual report noted a steady increase in the number of species of birds visiting the Sanctuary in the first years of its existence.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, deteriorating conditions in the Bird Sanctuary had made the area less appealing to birds and other wildlife. Invasive plants and trees had begun growing there, threatening the native trees, shrubs, and understory plantings that serve as nesting and foraging sites. Without an adequate supply of proper shelter, food, or water — the fountain constructed by the Women’s League was long gone — the Bird Sanctuary was not living up to its potential as a haven for the Park’s birds.

In the late 90s, with a grant from the New York City Environmental Fund, Riverside Park Fund, in conjunction with the NYC Audubon Society and NYC Parks and Recreation, was able to begin making improvements to the Bird Sanctuary’s ecological balance and increase its importance as a vital support system for migrating, overwintering, and nesting birds. Working with different local and corporate volunteer groups, Riverside Park Fund volunteers cleared the slopes of debris, added a log border to the main trail to help stop erosion, and removed invasive species. Berry bearing trees and bushes were planted to draw migrating birds to the site. A portion of the lawn area was converted into a wildflower meadow which draws both birds and butterflies. In 2001, a water feature was designed and installed in the Sanctuary, and has proven to be a success with many species of birds. Water drips out of a pipe over a boulder into a shallow pool and then seeps down the hill. This water feature is dedicated to the memory of Norman Stotz, long-time RPF supporter, former President of the New York City Audubon Society, and invaluable resource for the Bird Sanctuary’s restoration.

The Bird Sanctuary is also designated as an official NYC Parks & Recreation Forever Wild site. This designation provides a layer of protection to areas that are already being managed as natural sites instead of maintained landscapes. The Women’s League hoped to make the grove a closed garden that would recall the lush abundance Audubon knew. The current plan is more modest: to add to the expanded Sanctuary plantings and improvements that will be attractive to both people and birds while maintaining the natural look of the landscape and the present full accessibility to it.

Birdwalks led by Riverside Park Fund Grassroots Volunteers take place during spring and fall migrations; there is also our volunteer-led annual Christmas Count in December.