Gardening in the Sky: More Complex Than We Think

This fall, my favorite bird returned to the High Line, announcing itself with a reedy, melancholy whistle. White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) overwinter in our region and are common at this time of year. On the High Line, you can see them foraging through the leaf litter for seeds or perched on fruit-bearing shrubs like chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking'). At first glance, the white-throated sparrow could be confused with the invasive house sparrow (Passer domesticus), which is similar in size and shape. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice a few distinguishing features including the patch of yellow above the white-throat's beak, tan or white stripes along the sides of the head, and the eponymous white throat.

A tan-striped white-throated sparrow feeds on native chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking'). Research has shown that birds seek out fruits high in anti-oxidants. Photo by Steven Severinghaus.

White-throated sparrows are one of many birds that take advantage of the High Line's plantings. Some, like mockingbirds, robins and grackles, nest here. Others, like the swallows, zip over the park, catching insects on the wing. Still others, like the ruby-crowned kinglets, seem to stop by only for a brief rest and a snack, before moving on. Although we have over twenty native or migratory bird species using the park in different ways, the High Line is too narrow to be great bird habitat. There simply isn't enough territory, especially for breeding.

American robins (Turdus migratorius) are one of the few species that nest on the High Line. Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

Our gardens meet many of the Audubon Society's criteria for bird-friendly spaces. The park offers a range of planting types from woodland, to grassland, to wetland. In the warmer months, there is water. Seeds are abundant much of the year. Birds can find shelter and protection from feline predators here. We do not use pesticides. Our many native plant species support the insects crucial to songbird populations (most songbird chicks feed almost exclusively on insects, even if the adult's diet is plant-based). Despite all these elements of the park, the space is too limited and the surrounding environment too harsh to successfully support large and diverse bird populations.

Ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) are a delightful, but uncommon, sight on the High Line. Photo by Steven Severinghaus.

Our experience illustrates a larger truth. As ecologist Frank Egler wrote, "Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think; they are more complex than we can think." Functional ecosystems cannot easily be created or repaired. In the future, we hope to partner with researchers to learn more about the ecological services the park offers, how and which birds use them and how the park fits into the larger patchwork of surrounding greenspaces, including Hudson River Park and the green roofs on the Javits Center and the U.S. Postal Service's processing center. We would also like to gain a deeper understanding of the other wildlife that use this space, especially the many native bees that nest and feed in the park.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.

TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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