You may have heard of him.
His arrival in New York City in the winter of 2018 took the world by storm. People flocked to Central Park to take photos of him, just for the thrill of saying they saw him there. Social media quickly dubbed him “hot” and an “international celebrity,” so naturally the headlines followed.
He spent his days napping on rocks, swimming in the lake, and confidently nipping at his rivals for the spotlight, almost knowing the crowds came for him.
Yes, I am talking about the infamous Mandarin Duck.
Mandy is the reason I, and many others, are aware of Bird Twitter — where birders share photos, videos, location, and information about various bird species with up-to-the-minute accuracy. And even though Mandy flew the coop one year ago and hasn’t been seen since, I never left Bird Twitter. It’s given me some sort of solace watching a 25-second clip of Wood Duck preening itself, or knowing the Harlem Meer Blue Heron is safely in his hometown haunt, as I scroll through my otherwise chaotic news feed.
Green-winged Teal drake endlessly preening to look good for his new girlfriend at The Pool in Central Park moments ago. He's soooo handsome, and they are so cute together! ❤ pic.twitter.com/FQhhYxoIdp
— Gloria (@Lucent508) February 27, 2020
Mr. Handsome, the Wood Duck on the east shore of the Central Park Harlem Meer, rests and tends to his good looks. pic.twitter.com/FfpiLW8diC
— Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark) February 26, 2020
Compared to Facebook, Instagram, or Reddit, Twitter is the perfect platform for birding to thrive, according to Jeffery Ward, a birder in New York.
“On Twitter, you post as you go,” he said. “No one wants to follow an Instagram account that continually posts throughout the day. Twitter is more about storytelling. I can tweet, ‘I’m about to go birding!’ and people pay attention to that thread, then follow the story.”
This was February 27th last year in Central Park. I miss these little ones!
P.S. I didn’t have food so don’t crucify me. pic.twitter.com/g3EmVnlQsa
— Jeffrey Ward (@JeffreyMWard) February 27, 2020
David Barrett, owner of the Twitter account @BirdCentralPark, made his account in 2013 as a way for birders to share their sightings via text message, which would then be posted on the account’s timeline. Twitter doesn’t have any login restrictions, so anyone can see content without an account and find hundreds of posts by simply tapping the #birdtwitter hashtag, which is a big perk in Barrett’s eyes.
The text message alert system continued for a few years. But, as more people started using smartphones and sharing bird photos and videos to Twitter, Barrett noticed his account’s following start to pick up. Then came 2018.
“The Mandarin Duck was a gateway into birding for many people,” said Barrett, whose account first alerted the internet of its existence. “A few people who started with the Mandarin Duck stuck with it now and contribute to the account.”
Birding in the real world is time-consuming and requires acute sight and hearing. Birds are highly mobile, so they are hard to notice to the untrained eye and ear. And according to Barrett, about 80% of his account’s nearly 21,000 followers engage with @BirdCentralPark but don’t typically go out with binoculars (I am one of them).
Why? The answer is simple, according to Ward.
“Birding is a big decompression of mine,” he said. “So if I am unable to be in a park, Twitter is a sweet substitute where I can see what’s happening in parks around the world.”
Twitter has certainly ushered in a new demographic for birding, too, according to Gloria Hong, who tweets from @Lucent508. Although, she said the rather niche hobby still tends to be associated with older, white retirees, she’s seen more and more young people out on bird walks when she’s in Central Park.
“Once you realize there’s over 200 species of birds in Central Park that you can see, it gets people hooked,” said Hong.
Many events and trips hosted by New York City Audubon routinely sell out within minutes, while bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges are some of the most popular parks for tourists.
For those who can’t make it out to those early morning scoutings, Bird Twitter is not only an oasis of pretty pictures of Eastern Towhees and Winter Wrens, but of kindness. Questions users have, like if someone needs help to identify an uncommon species, are answered promptly and without judgement. No politics allowed.
“I do not make political statements,” said Barrett. “We don’t trash anyone or go negative. That’s something I am quite serious about, keeping the space positive, entertaining, and educational — something people enjoy looking at.”
So next time you find yourself craving solitude, Bird Twitter may prove a walk in the park to be a giant stress reliever. Even if it’s through your phone.
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