It all started with a duck.
Beginning of October 2018, @BirdCentralPark, Manhattan’s leading birding group led by ornithologist David Barrett, has reported a very rare new resident splashing around Frog Pond. Barrett later became known as the de facto public relations person for the inexplicable transplant while broadcasting his daily whereabouts. The Mandarin Duck, also commonly referred to as the Hot Duck, had the type of meteoric rise to fame only seen in teenage pop stars. Officially named New York’s Most Eligible Bachelor by New York magazine, the Hot Duck’s popularity with the general public – and not just bird watchers – was palpable. At the height of his stardom, adoring fans from across the country made pilgrimages to Central Park just to marvel at the rare species. Many of them have theorized answers to the six-sided riddle of how a bird native to Southeast Asia and warm climates arrived in Manhattan – a mystery that has yet to be solved.
But like all celebrities and deified legends, the Hot Duck left us too soon. Fleeing Central Park without a trace, the Hot Duck’s current whereabouts are as mysterious as his arrival. Only the memory of its royal plumage with tigger tones remains.
October seems to be New York’s lucky month for hot bird sightings. On October 9, a new feathered tenant was first reported in Central Park via Twitter. The barred owl, or more informally the hoot owl, was spotted holding court in the Loch, an area in the middle of the park near 103rd Street. The barred owl is known for its characteristically beautiful fluffy face and the ringed patterns around its sunken eyes – an aesthetic feature that elicits a permanent “I-just-heard-shocking-news” look. Named after the horizontal and vertical bars on its upper chest and belly, the Barred Owl’s call, which mimics “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you, everything” is as recognizable as the Mister Truck Softee.
And while the barred owl isn’t uncommon in the northeast, its behavior is part of what attracts large crowds of admirers and devotees. Like most people in 2020, the Central Park barred owl is acting weird. A nocturnal bird, the barred owl usually sleeps during the day. The Central Park barred owl, however, is often spotted in broad daylight hunting and preening with few signs of napping. Atypically zen, the new neighbor of New Yorkers seems out of step with the hordes of his paparazzi. The chill owl was recently spotted dropping into nearby water for a drink and standing still for onlookers for over 15 minutes.
Some avid birders think this is the wrong way to take an owl out. “How about a coveted, hidden cove on the beach? Connecticut litigator and avid birder Christian Sterling theorized. “It compromises his position. It could be mobbed by blue jays or face competition from a hawk. Mr Sterling was also taken aback by the new famous owl’s ability to stay calm under all the fanfare, but he wasn’t confused about the commotion, “It’s always thrilling to see an owl.”
But birdwatching isn’t just the thrill, the thrilling abstraction of an unseen creature, or the Gram. More often, bird watching can be used as a tool for managing stress and improving mental health. In one 2017 study published by Dr. Daniel Coxresearcher at the University of Exeter, Dr. Cox demonstrated that people living in neighborhoods with abundant afternoon birds were positively associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress.
Ian Salvage is a licensed marriage and family therapist and teacher at the Hoffman process in Napa Valley. Salvage likened the euphoria associated with an activity like birdwatching to a kind of moving meditation. “Spending time in nature is one of the most effective ways to calm the nervous system. Our breathing naturally deepens and slows, oxytocin and serotonin are naturally released, and a feeling of stillness can often occur. Birdwatching can also be medicine for grief, as British author Helen Macdonald detailed in her Samuel Johnson Prize-winning memoir. H is for Hawk. Macdonald wrote about the therapy that changed his life by training a goshawk after the sudden death of his father.
Famous in mythology for being celestial creatures, and famous in Harry Potter for delivering messages to Hogwarts, perhaps the famous new owl is hiding in plain sight to relay a paranormal dispatch. Even though Punxatawney Phil has seen no shadows this year predicting an early spring, many of us feel stuck in groundhog day. Fortunately, the extrasensory world collectively agrees on one thing: owls symbolize transition.