Avian Ecology in Urban Landscapes

GOALS:To monitor wildlife populations and their health in human dominated habitats

Meadowlands bird studies

The Meadowlands and its expansive wetlands have long been recognized as a critical resource for wildlife, especially birds. Given its location amidst a highly urbanized landscape, its importance as an oasis for wildlife cannot be overlooked. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Meadowlands/Hudson River Complex as part of New Jersey's North Atlantic Coast Waterfowl Focus Area. New Jersey's Division of Fish and Wildlife maintains Sawmill Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 900-acre wetland complex within the Meadowlands District that supports large numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds during migration. Conservation nonprofit organizations have worked diligently over the last three decades to raise public and government agency awareness of the incredible natural resource value of the Meadowlands. Finally, the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, recognizing the District's value to wildlife, made preservation and restoration of open space a high priority in its Master Plan.

The Meadowlands is a diverse mosaic of habitats that includes tidal, brackish, freshwater and forested wetlands. The District is home to many breeding species, several of which are listed as "endangered" or "threatened" by the State of New Jersey, like Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax violaceus), Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), and Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus).  Currently we are involved in two projects in the Meadowlands District, a study of avian abundance and distribution and a study of contaminants and their effects on birds.

Avian abundance and distribution

The goal of this 2-yr project, which was initiated in the summer of 2004 is to collect and evaluate information on birds of the Meadowlands District that will help the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission to realize the environmental and land use goals described in its Master Plan.  Specifically, our objectives are to (1) determine the abundance and distribution of avian species occurring throughout the annual cycle in the various habitats of the District, (2) investigate habitat, landscape, and disturbance characteristics that underlie avian abundance and distribution patterns, (3) determine avian behavior patterns associated with different habitat and disturbance characteristics.

See report

Effects of contaminants birds

During the Industrial Revolution the Hackensack River became a major manufacturing center and a large number of industrial facilities including paint and pigment manufacturing plants along with petroleum and chemical refineries lined its riverbanks.  Effluent from these facilities caused severe contamination of water and sediments in the wetlands of the Meadowlands District.  Although the majority of the industrial facilities have been shut down, and the water quality in the Hackensack River and the overall New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary has improved since the 1970s, high contaminant levels may persist in sediments. 

An ecotoxicant that is not found in high concentrations in the water or the sediments can potentially be found in harmful concentrations in tissues of higher level consumers due to biomagnification, with increasing risk to organisms at the top of the food chain. Contaminants of concern in the Meadowlands include the metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and lead, and organic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and its derivatives, and several other pesticide compounds. 

In the spring of 2006 and 2007 we conducted a study in collaboration with Rutgers University and the NJ Meadowlands Commission to investigate contaminant levels in breeding birds in the Meadowlands District.  Specifically, our objectives were to (1) determine contaminant levels in feathers, eggs, and blood of several avian species breeding in wetland habitats of the District, (2) investigate patterns and correlations in tissue contaminant levels and breeding success of birds, and (3) examine patterns of contaminants in avian tissues at different sites and habitats in the District. 

Results of our study are available at: 


and have been published in the journal Environmental Research:






Gateway National Recreation Area Surveys

Gateway National Recreation Area is 26,645 acres of coastal uplands, freshwater ponds, marshes, bays and mudflats.  Established in 1972, it is divided into three geographically separate units that constitute some of the largest and most significant natural areas remaining in the metropolitan New York City area.  They include the Jamaica Bay/Breezy Point Unit (Riis Park, Fort Tilden, Breezy Point Tip, Floyd Bennett Field, Plumb Beach, north shore of Jamaica Bay and the 9,155 acre Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge), the Staten Island Unit (Great Kills Park and Miller Field) and the Sandy Hook Unit. 

The rich food resources found throughout the diversity of habitats within the park make it regionally important for a wide variety of avian species.  The extensive salt marsh and upland islands in the Jamaica Bay provide nesting habitats for gulls, terns, waterfowl, herons, rails, and several passerine species, much of this within park boundaries.  Furthermore, upland sites in the park provide nesting habitat for grassland and other passerine species. 

A recent review of literature pertinent to avian resources in the park suggests that the abundance and distribution of several species groups are not well understood.  We are currently conducting research at Gateway National Recreation area to develop baseline inventory data on the abundance and distribution of breeding avian species.

Specifically, our objectives are to (1) determine abundance and distribution patterns of passerines and secretive marsh birds during the breeding season, (2) determine patterns of species diversity within particular species groups, and (3) investigate habitat and site differences that underlie avian abundance, distribution, and diversity patterns.