It’s migratory bird season, and ecologists are cataloging the large number of birds that stop and refuel in New York during journeys that can reach up to 1,000 miles. On a recent Thursday afternoon at one of these pit stops, crickets drowned out the metallic grind of heavy construction and roaring traffic in Midtown.
Within an apple orchard, small bright orange and blue-gray falcons known as American kestrels home in on the high-pitched chirps of their favorite insect delicacy. But this verdant scene did not come from Central Park; it was taking place atop the Jacob Javits Convention Center along the busy Westside Highway.
The roof’s benefits extend beyond creating a home for animals pushed out of the city, according to NYC Audubon; this layer of vegetation can protect the city against climate change, flooding and extreme heat, while also extending the engineering life of the roof itself.
Thanks to a project managed in partnership with the NYC Audubon and the company Brooklyn Grange, half of the Javits Center now has a green roof. Organizers completed the installation of 7 acres of this landscape back in 2014, and it now serves as a sky-high bird sanctuary with a bustling colony of around 160 herring gull nests. In 2021, Brooklyn Grange added another acre to the roof, creating a food forest featuring pears and mango-like paw paw fruit, as well as a year-round farm with a greenhouse.
This green roof is a respite from the surrounding 300 square miles of inhospitable human habitat of mostly asphalt and concrete that makes up New York City. The bird sanctuary aims to correct the convention center’s deadly past. Before a $452 million renovation more than a decade ago, the Javits Center’s large glass windows killed 4,000 to 5,000 birds a year, making it one of the city’s biggest bird killers.
“[Dead] birds were piling up as people were walking into conventions,” said Dustin Partridge, director of conservation and science at the NYC Audubon.
Overdevelopment has played a major part in the decline of birds in the New York region. In the last four decades, habitat loss has been the main contributor to a 80% to 99% drop in New York grassland bird species. Between 90,000 to 230,000 migratory birds die annually because they are disoriented by the New York’s reflective glass and artificial lights.
But now, instead of crashing into the building, migratory birds have a place to rest their talons and feast among the rows of the roof’s thriving farm. Five Brooklyn Grange farmers maintain the crops using only natural pesticides and fertilizers, and grow up to 50 crops each season.