Social Dilemma: What’s at Stake When We Propel Wild Birds to Stardom?

Manhattan Bird Alert, a New York-based social media account, has fueled the rise of celebrity birds while attracting droves of new birders. But like many a story of unchecked fame, the phenomenon is also a cautionary tale.
Illustration of a crowd of people in a park looking at and photographing an owl in a tree with the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
Illustration: Ellen Weinstein

On May 11, 2018, Andrew Farnsworth saw something that was almost unbelievable. A migration ecologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Farnsworth has seen more than his fair share of rare birds. But there was one species native to the Lower 48 that he’d never recorded—a Kirtland’s Warbler—and he assumed doing so would require a trip to its breeding grounds in Michigan’s jack pine forests. The rare warbler is all but unheard of in New York State. That a Kirtland’s came practically to his front door when it stopped over in Central Park, not far from Farnsworth’s Manhattan apartment, was nothing short of extraordinary. “I think it was reported about 5 p.m.,” he says. “I took a cab to 60th and Fifth, bailed out, and then ran. Fast.”

After spotting the bird, Farnsworth realized the warbler was only part of the spectacle. “Seeing the speed with which tens and then hundreds of people appeared in the park to see the bird was like a BTS concert or a Beatles concert,” he says. A birder named Kevin Topping first spotted the Kirtland’s and posted about it on Twitter, where it was immediately picked up by Manhattan Bird Alert—a feed that reposts sightings of birds in the park, particularly uncommon species. The news got out through more traditional means, but none are geared toward speed quite like Manhattan Bird Alert. By 6:30 p.m. hundreds of people were watching the bird; the crowd was so large and had formed so quickly that the cops came. To Farnsworth, who has birded in Central Park for decades, it was clear that something had shifted: “That was a moment of like, wow, this is a whole different level. The whole social media angle to alerting people has arrived in a very different, sort of explosive way.”

Social media has become a powerful tool for broadcasting the appearance of rare or otherwise remarkable birds and made it far easier to chase sought-after species. Last October, for example, Twitter (now called X) lit up with alerts of the Lower 48’s first recorded Willow Warbler, native to northern Eurasia, and hundreds of birders made their way to a lagoon in California’s Marin County to catch a glimpse. Similar frenzies have swept across the Midwest as Limpkins, tropical waders rarely seen north of Florida, have popped up in ponds and marshes as far north as Minnesota in recent years. And a Steller’s Sea-Eagle—native to far-eastern Russia and parts of Asia—that’s been crisscrossing North America for three years draws crowds wherever it appears. In rare instances, the crush of attention has led to birds’ physical harm, as in 2016 in Washington State, when a man was cited for killing a Northern Hawk Owl. Residents were reportedly annoyed by the crowd of birders and photographers goggling at the boreal raptor.

While a feverish crowd can form anywhere a rare bird appears, Manhattan’s most famous greenspace is a crucible of the phenomenon. “Central Park is really one of the best birding spots outside of the tropics,” says Tod Winston, a birding guide and urban biodiversity specialist with New York City Audubon. The metropolis is in the middle of the Atlantic flyway, so millions of migrating birds pass through; amid a landscape dominated by concrete, they concentrate in its green oases. At more than 800 acres, Central Park is one of the largest havens available for migrants, as well as residents like Northern Cardinals that inspire the city’s human inhabitants.

In recent years Manhattan Bird Alert, with roughly 80,000 followers and counting, has brought new attention to the delights of birding in the park and helped attract new people to the hobby. It has also elevated a number of individual birds to celebrity status—and like any star, they’re pursued by admirers whose behavior verges on that of paparazzi. David Barrett, the man behind Manhattan Bird Alert, sees nothing wrong with propelling a bird to fame. “My site gets people to like birds,” he says. “They’ve got a bird in their life now, and they think more about, well, what is this bird’s life like, and what could affect it? And so they care more.”

Yet many of the birders, ornithologists, and members of avian conservation organizations I spoke with paint Barrett as a person who has brought widespread attention to birds in often unethical ways—such as sharing the real-time locations of sensitive species. Barrett’s profile has risen in the media along with that of the birds he’s helped make famous, and he’s often quoted in news stories as an expert, much to the frustration of other avid amateurs who would prefer that effective science communicators weigh in. After getting someone interested in birding, “you want that entry to move those people toward being conservationists and supporting the birds,” says D. Bruce Yolton, who has written critically on his blog, Urban Hawks, about Barrett’s publicizing of owls. “But with David, it’s empty. It’s like eating candy or popcorn.”

I’ve heard Barrett derisively referred to as an influencer, but it’s a useful way to think about what he does: He makes birding seem exciting and easy; all you have to do is head over to Central Park, ideally with binoculars, point them toward this tree, and you can see something remarkable. Barrett’s prominence and the backlash against him are emblematic of tensions playing out on smaller stages across the country. Social media is helping to foster a surge in birding, yet there are no guardrails to ensure ethical behavior or long-standing etiquette norms. In this new age of birding, can the popular pastime promote the welfare of birds while maintaining the thrill of the chase?


century ago, the fastest way to learn of the arrival of migrants or a vagrant was to check the logbook at a natural area. As telephones became common, birders organized phone trees to pass along such news. Dial-in recordings, which allowed for the rapid, mass dissemination of sightings, began in Boston in 1954 with “The Voice of Audubon.” The technology revolutionized how birders shared information, particularly after answering machines became widespread in the 1970s and ’80s.

Ringing a landline seems positively quaint compared with the communication advances of the past two decades. Today birders use group email lists, WhatsApp groups, Discord channels, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share sightings. And then there’s eBird, a global database that is the center of gravity around which every other means of relaying sightings revolves. The eBird app and website make it easy for individuals to record and share sightings, as well as engage in various events, from Christmas Bird Counts to Big Year competitions, in which birders try to see as many species as possible in 365 days. More than 820,000 users worldwide have recorded some 1.3 billion observations to date with eBird, making it an incomparable trove of data for ornithologists, who use the information to understand species distribution, population trends, and migration pathways.

Barrett discovered eBird in 2011. A former hedge-fund manager, Barrett doesn’t fit neatly into any birder cliché. He came to birding through long-distance running, one of a host of obsessive pursuits he has undertaken in his 59 years, in addition to weightlifting and opera singing. In 2010 he added a daily 30-minute walk to his training regimen in order to, he says, boost mitochondrial output and shave a few seconds off his near-five-minute mile. Barrett lives on the Upper East Side, so he walked in Central Park, where he quickly started to notice birds. Soon his running and weightlifting spreadsheets were joined by a growing list of avian sightings. “I found it fascinating,” he says in a clipped British accent—the result, he says, of years of classical voice and speech training. (He’s  from the United States but won’t say where.) “I was seeing things I’d never seen before, even common woodpeckers.” Once he discovered eBird and its top-birder rankings, he was hooked. By 2012 he had all but given up the mile for the Big Year, and the 208 species he tallied put him in second place in New York County, behind Farnsworth.

Before earning his MBA, Barrett studied math and computer science at MIT and Harvard. He used those skills to optimize his new obsession—like Moneyball for birding instead of Major League Baseball. To see as many birds as possible most efficiently, he pored over weather reports, eBird sightings, an SMS-based bird alert system for the borough, and other local birding groups. In 2013 he set up Manhattan Bird Alert, an automated Twitter feed that retweeted sightings posted by other birders who used the hashtag #birdcp. It was fast, free, and more comprehensive than any other account. Plus, Barrett could report any sightings—including alerts about owls. Depending on the species and circumstances, many platforms don’t release owl locations in real time, if ever, because some of the birds are especially sensitive to human disturbance. Barrett’s did.

In the beginning, Manhattan Bird Alert was by birders, for birders. “No one from the general public looked at it because ­everything was in birding vernacular,” says Gloria Hong, a New York City birder and wildlife photographer. It also required an insider’s understanding of the geography of the park. A tweet might read, “WETA at The Oven #birdcp,” with WETA standing for Western Tanager and The Oven being a small inlet on the north side of the lake. The city’s hard-core birding crowd took to the account quickly, even if there were no rules around alerts for sensitive species. Bird-walk leaders with The Linnaean Society of New York and New York City Audubon routinely used the #birdcp hashtag, as did other prominent figures in the birding community. Everyone I spoke to who is now critical of Barrett used Manhattan Bird Alert in some capacity in the early years. The alerts Barrett later created for Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx were similarly used by relatively small numbers of serious birders.

It was a different time for social media in general and Twitter in particular. This was before the rancor of the 2016 presidential campaign, before #MeToo, before the public harassment of female
video-game journalists known as Gamergate—widely seen as an early sign of things beginning to deteriorate across the broader internet. There was still the widespread belief that platforms like Twitter were a force for good, connecting people and helping spread information, whether it was memes, news, or bird sightings. Manhattan Bird Alert was small and relatively friendly, hovering around 3,000 followers in late 2018. Then a Mandarin Duck flapped its way to Central Park.


ith his pompadour-like crest and patches of iridescence, the Mandarin Duck stood out from the park’s native waterfowl. It undoubtedly escaped from captivity—and thus wouldn’t help anyone’s eBird life list—but Barrett still featured the duck on his account. Photos of the stunning creature went viral, setting off a feedback loop: People saw photos from Barrett’s account, went to see the bird, then posted their own photos, some of which the Manhattan Bird Alert retweeted. The mystery of how it ended up in the park only added to its allure. Soon the “Hot Duck” was a bona fide celebrity. As admiring crowds grew large enough to draw news reporters’ attention, the connection between Barrett and the duck made him an obvious source. Man and bird were featured in The New York Times and New York magazine’s website The Cut, not to mention myriad other local and national outlets. Manhattan Bird Alert quickly grew to more than 10,000 followers.

Those who got into birding because of the duck were in for a thrilling winter in the park, which saw a historic irruption of owls. Three Barred Owls roosted there for a time, and two Great Horned Owls also moved in. As he had always done, Barrett routinely posted and reposted the owls’ locations, including the holly tree where a Northern Saw-whet Owl slept during the day. In the past, posting such information to his relatively small following of serious birders hadn’t drawn hordes or provoked much concern from the community. Now, with five times as many followers—many likely new to birding—the scene played out much differently.

At first, only a few people knew about the saw-whet’s roosting spot in the Shakespeare Garden and didn’t disturb it during the day. “Then when David promoted it, because he had had this huge uptick of people from the Mandarin Duck, it was pandemonium,” says Yolton, the blogger. A New York Times reporter took a photograph of the gawkers in late November; with all the cameras and bodies, it looked more like a press scrum awaiting a glimpse of a disgraced politician than a bunch of birders. The throng was behind a fence, well away from the holly tree, but the story that everyone tells—though no one I talked to witnessed—is that a photographer cut off a branch to get a better shot of the tiny owl. On another occasion, after Barrett’s Brooklyn Bird Alert account posted about a Snowy Owl at Floyd Bennett Field, a photographer was seen trying to flush it out. Concern grew among birders that Barrett was putting owls at risk.

Crowding and following owls in winter can disrupt their hunting, increase the odds of a vehicle collision if they’re flushed, and make them overly accustomed to humans, according to eBird, which hides from public view reports of species it deems sensitive. In New York, eBird considers Barn Owls sensitive year-round; Long-eared Owls, in the spring and summer. Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls aren’t on the list. Even so, eBird notes that all owl species should be observed with care and, like many organizations, points users to the American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics, the gold standard. Greg Neise, a member of the committee tasked with maintaining and revising the code, pointed me to rule 1b, which advises birders to “avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger” and to “always exercise caution and restraint when photographing, recording, or otherwise approaching birds,” among other guidelines. “We leave it up to individual birders to follow those guidelines or not,” Neise says. “And as you found out, there are a lot who don’t.”

Between the saw-whet and tweets from Manhattan Bird Alert promoting owl walks led by Robert “Birding Bob” DeCandido, notorious for his heavy use of bird-call playback and flashlights (both ethical red flags), Barrett burned through a lot of good will that winter. Many birders stopped using #birdcp in their posts, and a sort of balkanization of city bird alerts began. Various private alert systems were eventually set up as alternatives, some with hundreds of members, and they expressly sought to keep Barrett out. He posted screenshots and links of eBird reports to Twitter instead. Barrett saw nothing wrong with tweeting the already public information, but it led many users to make their lists private—rendering the info inaccessible not only to the public but also to researchers. To avoid the loss of data, eBird recommends that when users report a particularly vulnerable species, they make their list private only temporarily.

Hong talked to Barrett at length about the issues people had with him scraping eBird for sightings and photos and general ethical issues around owl reports. He wouldn’t budge. On Twitter, Barrett often privately asked people to use the #birdcp hashtag, and some I spoke with found him to be annoyingly insistent. The more Barrett chased data, the more his critics did to keep the information out of view. “What he’ll say to a reporter, or to anybody else, is he’s been this great person to make birding accessible—it’s so easy, it’s public, anyone can do it,” Hong says. “But because of his shitty behavior, it’s caused some of the most experienced and most knowledgeable birders to hide their lists, shares, and finds.”

Farnsworth believes an influx of new users likely serves as a counterbalance. And to Barrett, concerns about his accounts causing birds harm are overblown. “There’s nothing you can really do as a birder, doing regular birder things, to harm birds,” he says.

With the Hot Duck and his booming audience, Barrett realized that Manhattan Bird Alert could be more than a bot that tells people where birds are. He began to run it like an editorial operation, posting a combination of curated alerts, photos, and other content about wildlife in Central Park that non-birders—and people outside the city—could enjoy. (Because the automated alerts weren’t generating likes or retweets, in late 2020 he spun them off to a separate account, @mbalerter; today it has fewer than 1,900 followers.) He now carefully considers what goes out and when, thinking about the cadence and content of the posts. Barrett doesn’t make any money from his bird alerts, but perhaps unsurprisingly for someone given to obsessive pursuits, he now treats it like a full-time job.


uring the winter of 2021–2022, Barrett’s account helped propel two more birds to fame: a Barred Owl named Barry, which made Central Park her home until she ingested rat poison and collided with a maintenance truck, and a Snowy Owl, a species last seen there 130 years ago. The latest, greatest celebrity owl embodies much of the controversy over Barrett’s role in potentially shaping birds’ fate: “I knew Flaco was going to be a celebrity bird even before I saw him myself,” he says.

On February 2, 2023, a Eurasian Eagle-Owl got loose after vandals damaged his Central Park Zoo enclosure. Before the zoo announced the breakout, Barrett saw the first photos of the bird on Twitter. “I knew this was going to be big, because it’s a beautiful owl,” he says. “There’s been some kind of crime, or a big mistake, too. And that’s always interesting to people; there’s drama.”

Zoo employees tried to recapture the bird, concerned it might harm native birds or be unable to feed itself. “I encouraged people to be cooperative with the zoo people,” Barrett says. “I personally was myself.” That’s not how others saw it. Multiple times a day Manhattan Bird Alert posted Flaco’s location and trap sites. Jim Breheny, head of the Bronx Zoo, retweeted one of those posts and wrote, “Whatever your intent, your need to seem relevant or involved in this effort is not at all helpful. In fact, you are a hindrance.” One night when Barrett broadcast a rescue attempt, Yolton says 30 people gathered about 20 feet from the rat-baited trap: “I said, ‘We all need to move,’ and one person turned to me and said, ‘Oh no, no, no, we’re getting good pictures.’” Flaco evaded capture and today subsists on rats he catches—often with an audience steered toward him by Manhattan Bird Alert.

Barrett obviously cares about his followers and press, but when I walked with him in Central Park in June, it was clear that his interest in birds runs deep. He’s out in the park nearly every day for hours, and as I saw, he comes prepared. To reduce sun exposure, he wore fingerless gloves and a wide-brimmed hat, and he typically shields his face with a balaclava. He carried protein bars, GoSky binoculars, a Nikon COOLPIX P950 camera, and, of course, his phone: “my constant companion,” he joked.

The addition of a camera to his kit in 2020 changed a lot for Barrett. In competitive birding, as soon as you see one species, you’re on to the next. “As a photographer, you can end up lingering over a relatively common bird for hours,” he says. We spent more time watching a Cedar Waxwing pair than any other species. Barrett wanted to catch them in just the right leaf-filtered sunlight. These days Manhattan Bird Alert is primarily focused on photography, and night-herons, kestrels, and cardinals feature regularly, reminding people of the more routine delights to be found in the park, too.

But when gorgeous Baltimore Oriole photos garner fewer than 100 likes and a picture of Flaco gets more than 1,000, you can see why owls continue to have an outsize presence on the account. They’re a big part of what Barrett wants to photograph and what his followers want to see. He regularly retweets images that other photographers caption with ethical nuance—noting they’re taken from a distance, or at night with a long exposure and no flash—as is increasingly common on social media. But Barrett only occasionally includes such information on his posts, and when it comes to what followers should consider, his account guidelines instruct: “Ask yourself: would birders want to go out of their way to see my bird?” and “In particular, owl reports are welcome.”

Barrett says he takes precautions when necessary. For instance, he didn’t post about a Great Horned Owl pair he observed nesting this year. And he called park rangers to alert them that crowds were imminent when the Snowy Owl showed up. Barrett says he’d rather address bad behavior as it’s happening: “It’s better to point it out to the person who’s misbehaving at the time, rather than to send out a message to 80,000 accounts, nearly all of which are not doing that.”

Yet the arc of social media bends toward establishing rules, and Barrett’s view is increasingly out of step with those. The Linnaean Society’s good group birding practices, for instance, instruct, “Do not share sensitive species’ locations on large public forums such as Twitter.” The Maine Birds Facebook group asked its members not to post specific locations of rare species after a hunter killed a King Eider he allegedly located via the group’s page. iNaturalist, an app that allows users to share and confirm findings of flora and fauna, automatically restricts location disclosure of orchids and other at-risk organisms. And wildflower loss at viral super bloom sites spurred adoption of the tag #nowildflowerswereharmed to remind users to take precautions like staying on trails and leaving flowers untouched.

These groups and myriad others that harness social media to share information about the natural world can’t control their individual follower’s actions, but they strive to educate their audiences about ethical practices that will help protect the organisms that garner all those likes.

On a Friday in June, in the peachy glow of sunset, I again walked through Central Park. I knew from Barrett’s account that Flaco often hunted around the compost facility, a particularly unlovely corner of the park that reeks of rotting trash—a great place to find rats. A couple walked by, heads tilted toward the tree they’d seen Flaco in the night before. I asked how they’d heard about his new favorite spot. “I Googled it,” one said. “Manhattan Bird Alert? The Twitter thing—there were all these updates on there.”

I was about to give up on seeing him when a din of bird calls rang out. Remembering that other birds often harass owls (which I learned from Barrett’s account), I looked up and there he was, as massive as promised. A flash of orange streaked through the branches as a Baltimore
Oriole—one of the pair nesting nearby (which I also learned from Barrett’s account)—dive-bombed Flaco. In the binary of Central Park birding, it seemed like I had two options: I could tweet my sighting, “Flaco in the black walnut tree on the west side of the composting area #birdcp”—or I could keep it between Flaco and me. I watched for a few more minutes as he sat ruffled but largely unbothered by the swooping orioles, my phone in my pocket, before turning to leave. 

This story originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue as “Social Dilemma.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.