I saw my first Cerulean Warbler in the realm of the dead.
I was 12 when I visited Mount Auburn Cemetery, a rolling 175-acre burial space that straddles the border between Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts. The immense trees were bright with new spring growth; the gravestones and soaring obelisks were intimidating. This seemed like a serious place for serious people.
Suddenly, two ecstatic birders flailed their arms in my direction. “Psst, come check this out,” they whispered. At the very top of an oak, a tiny sky-blue bird was bopping from twig to twig, chowing down on caterpillars. Boom. My lifer Cerulean Warbler. In an instant, my point of view on cemeteries expanded.
We birders love to haunt unappreciated places. We know that some of the best birds hang out at dumps and sewage lagoons, and we’ve been skulking around headstones for decades, even centuries. Lucky for us, cemeteries have evolved from spook yards to bird-friendly havens, thanks to the efforts of a few innovative city planners.
From Graveyard to Getaway
There’s a difference between a cemetery and a graveyard. A cemetery is any large burial ground, while a graveyard is always next to a church. But the contrast doesn’t just stop there. Back in 18th-century Europe, graveyards were nasty places. Dingy, poorly maintained, and rife with disease, they attracted gamblers and other people of ill repute. As the continent’s population grew, graveyards overflowed with corpses. Something had to be done.
In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte established Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery. This large, organized burial ground became the final resting place for superstars such as Oscar Wilde and Chopin and is now a popular tourist attraction. Meanwhile, across the pond, a Boston-area physician named Jacob Bigelow heard about Père-Lachaise. He was fretting about the diseases stewing in local graveyards, so he gathered a group of civic leaders and proposed the establishment of a garden-style burial ground. The result was Mount Auburn Cemetery, America’s pioneering so-called “rural cemetery.”
Mount Auburn opened in 1831—and people loved it. They journeyed from afar to stroll through its lush greenery and rolling landscapes. A 16-year-old visitor named Emily Dickinson gushed that “Nature had formed the spot with a distinct idea in view of its being a resting place for her children.” A destination for the dead became one for the living, too.
Landscaping for the Birds
As Mount Auburn went on to inspire other cemeteries and parks across the country, it got urbanites to rethink entertainment in natural settings. Cemetery visitors didn’t sit or walk around in quiet contemplation; they partied, picnicked, played musical instruments, walked their dogs, courted, and even raced carriages. And, yes, they watched birds—and shot them, too. In 1830, a man named John Bethune collected an unusual flycatcher in Mount Auburn Cemetery. It was the first Olive-sided Flycatcher known to science.
Birds were a boon for cemeteries across the board. They ate plant pests, added an extra splash of color to the gardens, and attracted more tourists. Once planners caught on to this, they started to shape landscapes that also appealed to wildlife. By 1870, Mount Auburn Trustees established a Committee on Birds to blend horticultural, botanical, and ornithological knowledge to choose forage-friendly plants. Water features were another object of interest; people loved them, but so did herons, swallows, ducks, and more. As ever-growing cities gobbled up the nearby forests, burial grounds became critical habitat for such species. Soon, cemeteries like Laurel Hill in Philadelphia were installing feeders and houses and labeling themselves as bird sanctuaries.
Today, urban birders still cherish cemeteries. The diversity of habitats, from blossoms to mature trees to ponds, make them hot spots for migrant warblers and resident owls; and the well-maintained paths, portable maps, and proximity to public transit make them majorly accessible. What’s more, many cemeteries have upped their biodiversity by planting nutritious native species. They’ve also partnered with birding clubs and nonprofits for nature walks and other opportunities to learn and explore.
Etiquette to Knock ‘em Dead
Birders must be respectful of a cemetery’s prime purpose: to provide rest for the dead and comfort for the bereaved. Otherwise, tempers flare—like in Ontario last year, when a handful of photographers upset mourners by scattering seed on gravestones and beating a tree with sticks to wake up an Eastern Screech-Owl.
Here’s my checklist of must-dos while birding in cemeteries:
- Know where and when you can visit. Some cemeteries only allow visitors in certain areas, and many are locked at night. Others are outright closed to the public or discourage people from birding in large groups.
- Read the signs and park in designated spots. Don’t drive onto the grass.
- Avoid trampling bouquets or otherwise damaging or picking the plantings.
- Give mourners plenty of breathing room. Keep your voice low, no matter how stoked you are to have spotted a Cerulean.
- Never touch or lean against a gravestone, mausoleum, or monument.
Of course, be mindful of the general rules of ethical birding and photography, too. If all this makes you nervous, tag along with a local expert; they’ll make sure you make the most of your visit.
Best Cemeteries for Birding
America is full of beautiful burial grounds that remain birdy in any season. (Some have checklists and tips on peak months online, so be to search around before you go.) Here are just eight.
Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge and Watertown, Massachusetts
A popular destination for Massachusetts’ many bird clubs, Mount Auburn is packed with warblers and Orchard Orioles during spring and fall migration. Year-round you’ll find Great Horneds and other owls if you're lucky.
Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York
Keep an eye out for Solitary Sandpipers and rare ducks on the property’s many ponds. And don’t forget to look up as you pass through the gothic gatehouse: Monk Parakeets nest among the spires.
Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio
Migrating songbirds and raptors love this place, as do waterfowl (birders have logged 19 species of ducks, swans, and geese). You can also enjoy a beautiful view of Lake Erie from the balcony of the James A. Garfield Memorial.
Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati, Ohio
Originally built to stow away cholera victims deep underground, Spring Grove is now full of mature trees that offer food and refuge for birds. In winter, scan for crafty Merlins as they flush out flocks of prey.
Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee
This rural cemetery and bird sanctuary consists of tranquil rows of old-growth trees and a butterfly garden. It’s also runs on-brand spooky movies through its Cemetery Cinema program.
Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California
The trees at this military cemetery offer a seaside rest stop for rare warblers and sparrows. Check for Western Bluebirds, kingbirds, and thrushes perched on wires, headstones, and fences as well.
Salt Lake City Cemetery, Salt Lake City, Utah
This site is a good migrant trap during the spring and fall, but it also shines in winter, attracting Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, crossbills, and more. Note that it’s only open on weekdays.
Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina
See Tricolored Herons, Little Blue Herons, and White Ibises in the cemetery’s palm-lined wetlands. Just be sure to follow its unique rule: Don’t feed the alligators.
You can help! Native plants provide the food and shelter birds need now and in the future. To learn more about why native plants are important, visit our Plants for Birds page. And to find the best bird-friendly plants in your area, type your zipcode into our native plants database.