Bird Note

Bird Note:
Birds of the Waterworks
by Desmond O'Donovan

​Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Notes consider place via the street, sound, food, trees, and other portals.

In partnership with educator Joshua Block, students from Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy are creating and publishing their Philadelphia Field Notes. Desmond O'Donovan shares field observations and drawings of the birds that hang out at the Philadelphia Waterworks area.


While the Bike Path and Art Museum area are alive with the activity of humans, the birds of the Philadelphia Waterworks area also enjoy the warm sunny winter’s day. The water runs deep from the recent rain and snow melt. Most of the rocks that are often exposed are under water. Other than a large dead branch resting on a rock, there is nothing in the water for the birds to perch on. Four Double-crested Cormorants take advantage of this roosting spot, abandoning their usual place on the boat net for this viewpoint over the waterfall.

 The net is instead occupied by a group of gulls. Most of them are of the smaller Ring-billed species, with a couple of larger Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls mixed in. Despite their small size, the Ring-billed Gulls use their large numbers to secure their pick of the best perching spots on the net, where they can soak up the sun, and watch for potential food. They out number the larger gulls about five to one, allowing them to have this advantage.

Ducks do not wish to brave the deep rushing water. Mallard and American Black Ducks cling to the water’s edge near the shore. They are hidden amongst the over hanging bushes and branches, only brief glimpses of them are seen as they occasionally pop out from the undergrowth. Canada Geese swim with them, but are a little more adventurous, sometimes swimming out into the open water in groups of two. They are less afraid of fast currents than the smaller ducks.

The Waterworks are a bountiful area for Philadelphia water birds. The falls trap fish, an easy catch for the birds. There is an inlet near Lloyd Hall, which provides shelter for smaller waterfowl. open grassy areas near the museum provide grazing for geese, and the locals and tourists that visit the area also offer food to birds in the form of handouts and trash. On a nice day, the Waterworks area is a gathering place for both humans and birds.

People know about the birds at the Waterworks. The Waterworks is a popular public space, and these birds are easy to find. But knowledge of their world is hidden because people often don’t acknowledge them. Birds are easy to ignore, they are simply seen as part of the background, as if there was nothing special or noteworthy about them. There is a relationship between them, the environment, and the people of Philadelphia.

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