The art of birding: A bird lover’s story

The art of birding: A bird lover’s story
By: Ariana Palmieri

Everywhere I look, I see birds. Above the television stand hangs a painting of two affectionate Passenger Pigeons linking beaks. Statues of Puffins holding fish in their beaks face each other in a never ending stare down in front of the television. A photograph of a Blue Bird puffing out its chest hangs above an owl statue, a bird lamp, and a collection of various bird feathers. Tweets can be heard from Jake, a 21-year-old Senegal from North Africa, and Oliver, a 19-year-old Monk Parakeet from South America, as they sit independently on their individual cages.This is Toni Canzoneri’s home, and she wouldn’t want it any other way. 

Toni Canzoneri with Oliver, a 19-year-old Monk Parakeet.

Canzoneri has been an avid birder for 14 years and is a New Jersey Audubon member. Her father owned a pigeon coop in New York City for 50 years and had up to 250 pigeons at one point.

“He used to work in the evening,” said Canzoneri, “so he would leave the house at three and if it was the summer, I used to have to put the birds back in. I had names for the pigeons when I was little, I watched them hatch out of their shell. It definitely gave me exposure to birds and I wasn’t afraid of them.”

Canzoneri’s other pet bird, Jake, a 21-year-old Senegal.

BBFs forever: Jake, Oliver, and Clayton 

This love for birds inspired Canzoneri to buy her pet birds, Jake and Clayton. Clayton, an intelligent African Grey she got from a breeder, lived a long 20 years with Canzoneri. 

Jake was purchased from a pet store on Staten Island when he was three months old. She adopted her other bird, Oliver, when he was two years old from her friend’s brother-in-law. 

“They kept Oliver in the basement,” said Canzoneri, “Supposedly Oliver hated the wife and she told me ‘don’t go near the cage, he’s going to bite you.’ But instead he gave me kisses, so that was it. I fell in love.”

According to Canzoneri, Jake is the alpha. “He’s pretty jealous of Oliver, and very territorial. If Oliver comes flying over to me, he’ll be there in a minute.  If I have Oliver on one shoulder, he’ll actually try to attack him. I’m really careful with them, but when they’re on their cages they’re fine.”

African-Fish Eagle in Africa. Photo credit: Toni Canzoneri.

The start of a life-long passion

Despite Canzoneri’s love for birds, she didn’t officially start birding until 2001. She went to Pace University and graduated with programming and accounting. However, when one of her relationships went sour, Canzoneri realized she needed to find something that would make her happy and introduce her to new people.

“I was always interested in birds and somebody suggested I take a bird walk. I signed up for one in Jamaica Bay in Queens with this woman, Starr Saphir. That trip changed everything for me,” said Canzoneri, “I started going to Cape May and I met a lot of people there. Then  I started going on weekend trips with Brooklyn Bird Club, New York City Bird Club, and with New Jersey Audubon.”

Ever since then, Canzoneri has travelled to 22 states exclusively for birding. She got her start by looking up bird clubs online and came across New York City Bird Club and Brookylyn Bird Club. She started with  those two clubs a lot and she didn’t even need to join. She just had to call, register for the bird trip and go. Both clubs posted their events online and she was able to pick and choose which events she wanted to attend. Starr Saphir organized these private trips and they would only cost $6 a person. Canzoneri and her group would go to several different spots, depending on which club she went with.

“If it was with New York City Bird Club, we’d go to Central Park a lot,” said Conzoneri, “I went more places with the Brooklyn Bird Club, like Queens and Connecticut, since more of the members had cars.”

Canzoneri learned about the New Jersey Audubon society by going to Cape May and talking to other birders.  She signed up online and gets notifications about birds that are endangered, such as the Piping Plovers and some of the American Oyster Catchers, which nest on New York City’s beaches. “We don’t have a lot of endangered species in New York City because we don’t have the forestry as much as other cities, like New Jersey.”

The benefits of joining Audubon society are numerous: Canzoneri has taken local trips as well as trips out of the country. The trips that occur in the states can vary in price, but usually it will cost $3,000 for a trip that lasts ten days. The trips out of state are more expensive, but members are guaranteed several tours, a safari, and a tented camp.

Cuban Pygmy Owl in Cuba. Photo credit: Toni Canzoneri.

Birding: it’s not as hard as it looks

Birding can seem intimidating at first, but for beginners, going on a local bird walk is the simplest way to start out. It’s a good idea to take a pair of binoculars and a portable field guide.

“I usually get my binoculars from the Cape May Bird Observatory. I buy it directly from there because they actually test them for me, so I know once they come out of the box, somebody has already checked them.” Canzoneri favors Nikon 8 x 42 binoculars, which can be found on amazon ranging from $300 to $200. If that’s too expensive, just grab a cheap pair of binoculars to start out and save up for the more expensive ones.

“Grab a cheap pair of binoculars and just go,” said Canzoneri, “The people are really friendly and open. Everyone will be willing to help you. They want you to see what they’re seeing.”

Canzoneri has birded in several countries such as Africa, Brazil, Botswana, South Africa, Zambia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Spain. She plans to go back to Panama in January and Spain in May. She has taken over 22,000 pictures while birding.

“In Brazil I went to the Pantanal, which is kind of like the water basin, and also the Chapada, which is the drier upper land, “said Canzoneri, “The water actually floods in the Pantanal in certain times of the year and the Chapada is more dry and mountainous so each place has totally different kinds of species.”

Canzoneri doesn’t have to travel too far to see amazing species, though.

“I like to go to Great Kills Park and go birding. I’m relatively a good birder. If I don’t know a bird, I check my iPod because it’s got applications for bird identification. I use the application iBird Ultimate a lot. I can type in a bird and it will give me its field marks, what it sounds like, and where to find it in the United States. It’s good to bring in the field because its nice and small, I throw it in my pocket.”

Hyacinth Macaw Family in Brazil,  Pantanal – Chapada. Photo credit: Toni Canzoneri

Making friends for a lifetime

Through her passion, Canzoneri has met several people who are just as enthusiastic about birds as her. She is always meeting new people in the parks she visits, such as Clove Lake.

“Last spring, I went birding one day and I met this woman named Joan. I didn’t know her, but we were chatting and she said, ‘Oh you know I met this other woman last week here. Her name was Fran.’ I said ‘oh that’s nice.’ The next day I went again because it was migration time. I’m walking along and I meet this other woman and she goes ‘oh hi, my name is Fran’. So I said, ‘Oh do you know Joan?’ and she goes ‘Yeah!’ So, we walked around the park and we were at this one spot where we could look across the pond, and there was Joan! After that the three of us got together, and now we make it a habit to meet up during migration time. We’ve met four or five times already,” said Canzoneri.

Silver-throated Tanager in Costa Rica. Photo credit: Toni Canzoneri.

Treating the environment right, one step at a time

Birding not only fosters relationships between people, but also between people and the environment. Many birders are very eco-conscious and realize that many birds suffer due to human ignorance. For example, according to, over 1 million seabirds are killed by pollution every year. Litter, such as plastic and rotting food, can poison, injure, or even kill birds along with other wildlife.

“People need to keep their garbage in the car,” said Canzoneri, who has all too often seen waste thrown out of vehicle windows. “Cigarettes and plastic bottles need to be disposed of properly. I don’t care if you drink from plastic bottles, but don’t throw them out the window, recycle them.”

Along with recycling, it’s important for people to know what to feed birds. Humans can also harm birds, albeit unintentionally, by feeding them human food, like bread.

“Bread isn’t nutritional. It’s better to feed birds nuts, seeds, and pellets.” Pellets are crushed down byproducts that can be found in cat food. Canzoneri frequently feeds the ducks she sees at lakes and ponds with cat food, because not only do they eat it, but the leftovers get eaten by Common Grackles.

Still, why should anyone care about birds? Canzoneri has the answer:

“It’s the balance of nature,” she said with a smile, “There needs to be some sort of ecosystem. We have Swallows and other birds that eat misquotes, along with other bugs we wouldn’t want to look at. That’s their food, and I wouldn’t want to get rid of anything.”

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