Green Roofs, The Urban Habitat Oasis for Birds

by Leeza McKeown & Alan Burchell – green roof habitat for birds

April 27 2017

The crowded, concrete streets and sidewalks of New York City aren’t normally thought of as suitable habitats for thriving bird populations (well, except maybe pigeons).

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, NYC. Photo: Don Riepe

But, if you look up from the pavement to the building tops, you may see a few dollops of trees and grasses popping up from the occasional roof.
What you’re seeing there is the rise of a new wave of urban wildlife havens.

Migration Corridor Habitat

New York City is located along the Atlantic Flyway, a super highway in the sky for over 200 different species of birds that migrate through during the spring and fall. This migration corridor stretches from the Arctic all the way down to South America.

Killdeer bird on a green roof.

Killdeer bird on a green roof. Photo: Kelly Luckett

Seeking rest stops for food, water and shelter along the way, migrating birds passing over New York will congregate in whatever islands of suitable habitat they can find. The growing number of green roofs – tops of roofs covered completely or partially by vegetation – is providing birds with such habitats.

Green roofs have proven to be an effective way to provide habitats for birds and improve biodiversity of cities. “Green roofs can be used as a strategy to increase the abundance and diversity of native species throughout urban area,” said Carly Eakin, the lead author of a study recently published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

LEED Building Standard

Further, incorporating a green roof into a building project will earn credits towards a LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design) Building Standard certification.  Specifically, one to two points can be earned within the Sustainable Sites category for Site Development.  Credits 5.1 and 5.2, ‘Protect or Restore Habitat’ and ‘Maximize Open Space’ respectively are focused on using native or adaptive plants to provide greenfields and maximize open away from walkways and roads to limit disturbance and encourage habitat biodiversity.  In fact, credit 5.1 Protect or Restore Habitat is designated as a Regional Priority for new construction projects in New York City and will earn a bonus point.

Green roofs across Hamburg, Germany

Green roofs across Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Mariana Pickering

Green Roofs – A Global Trend Comes Home

This trend is already seen at large throughout Europe, where green roofs have become a predominant part of urban architecture (In fact, it is estimated that 12% of all flat roofs in Germany are green, and the green roof industry there is growing 10% to 15% per year). But we are seeing more and more examples of this popping up here in North America as well.

For an example closer to home, Manhattan’s Javits Center used to be labeled as one of the city’s deadliest buildings for birds (as they would sometimes, tragically, crash into the convention center’s massive windows).

Today though, the same Javits Center is now home to an observed 11 species of birds: Canada geese, American Kestrels, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, rock pigeons, mourning doves, fish crows, barn swallows, northern mockingbirds, European swallows, and house swallows.

Birds on Javits Center Green Roof

Birds on Javits Center Green Roof. Photo:

How did the Center make the change? With a massive green roof – 6.75 acres, to be precise (and an installation of special glass designed to prevent bird strikes).

The roof is home to a hardy, low-maintenance shrub-like species of plant called sedums, a favorite with green roof designers. All this new greenery has led to a healthy population of insects (luckily, this does not include cockroaches!) that provide the birds with food. In effect, this roof has become a healthy ecosystem.

Alan Steel, a spokesman for the Center has said, “With the installation of our green roof, we have created an oasis for the area’s wildlife in an urban environment dominated by concrete and steel…For nearly 30 years, the Javits Center has sought to improve New York’s economy, and now, we are working to improve the quality of life in the community around us.”

So, as green roofs continue to pop up in cities across the continent, we can also expect to come with them a beautiful patchwork of bird habitats.