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Arnold Arboretum: a Banquet for Birds and People Who Watch Them

Avian species abound at North America’s oldest public arboretum

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The northern cardinal is one of 187 species sighted at the Arnold Arboretum. Robert Mayer, Arnold Arboretum archives

With 281 lushly planted acres in Boston’s Jamaica Plain, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, North America’s oldest public arboretum, is a banquet for birds and the people who watch them. The park offers a checklist that includes 187 species sighted over the past 100 years. Compiled by longtime arboretum volunteer Robert Mayer in 2006 and revised in 2014, the list classifies species by season and grades them from abundant to rare.

In summer, this link in Boston’s meandering chain of ponds, forest, and fields known as the Emerald Necklace offers glimpses of red-tailed hawks, eastern kingbirds, northern mockingbirds, northern cardinals, song sparrows, goldfinches, and mourning doves, as well as the slim but real chance of sighting some feathered rarities, including the blue-winged warbler, peregrine falcon, or yellow-billed cuckoo. Prepared with contributions from local birders, the watchlist also draws on logs by C. E. Faxon (1895), Richard Weaver (1971), and Miriam Dickey (1976).

The Emerald Necklace park system was designed by 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who today is best known for creating New York City’s Central Park. Those interested in the fauna, flora, and history of the arboretum can stop at the Visitor Center (open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Wednesdays) in the Hunnewell Building.

The arboretum was established on an old farmstead left to Harvard College by Boston merchant Benjamin Bussey in 1872 for the scientific study of trees, and funded under the will of New Bedford businessman James Arnold, who left money for an arboretum. In 1882 the land was deeded by Harvard to the city of Boston and today is operated by Harvard under a 1,000-year lease. The arboretum, designated as a National Historic Landmark, is a leading educational and scientific institution.

An enchanting, dog-friendly (leashes, please) walking place, the Arnold Arboretum welcomes visitors from sunrise to sunset every day of the year and is closed to cars except by permit for people with special needs.

The Arnold Arboretum is on the Arborway in Jamaica Plain, Mass. Find more information or arrange a guided tour here or call 617-524-1718.

This story was updated June 20, 2017.

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