Dorany Pineda, Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2023
On a recent afternoon in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, Christian Benitez and Eric M. Wood stood outside a corner liquor store searching for birds.
The researchers spotted a house sparrow and pulled binoculars to their eyes. “They’re all over the shrubbery in Boyle Heights,” said Wood, an associate professor of ecology at Cal State Los Angeles.
Among the most ubiquitous and abundant songbirds in the world, house sparrows are urban creatures that thrive where people do. They’re resilient, adaptable and aggressive, and are found around buildings and streets, scavenging food crumbs or nesting in roof tiles.
But less than 10 miles to the northeast, in the wealthy city of San Marino, house sparrows were nowhere to be heard.
Instead of the sparrows, ravens, common pigeons and a Cooper’s hawk the bird watchers spotted in Boyle Heights, the manicured lawns and mature trees of San Marino bristled with a very different assortment of birds.
“There goes a band-tailed pigeon right over there,” Wood exclaimed, turning his attention from a red-tailed hawk. They also recognized acorn woodpeckers, a California towhee, dozens of turkey vultures circling overhead, a dark-eyed junco, a mockingbird, an Anna’s hummingbird and a black phoebe.
It was, the researchers said, a vivid illustration of the so-called luxury effect — the phenomenon by which wealthier, and typically whiter, areas attract a larger and more diverse population of birds.
“That huge difference in wealth, separated by only a few miles, really surprised me when I first moved here,” said Wood, who is from Santa Rosa, in the Bay Area.
In fact, when it comes to the Los Angeles Basin, the researchers say that bird species are remarkably segregated.
In a new study, the researchers argue that the difference in bird populations is a lasting consequence of racist home lending practices from decades ago, as well as modern wealth disparities.
Historically redlined nonwhite communities, such as Boyle Heights, have less tree canopy and greater housing density than greenlined neighborhoods. As a result, these areas have less bird biodiversity and larger populations of synanthropic birds — species adapted to dense urban environments such as house finches and sparrows, European starlings, common pigeons and northern mockingbirds.
Greenlined areas, on the other hand, have more trees and vegetation cover, which attract more birds and a greater diversity of them. Forest birds such as yellow-rumped warblers, band-tailed pigeons, acorn woodpeckers and black-throated gray warblers are more abundant in these areas, researchers found.
“The legacy of our discriminatory practices is still written into the city itself,” said study co-author Travis Longcore, an adjunct professor with the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Even though those practices explicitly are outlawed, this city is an accretion of its history, and it doesn’t just go away because time has passed.”
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was established to stabilize the nation’s housing market. It helped struggling families prevent foreclosures by swapping mortgages that were in, or close to, default with new ones that homeowners could pay for.
As part of the program, the corporation created security risk maps to evaluate mortgage lending risks. Greenlined areas were considered “best” for investment and tended to be white neighborhoods. Redlined zones were deemed “hazardous” and were disproportionately Black and other nonwhite communities.
Those maps were among the starting points for the authors. Between 2016 and 2018, twice during the non-breeding season from October to March, researchers conducted bird surveys across 132 locations in 33 residential communities in L.A. that had been greenlined, redlined or excluded from the risk assessment maps. In each location, they’d set a five-minute timer and jot down every bird they could see or hear.
The authors amassed data on race and ethnicity, residential housing patterns, the percentage of buildings, paved areas and tree canopy cover, and more. Their results, they wrote, verified that “patterns of income inequality, both past and present … carry over to influence urban biodiversity.”