Hoffman and Swinburne – Bird Isles: Man-made Islands in New York Harbor are Bird Sanctuaries

Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island were created in Lower New York Bay to receive, quarantine, and give medical treatment to immigrants. Now they harbor birds.

In the 1870s, when New Yorkers constructed two islands by piling rock, sand, and timbers into New York Harbor, they had no idea that they were building a National Park. At the time, Swinburne and Hoffman islands merely answered the challenge of finding somewhere to put immigrants who had potentially infectious diseases. New York did not want cholera or yellow fever. They did not want typhoid or smallpox, or any other epidemic disease that might arrive any day with shiploads of poor immigrants from overseas. Anyone who arrived ill went to hospital, usually on Swinburne island. Anyone who had been exposed to someone who was ill went into quarantine on Hoffman Island. No one was thinking of birds then:

  • 1870 – Swinburne Island (originally called Dix Island) was constructed. It served as a hospital for people suffering from infectious diseases.
  • 1872 – Hoffman Island was constructed. Initially, Hoffman Island was an entry point for immigrants arriving by sea. Anyone suspected of having an infectious disease or having been in contact with an infectious disease was quarantined on Hoffman Island.
  • 1892 – Ellis Island opened as the official entry point for immigrants. Hoffman Island was still used as a quarantine station.
  • 1931 to 1937 Hoffman Island was a place for birds for the first time. The island was used to quarantine imported parrots in an attempt to control parrot fever.
  • 1938 to mid 1940s – Hoffman Island became the first Maritime Service Training Station (United States Merchant Marine).
  • WWII – Swinburne Island was used as a control center for the defensive mines placed along the coast.
  • Post WWII – Hoffman and Swinburne islands were abandoned to the waves and the birds. Nature started to make real islands out of them.
  • 1972 – The Clean Water Act was passed, alleviating some of the pollution in the New York Harbor waters, and making the environment there more welcoming to birds.
  • 1972 – The pesticide DDT was banned, resulting in a slow turnaround in the fortunes of raptors such as the Peregrin Falcons, formerly common along the coast.
  • 1974 – Hoffman and Swinburne Islands both came under the control of the US National Parks Service.
  • Today – the islands are part of Gateway National Recreation Area. Hundreds of water birds have found sanctuary on the islands and many nest there. Though Hoffman and Swinburne Islands are not open to the public, harbor tours bring ecotourists close to the shore to enjoy cormorants, egrets, glossy ibis, herons, gulls, and other birds. The islands are a focus of New York City Audubon’s Harbor Heron’s Project.

Many years of neglect followed many years of intense human occupation. The two islands, created by people, evolved into natural ecosystems left to the birds and whatever other wildlife could make its way there. Slowly, the city around them made slow progress at improving the environment. While no one was really looking, and to just about everyone’s amazement, a bird sanctuary was created right in the middle of New York Harbor. Now New Yorkers find themselves with two natural treasures to enjoy and protect—Hoffman and Swinburne Islands are so much more today than they were in the beginning.