Cemetery Birding

Shadows on Mausoleum. Photo by J. Melfi.

I have always enjoyed roaming old cemeteries, pondering over the names and dates and symbols on the gravestones, and since taking up birding, I doubly enjoy visiting them. I’m fortunate to live in a city that has a 360-acre historic graveyard that is also designated an Important Bird Area. Greenlawn Cemetery, founded in 1848, is located on the south side of Columbus, Ohio, and is the final resting place of many notable locals as well as a rest stop for numerous migrant birds, particularly eastern wood warblers, flycatchers, vireos, and thrushes.

“The Pit” at Greenlawn Cemetery. Photo by J. Melfi.

My favorite time of year to visit Greenlawn is early November, and I make a point to do so annually to take in the dazzling show of color displayed by the more than 4,000 trees (comprising around 150 species) on the property. Last week we had a stretch of unseasonably warm 70-degree, blue-sky days here in Ohio, and one morning I grabbed some of my favorite donuts and coffee and headed over to see what I could see.

I always make my first stop at Greenlawn “the Pit,” which is a small pond that was originally a quarry used to provide stones for the cemetery’s roads. The water plus several well-maintained bird feeders alongside it ensure that visitors will see at least a few species. On this day, a number of juvenile male red-winged blackbirds were dominating the feeders, but some downies, cardinals, blue jays, and a tufted titmouse snuck in to get their share, too. I have seen wood ducks and Canada geese on the pond on previous visits, but this day brought a pair of mallards, as well as several dark-eyed juncoes foraging along the shore.

Fisherman statue. Photo by J. Melfi.

After checking out the feeders, I like to slowly circle the Pit, listening to the birds as I study the large, often ornate headstones and family plots, some with names familiar from prominent local businesses. I always stop to admire a life-sized sculpture of a fisherman, holding his pole and looking wistfully toward the pond.

And then there are the trees. A burst of bold yellow against the cerulean sky stopped me more than once, and finally I sat myself down under one and decided to let the birds come to me. Soon after, a pair of eastern bluebirds popped out of the dense leaves and alighted on a bare branch. Any day I get to see bluebirds is automatically a good birding day.

Northern mockingbird. Photo by Rhododendrites / Wikimedia Commons.

Out of nowhere, a northern mockingbird hopped up onto a headstone just feet in front of me, tail cocked, keeping one eye on me as it surveyed the grass for a meal. A lone turkey vulture slid across the cloudless sky. A crow caw-ed from across the acres. A white-breasted nuthatch made its nasal yank as it methodically moved headfirst down the long trunk of an old oak tree, as only a nuthatch can do.

Peeking into the mausoleum. Photo by J. Melfi.

I would have been content to doze off under that yellow tree, but shadows across the old mausoleums piqued my interest, luring me around the pond. I pressed my face against the tiny windows of each one, trying to read the names and dates on the walls inside, exquisitely painted by sunlight pouring through stained glass. Some held faded artificial flowers, another an old bird nest, one a pair of dusty football helmets on a stone bench. I wondered how long it had been since any of the doors to these crypts had been opened.

After I had circled back to the feeders where I’d begun, I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I headed toward a fir tree that has held a family of great horned owls the past few springs, then swung through one of the cemetery’s several sections honoring the war dead and veterans, and finally was stopped in my tracks by yet another bomb of yellow on blue, this time near an ornamental iron bridge that dates back to 1898.


Eventually, it was time to wend my way back to the car and end my excursion, which had been the perfect mix of birds, breathtaking color, and mysteries. If you haven’t birded a cemetery before, I highly recommend you try it. Even if you aren’t fortunate enough to have one like Greenlawn in your area, chances are you have a graveyard near you, filled with trees, and birds, and mysteries of its own.

Photo by J. Melfi.

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