Animals of Gotham

When people think about New York City, the image of wildlife doesn’t follow. On the contrary, we think of a densely built up urban setting. Wildlife is something we find somewhere else. Although the city has some magnificent parks and is surrounded by water, with well over 500 miles of coastline, most do not readily associate those geographic features with a diversity of organisms. Pigeons? Yes. Squirrels? Sure. Rats? Millions of them, perhaps more than the city’s human population, but that’s about it, right? Wrong.

Manhattan and the surrounding boroughs were a natural paradise when first encountered by the Dutch in the early 1600’s. There was an abundance of species impossible to imagine today. Bears, wolves, and mountain lion were here in healthy numbers at the top of the chain, with a great diversity of species below. In the rivers, the Sound and the ocean, there was abundant food to help sustain the growing city for a few hundred years. For example, New York was famous for its oysters, which were a primary source of protein here until the mid 19th century. They used to be given out free in taverns to entice you in to drink their grog.

But what about today?

Since the mid seventies, coinciding with much stricter environmental regulations, species which had long been eliminated locally have begun to reappear, while others long dormant or too few to count, are slowly coming back. I was struck by a recent reports of coyotes in city parks. Fourteen different species of hawks pass through or live in the city. During one particularly cold winter a few years back, Westsiders with a view of the Hudson spotted a large bald eagle floating downriver on a small iceberg. Red tail hawks now commonly roost in trees and on buildings, while peregrine falcons are found on our highest perches, like the towers of our bridges and high up on crenellated old skyscrapers.

For the last 2 summers, I've had raccoons prowling in my very urban Brooklyn backyard. They are smart and bold, as they've come inside on twice on hot nights when the windows were wide open. Unfortunately, my 2 cats do not mess with raccoon intruders

A few years ago an injured bottle nosed dolphin was trapped in the notoriously polluted Gowanus canal, near downtown Brooklyn, attracting tremendous attention, though it died before it could be saved. I recently saw a dozen dolphins close to shore in the Rockaways, in

Queens. Whales show up regularly in the harbor each year, though they are more often dead than alive, hit by ships or propellers. Monk parrots, native to Argentina, are quite abundant now. The myth is that the colonies began with a broken shipping crate at Kennedy airport, headed for pet shops, but it’s likely as many simply escaped from bird cages as their popularity brought more of them here.

Finally, for those with an appreciation for the bizarre, here an interesting short of animal life viewed in a subway station.

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