NYC may be the natural habitat of hipsters, hustlers, and dreamers, but have you ever thought of its connection with the natural world? Despite being a concrete jungle, this city is an ecosystem made up of all kinds of critters, many of which wouldn’t immediately come to mind when you think of NYC’s wildlife. Here’s a snippet of the wildlife of NYC and where you can find them.
This post was inspired by reading Wild City by Thomas Hayes. If you take away anything from this, I hope at the very least you leave knowing that this book is a must-read for any city-dweller or animal-lover.
Now onto the list:
We wouldn’t be here without them. These buck-toothed rodents were the reason Europeans set up shop on Manhattan isle. Unfortunately it wasn’t because they thought beavers were cute. It’s because they’d make a killing selling beaver pelts, which was all the rage in Europe at the time. By the 1800s, overhunting and over-polluting had led to the beaver’s disappearance from NYC’s rivers. It’s only been a little over a decade since beavers have been spotted again on the Bronx River. According to Hayes “their return is a testament to the city’s environmental improvements.”
When you think of quintessential New York food, you think of pizza and bagels. But for a long time, oysters were New York’s go-to food. They were cheap, delicious, and abundant, so everyone ate them. But since we can never have nice things, New Yorkers ruined the oysters beds through over-harvesting and polluting the waters. Today, through the efforts of the Billion Oyster Project, we’re regrowing our oyster reefs but those days of slurping on an oyster as you stroll down the street are long gone.
Want to hear something mind-boggling? There are more rats in NYC than residents of Manhattan. Way more. We shouldn’t be too surprised that rats have proliferated to such extreme numbers; they’ve been a feature of the city since its earliest days. New York has never had the reputation of being the cleanest city, which is perfect for rats, who thrive off our trash. But don’t expect to see streams of rats running through the streets. These crafty little buggers are the masters of hide and seek. You’re likely to spot them on the filthy tracks of the subway, struggling to carry a discarded slice of pizza.
There are a lot of cool things about Green-Wood Cemetery, but it being a haven for monk parrots has got to be near the top of the list. No one is sure how exactly these bright green birds made their way to New York from Argentina, let alone to Green-Wood Cemetery. But they’ve been nesting in the gates and spires of the cemetery for nearly 50 years. Try to spot them on your own or join a parrot safari.
When you think of alligators, you probably picture them in the Everglades of Florida, not in the sewers of New York City. But I kid you not, that’s where the city’s first alligator was spotted in 1935. On a cold February day, a few boys were shoveling snow into a manhole in East Harlem and realized that an honest-to-God alligator was in the sewer beneath them. So logically, they got some rope, pulled the alligator out, and beat it to death…. 🙄 There are no photos of the sewer alligator, but the New York Times did report on it and there were a lot of neighborhood witnesses. So the story may not be a tall tale. But if you need even more proof about the city’s legendary alligator population, our most recent alligator sighting was in Manhattan in 2015.
Who would have thought that a duck would go down in the books as an NYC legend? But this isn’t an ordinary duck; this is a “hot duck.” And back in the fall of 2018, its sudden appearance in the waters of Central Park caused New Yorkers to lose their jaded minds. If you’re used to seeing flashier, colorful birds on a daily basis, it might be hard for you to understand why a single mandarin duck became the obsession of individual New Yorkers and local media outlets for a few months. But we don’t often see that type of coloring on a bird here. This duck’s plumage stood out like someone in a rainbow coat amidst NYC’s typical sea of black coats in the wintertime. See if it stands out to you next fall in Central Park.
If you thought the number of rats in NYC was high, you might want to sit down before I tell you the estimated pigeon population: 4 million*. That’s nearly half of NYC’s human population! But it makes sense. Pigeons everywhere in New York City. Although their natural habitats are rocky cliffs, pigeons have adapted to roosting on building ledges and eating our discarded food to survive. So what’s with all the pigeon hate? Yes, pigeons are dirty and carry diseases, but you can say that about everyone who lives in the city. At the end of the day, pigeons are just doves with darker coloring. Think about that the next time you see them waddling down the street.
* this number is disputed. The estimate of NYC’s pigeon population ranges between 1 million to 7 million.
The pigeon is not the only bird you see in great numbers on the streets of New York City. You’ll often also see dark, bespeckled birds with the shiny feathers. Those birds are starlings, NYC immigrants with an interesting backstory. Dozens of these birds were brought over from Europe by Shakespeare superfan, Eugene Schieffelin, who thought that releasing all the birds the Bard mentioned in his work would class up the place. Hard to say how much that plan succeeded as the starlings are the only species to survive. Heck, they did more than survive. They have multiplied and spread with 200 million of them now across North America.
If you want to learn more about NYC’s wildlife and its ecosystem, check out Wild City. It’s a great read with beautiful illustrations, enriching information and it’s hella funny.
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