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The Five-Borough Safari

Stalking the city’s wild kingdom.

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Illustration by Josh Keyes  

Each summer weekend New Yorkers scramble to get out of the city and into nature, oblivious to the urban fauna all around us. Hundreds of species of birds and animals have found a way to survive and reproduce in this forbidding environment, just as humans have. Meanwhile, suburban sprawl has actually pushed many critters inward, toward the city, and our parks are increasingly hospitable to wild animals.

To catch a glimpse, all you need is to know where to look. Here’s our guide.

Beast



COYOTE
Species: Invading from the southwest United States
City habitat: All boroughs
Last year, a coyote named Hal made headlines for leading a twenty-hour chase through Central Park. Having migrated to the Northeast in the early 1900s, coyotes are making increasingly frequent city excursions; their numbers are growing because their enemy, the wolf, is gone from the area. There’s no specific place to spot a coyote, but they sometimes skulk around the large, outer-borough parks and Staten Island. Former Parks commissioner Henry Stern says they’ve recently been seen in Van Cortlandt Park.


FLYING SQUIRREL
Species: Native
City habitat: Queens
Yes, they really do exist, but no, they don’t really fly. These small squirrels use a flap of skin between their front and back legs like a parachute to glide. Rangers have seen them at Alley Pond Park in Bayside; they won’t publicize where, so you’ll have to show up for one of their summer night hikes. Flying squirrels are nocturnal, only visible at dusk, so summer’s later sunsets are more conducive to sightings. Rumor has it that flying squirrels have also been spotted in Forest Park in Forest Hills.


BEAVER
Species: Native; reappeared in the city this year
City habitat: Bronx river
After a 200-year hiatus, a beaver finally moved back to New York. Our lone beaver, José (for José E. Serrano, the congressman who funded the river cleanup), lives in a lodge on the Bronx River. Before José’s arrival, the only evidence of New York City beavers was on the Astor Place subway tiles commemorating John Jacob Astor, whose massive fur trade helped make the beaver extinct in the city by 1800. To see José up close (or just his tree-carving handiwork), the Bronx River Alliance hosts frequent summer canoe expeditions.


BAT
Species: Native
City habitat: All boroughs
Bats live all over the city, you just don’t notice them. They come out at night and eat flying bugs, like mosquitoes. Young bats can be seen swooping around city parks while learning to fly in late summer. The best time to see them is at dusk. Any park is likely, but in Central Park, check out Turtle Pond or around the Met. The most common is the little brown bat, which is only three or four inches long, with a nine-inch wingspan.


DEER
Species: Invading from upstate
City habitat: Bronx, Staten Island
The occasional deer may wander down from Westchester on the sides of Mosholu Parkway and head into Van Cortlandt Park. But they’re only commuters; they don’t live here full-time. A few dozen deer do live on Staten Island—they’ve been seen in Wolfe’s Pond Park, the Greenbelt, and Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve. Probably the easiest way to spot them is by taking a day trip to Fire Island, where law enforcement looks for scofflaw deer feeders. (Feeding them encourages them to hang out by the road.)

Fowl



RED-TAILED HAWK
Species: Native; reappeared in the city in the early nineties
City habitat: All boroughs
The roughly twenty pairs of red-tailed hawks that live throughout the city have just had babies, and during the summer you can see them learning to fly and hunt—they’re training to stalk, swoop, clutch, then eviscerate pigeons and rats. Celebrity hawk Pale Male lives above the top middle window on the park side of 927 Fifth Avenue (at 74th Street), and is easily seen from his fans’ telescope near the Model Boat Pond. Find hawks in Inwood, Tompkins Square, Green-Wood Cemetery, Prospect Park, Alley Pond, Astoria Park, and behind St. John the Divine by listening for a group of crows angrily squawking—they’re trying to scare away a hawk.


EGRET AND HERON
Species: Native; reappeared in the city in the seventies
City habitat: East River
These long-legged birds wade in marshy ponds and on seashores, spearing fish with their beaks. Every Saturday and Sunday at sunset, the New York City Audubon Society offers a summer boat tour out to nesting colonies of great egrets, snow egrets, and black- and yellow-crowned night herons on the uninhabited North and South Brother Islands in the East River off the Bronx.


PEREGRINE FALCON
Species: Native; reintroduced to the city in 1983
City habitat: All boroughs
There are seventeen pairs of peregrine falcons in the city, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Smaller and slimmer than a red-tailed hawk, the peregrine falcon is the world’s fastest bird, dive-bombing prey at up to 250 miles an hour. They’re comfortable on skyscrapers and can be spotted most summers on the fourteenth floor, river-view ledge of 55 Water Street (though were prevented from nesting this year because of construction). They’re also occasionally seen on many bridges, including the Throgs Neck, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Verrazano-Narrows.


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