The Five-Borough Safari

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.


Photo: Superstock

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.

Photo: Stephen Dalton/Animals Animals

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.

Photo: Catherine Ledner/Getty Images

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.

Photo: Michael Durham/Getty Images

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.

Photo: Getty Images

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.)


Photo: Chuck Burton/AP

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.

Photo: Yigal Gelb/Courtesy of NYC Audubon

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.

Photo: Elise Amendola/AP

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.

Photo: Shiho Fukada/AP

Species: Accidentally imported from Argentina
City habitat: Brooklyn, Manhattan
Monk parrots, bright-green birds a little smaller than pigeons, live in sofa-size colonies on spires, stadium lights, and utility poles. You can see them flying around the high nests at Brooklyn College and Green-Wood Cemetery—throw some birdseed around, and a group will land on the sidewalk. The parrots have also recently established a foothold in Manhattan near 104th Street and Amsterdam, under an air conditioner. Urban legend has it that the parrots, which aren’t native to New York (they appeared here in the late sixties), escaped from JFK airport when mobsters, skimming from a shipment, opened their crate. Their natural habitat is the Argentine mountains, so they don’t mind the cold.

Photo: Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Species: Native; first spotted in Staten Island a decade ago
City habitat: All boroughs
A wild turkey named Zelda has appeared in Battery Park regularly since 2003, according to Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. They also turn up on the Staten Island Greenbelt and in Pelham Bay Park. The Staten Island neighborhoods of Ocean Breeze and Dongan Hills complain of being overrun with wild turkeys, who gang up on dogs and cats and scare children. Residents have offered to relocate the birds upstate (the state said no), and some birds have died suspicious deaths. The Staten Island Parks Commissioner estimates the borough’s wild-turkey flock to be about 100, and staffers have seen a mother with thirteen babies, known as poults.

Photo: Getty Images

Species: Native
City habitat: Queens
Known as the bird that hijacks Fire Island and Hamptons beaches, plovers are endangered, jittery, small shorebirds. They’re sandy-brown on top, white on bottom, with orange legs. The piping plovers nest at Rockaway Beach between Beach 44th Street and Beach 57th Street until August. Rangers sometimes lead tours (carefully).

With Scales

Photo: Robert Holmgren/Getty Images

Species: Native
City habitat: Queens
Delicately overturn a large, flat rock in one of New York’s big, swampy, outer-borough parks, and you may get to see one of several species of salamanders. The redback salamander, found at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, looks like a short, rust-colored snake. The much prettier (and rarer) spotted salamander lives in Alley Pond.

The Five-Borough Safari