By Michael McDowell
The arrival of a beaver in the Hudson River off of Manhattan’s shore turned heads this month. But it’s not the only wild animal that’s made its way to our area this summer. In fact, it might be the most benign creature to visit the neighborhood. Consider what happened to Diana Kassir earlier this month.
Kassir was out for a walk in Riverside Park with Arya, her Afghan, and Thom, a friend. Dolly, Thom’s retriever-setter mix, sauntered along.
“It was about 7:30 on a Tuesday evening, one week ago. We were on the promenade near the 86th Street Dog Run, and [Thom] points to the path ahead and says, ‘there’s a snake!’”
Not just any snake, but a curled-up copperhead.
“I was shocked,” she told the Rag. “I was concentrating on the pattern to be sure I remembered it. The pattern is distinctive, and I researched it online afterward for over an hour.”
Kassir neglected to take a photo.
“I happen to be photographer, but I have an aversion to cell phone pictures and I was focused on [the snake’s] hourglass pattern,” she clarified.
Using sticks, her friend gently moved the snake onto the wooded slopes nearby, out of harms way.
“I know I saw a copperhead,” Kassir affirmed, emphatic.
“Anything is possible in New York City,” said Richard Simon, Director of the Parks Department’s Wildlife Unit. “But if [this report] is accurate, it’s likely the snake was kept as a pet and released. Copperheads are native to New York, but the closest you’re going to see them is in Westchester,” he continued. “It would be very unusual to see one in Manhattan.”
And yet, such an unconfirmed report of an unusual species is in line with an emergent trend. From snakes to coyotes, wildlife more often associated with rural areas—and even wilderness—seem to be returning to the five boroughs, and the Upper West Side is no exception.
“Animals that are historic to the city, like beavers, deer, and raccoons, which were once present in great numbers, seem to be returning in some number. Even new species that we have not observed in recent memory, we’re seeing them in increasing numbers,” he said.
Why are they coming back?
“There’s no easy answer. In a lot of places you hear about human encroachment on wildlife habitat, but that’s not the narrative in New York City. With the exception of the Bronx, we’re mostly an island ecosystem that has been fairly well developed for several hundred years, meaning that human encroachment happened a long time ago.”
Moreover, wildlife can thrive in urban environments, especially species that have a high tolerance for stress and rely on a variety of different food sources.
“Over 30,000 acres of parkland and a healthy urban forest provide a home for a community of animals, and we’ve actually created a system that’s very inviting, albeit inadvertently,” he continued.
One of these animals? Coyotes, which have been observed in the northern reaches of Central Park, according to a Parks spokeswoman, who provided a table documenting reports by borough through June 2019, which is included below. The table represents reports, and not individual coyotes, meaning that multiple reports may represent sightings of the same individual, and an increase in sightings does not mean that there has been an increase in coyotes in the city, the spokeswoman cautioned.
“In Manhattan, when we do see coyotes, it’s usually when they disperse as young [to find their own territory],” Simon noted, and coyotes reported on the Upper West Side are likely visitors from the Bronx.
“Coyotes can travel very far in a single day, and if they’re in Manhattan, they often move in and out of the borough in the course of the day. They’re very smart, and a smart coyote is one that you’re never going to see,” he said. “But it’s hard, when you’ve wandered into Manhattan, to avoid people.”
What about other, larger predators?
“Wolves or mountain lions? No way. I don’t see a point where New Yorkers are comfortable with those animals living in our midst. But I do see a time when New Yorkers have the potential to have an increasingly high tolerance for wildlife, and are comfortable with a greater diversity of animals. It has to be a balance.”
Simon has been encouraged by the human reaction to the coyote sightings. A curious, open-minded citizenry has enabled the NYPD to change its response to reports of wildlife: unless an animal is demonstrating bold or aggressive behavior, capture or removal is no longer protocol, and the animal in question is to be left alone. That’s far better for animals, and eliminates a major waste of human and taxpayer resources.
“The biggest problem we face in dealing with urban wildlife is getting ahead of human-wildlife conflict,” he sighed.
The key to coexistence is education, and readers are encouraged to visit WildlifeNYC, a Parks campaign to raise awareness as to how best to interact with our furry or feathered neighbors and friends.
Generally, there are two things people should know: do not feed wildlife, and observe and appreciate animals from a distance.
When incidents occur, it’s typically because an animal has been fed.
“Like an aggressive New Yorker, a raccoon is going to want to get that meal he’s expecting if you start feeding him from your home,” Simon joked.
The mention of raccoons brought to mind a shadowy conspiracy of which the Rag is only partly aware. Some allege raccoons began to reappear in large numbers in the city during the Bloomberg administration, and claim that Bloomberg himself is responsible for the reemergence of the animals in the city. Bloomberg brought the raccoons with him when he was elected, but he didn’t take them with him when he left office, the story goes.
“I’ve actually heard that before,” Simon considered, “but it was opossums and not raccoons. Either way, it’s false. Bloomberg did not covertly introduce raccoons or opossums to the city.”
Skunks, however, are known to inhabit Northern Manhattan, but foxes, on the other hand, are seldom seen, and reported mostly in Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx.
“We don’t have a lot of top tier predators, and they’re a very beneficial species. The rodent consuming animals we do have are birds of prey,” he explained.
Long-eared owls and the occasional screech owl are spotted in Central Park, and if they’re in Central Park, they’re probably in Riverside Park. Peregrine falcons, too, are confirmed, as are red-tailed hawks, osprey, kestrels. It’s a breach of bird etiquette to reveal the location of nesting pairs, but Simon did have a notable sighting to share.
“We’ve had some nesting bald eagles in recent years. They’re in Manhattan, particularly in the wintertime—the colder it is the more likely it is that you’ll see one, and mostly you see them hunting and fishing near the Hudson. If they can sit on an ice floe and pick the fish out of the river, it’s easier than flying, and that’s what we’ve seen them do,” he said.
Readers who have seen or photographed eagles, or other unusual animals, are encouraged to send photos and stories to the Rag.
What’s the strangest thing Simon has ever seen in the neighborhood?
“I got called to a scene for a sick python in Morningside Park once. NYPD had already arrived, and there was an overwhelming response.”
“Somebody misheard ‘sick python’ as ‘six-foot-pipe-bomb.’”