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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Wild Nights

Air Date: Week of

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Rats and pigeons aren’t the only form of wildlife that uses New York City as their habitat. Diane Toomey talks with Anne Matthews, author of the book, Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City.


CURWOOD: Tales of alligators roaming the sewers of New York City may well be the stuff of urban legend. But last month, New Yorkers were treated to the story of the Central Park alligator. The reptile was spotted in a pond in the park, where it kept a low profile, until an alligator wrestler from Florida wrangled the creature. Turns out, this was no gator but a mere two foot long caiman, a non-aggressive member of the crocodile family- that may have been someone's pet.

But it's not just runaway reptiles that are bringing the wild into New York. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey recently spoke with Anne Matthews, author of the book Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City.

TOOMEY: Well, we all know about rats and pigeons in New York, but you write about animals that some of us might be quite surprised to find out actually live in the city. Tell me about some of them.

MATTHEWS: Well, in New York--you know, it's funny. Freud claimed that the mark of a successful civilization is the control of nature, and, if he were right, New York should be the tamest spot in North America. But suddenly, it's not. The city is wilder today than in 1900, or in 1950, or even in 1980. There's porpoises, playing again in the Hudson, and the blue crab and the fiddler crab populations are way up. All kinds of harbor herons, egrets and bittern and yellow crown night heron, are resettling in New York's harbor islands. The Bronx has got a very healthy coyote population. They're all urban pioneers, coming down from Westchester. Wild turkeys are starting to colonize Central Park. Apparently, the fly down Broadway, late at night, and then take a left at Lincoln Center. And deer have come back to upper Manhattan. They make late night dashes across the Amtrak trestle. And Black Bear have been exploring the Palisades Parkway, and the dumpster behind the White Plains' Bloomingdales.

TOOMEY: Well, what's going on here? Are we invading their territory? Have we cleaned up our own? What's the story?

MATTHEWS: Basically, a generation of air and water clean-up and wildlife restoration programs and hunting bans have helped U.S. animal populations soar across the country. But the problem is that there's been a matching development boom which is forcing, say, Colorado condos into elk country, or planting Los Angeles malls deep in mountain lion terrain, and dropping New Jersey suburbs into deer land, and shoving Florida golf courses into alligator habitat.

So we have two population explosions, and one finite and super-stressed terrain.

TOOMEY: In New York City, what are some of the special adaptations that some of these animals have managed to come up with?

MATTHEWS: Our species is so self-involved that quieter urban immigrations are easy to overlook or deny. Until the day you look up in Riverside Park, for instance, and see a wild turkey roosting in a tree, or maybe you spot a mother raccoon on a Park Slope curb, teaching her kitts how to look both ways before crossing the street. Or you're on a train from Brooklyn to Manhattan and you see a rat jump onto the train, wait quietly under the seat, and get off at the next stop. There was a New York Times reporter who told me that. She was absolutely freaked.

TOOMEY: These animals use what's available to them.

MATTHEWS: The peregrine falcons of New York are an excellent example because in open country, would normally drive straight down to capture a pigeon or a rabbit, falling through space at over 200 miles an hour. In New York, because of the tall buildings, they've adapted, and they've developed a video game style of hunting. They weave in and out between the skyscrapers at top speed. But it's a genuine adaptation, and a fascinating one.

TOOMEY: Well, life isn't all easy for these creatures in New York City. At one point in your book you follow an amateur birder/bird rescuer around downtown Manhattan for a day. Tell me about Rebecca Kreskof.

MATTHEWS: Rebecca Kreskov has got graduate training in conservation biology from Columbia, but her day job is working in the financial district, as a communications officer. But she's also a devoted bird rescuer. Every morning, she gets up at 5:45 and she bikes eight miles downtown to check in with the night watchmen of Wall Street, and they tell her what they've seen in the night: dazed birds, dead birds, trapped birds. Migrating song birds are very vulnerable to city lights. They steer by the stars, but the brilliance of the New York skyline confuses them and often they fly off-course and are trapped among the tall buildings or smash into them. And Kreskov and other volunteers have made it their special mission to rescue the living and count the dead.

TOOMEY: And talk of dimming the city lights for those birds?

MATTHEWS: They do it in Toronto, very conscientiously. Chicago's got a smaller scale program as well. In New York, as Kreskov says, if you go to a building owner and say, "Yo, dim your lights to save the song birds," you look like a maniac. But she's had a little bit of success with the management of the Empire State Building, who will very courteously dim their lights in migration season, which is an enormous help.

TOOMEY: Well, I'm an ex-New Yorker myself and so I can say, for sure, that New Yorkers love their pets, but do New Yorkers love their wildlife?

MATTHEWS: New York hostility to wildlife is probably the hallmark of New York society and has been for 100 years. The idea has been to beat back nature on every front, because the land itself is so tremendously valuable that it can't really be spared for trout streams or for meadows, or even for back yards. Manhattan is a marvelous habitat now for very tall buildings. What this does to New Yorkers is make them turn almost obsessively to pets--cats and dogs are an enormous presence in Manhattan. But the New York hostility towards the wild is usually described in that famous phrase, "the big green blur between the lobby and the cab." It's a city of money and art and culture, and anxiety about nature is by far more pronounced among the New York city population than any other urban population in the country. For one thing, because the population density is just so heavy in New York. But the hostility toward the three wild edges of New York--forest, marsh and sea--is 200 years old and unabated.

TOOMEY: Is there anything about New York that makes it easier for some creatures to make a living there? Tell me about the good life in New York for some creatures.

MATTHEWS: Animals that scavenge, animals that are originals that are intensely observant, that are not very fussy about their diet, do beautifully in New York. The falcons, again, have become sharper, more adaptive, more successful in the city, sometimes, than they are in the wild. They are cliff dwelling birds and they found the ultimate cliff-city, and they adore it. So much so that falcons now come to New York from as far away as Maine and Virginia, for big city hunting and big city excitement.

TOOMEY: Oh my.

MATTHEWS: If you glance out a plane window at J.F.K. for instance, you might see a snowy owl gliding along the runway hunting jack rabbits. Whole clans of snowy owls now come down from the Arctic every year to winter in Queens, of all places, because the level landscape of the Kennedy Airport reminds them of home apparently, and the jack rabbit hunting is marvelous, just like the pigeon hunting is marvelous of the peregrine falcons--great take-out in New York.

TOOMEY: At one point in your book you observe two horseshoe crabs that seem to persevere despite urban encroachment. Could you read from that section, Anne?

MATTHEWS: O.K. "I come upon an ardent pair moving through the shallows, the male pushing the female along like a tug guiding a liner. Slowly he charts and evades the flotsam of the rap tide, the floating Snapple bottle, the bent malt liquor can, the water logged copy of ESPN sports, the tattered barbecue chicken bag. The Snapple bottle, as smooth and empty as a shell, interests him briefly. Build thee more stately mansions, oh my soul. But, intent on prehistoric duty, he swims on. I watch until three stars rise from the runways across the water, and then three more, while the ebb tide carries them both into Sheepshead Bay, toward the unresting sea."

TOOMEY: After writing your book, Anne, what goes through your mind now when you walk through the streets of New York City?

MATTHEWS: I look up much more. I look up in August to see if I can spot Monarch butterflies commuting back to Mexico by way of 5th Avenue or 6th Avenue. I look up to see if I can see Peregrine Falcons circling Park Avenue, looking for pigeons or sometimes they've been known to swoop down and take a pastrami sandwich or two from office workers picnicking on a sunny day. When it's June and a full moon, now I realize that the horseshoe crabs will be coming back to lay their eggs on shores of Brooklyn. And when twilight starts to fall in the city, as my commuter train heads towards New Jersey, I know that coyotes are watching the bridges and waiting for dark, about to be pioneers in New York in a very unusual way.

CURWOOD: Anne Matthews is author of Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City. She spoke with Living on Earth's Diane Toomey.



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