An urban jungle grows wild as it greens

Seventh story in an occasional series on the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.

NEW YORK -- Brooklynites were fond of feeding the geese that made their home in Prospect Park. So when city officials rounded up and slaughtered more than 400 of the birds three weeks ago, there was an outcry of anger from the community and activists.

"The recent cull at Prospect Park included nearly 100 percent of the geese in that area; essentially, this population was managed into extinction," the New York City Audubon Society said in a complaint letter. "NYC Audubon strongly disagrees with that decision."

The city made no apologies, insisting that travelers using the two airports nearby came first. The January 2009 crash landing of a U.S. Airways flight into the Hudson River -- brought down after a flock of Canada geese was sucked into both engines -- showed how dangerous even these seemingly innocuous creatures could be, they said.

It is not just geese that are putting city managers on alert.


In late June, police in suburban Rye, N.Y., went gunning for coyotes after a pair attacked two young girls playing in their yards. Ecologists caution that coyote attacks are extremely rare, but increased sightings of coyotes in New York, even in Manhattan, have many residents anxious nonetheless.

Booming populations of geese, coyotes and other animals are a side effect of the greening of urban centers nationally, including New York. With millions of trees planted and thousands of acres of open space converted into urban parks, wildlife are finding the United States' cities more appealing than ever.

"There's been a real effort over the last 20 years to restore parkland, and a return of wildlife ... is a positive outcome of that effort," said Sarah Aucoin, an urban park ranger with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Recent research by her office into urban wildlife shows "a huge increase in small mammal populations across the boroughs," she said.

More are on the way, Aucoin said.

Her research team is seeing growing numbers of rabbits, raccoons, muskrats, skunks, voles and other small mammals invading this city, often spotted in densely packed neighborhoods. Deer are increasingly spotted in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.

Peregrine falcons were deliberately released into Manhattan in an effort to bring back the once-endangered species (Greenwire, Aug. 25, 2009). But the red-tailed hawks, ospreys, kestrels and other birds of prey that followed were not.

Aquatic creatures also are coming back. The Audubon Society invites people on outings to spot herons, egrets and other waterfowl increasingly common to the coastlines. Seals are gradually becoming frequent visitors to some regional harbors.

Some of New York City's resident wildlife have even become local celebrities.

In 2007, a beaver was caught building a dam on a river in the heart of the Bronx, marking the animals' very first return to the area since the end of the fur trade. The locals named him "Jose" and celebrate him as a symbol of the borough's revival.

And tourists taking ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are invited to spend some time with Zelda, a wild turkey that has settled into a corner of Battery Park. Parks officials and conservationists suspect she is a little crazy but harmless.

"She's not completely right in the turkey brain," Aucoin said.

Perhaps most fascinating, the Parks Department confirms that a couple of coyote families now call the Big Apple their home, spending their days in Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay parks in the Bronx and venturing into the city at night in search of food.

In fact, officials strongly suspect that two young coyotes were recently trying to colonize Central Park, right in the heart of Manhattan. Those two are now gone, however -- one was killed by a car on the West Side Highway and the other captured in Tribeca last winter.

"Urban coyote issues are on the rise, not only here around New York and other metro areas, but many suburban areas across the country," said Paul Curtis, an associate professor at Cornell University. "If a pair can get established [in Central Park] then they're probably going to be there and that will be part of their territory."

Human-animal conflicts are also on the rise, with the Hudson River crash-landing the most famous recent case. Coyote pups have been killed crossing streets, while young peregrine falcons learning to fly are sometimes struck on New York City's bridges. The attacks in Rye now have many worried that coyotes are turning aggressive and dangerous. They already regularly attack family pets but are generally known to shy away from humans.

New York's coyotes are concentrating themselves in and around Westchester County, where Curtis studies the animals, and they make their way into the city regularly. He said he has no idea how many live in the metro area.

Scientists also cannot say for sure whether the disturbing Rye incident was a fluke or part of beginning behavioral shift, though they suspect the former.

"Most metropolitan areas now have resident coyotes in them," said Ohio State University professor Stanley Gehrt. "A lot of cities will have one of these incidents pop up every now and then."

Gehrt studies the animals living around Chicago and estimates that about 2,000 call Chicagoland home. He has managed to tag 450 of them as he tries to figure out how their behavior differs from their wild cousins.

But urban park rangers and researchers argue that these wildlife incursions -- even those involving large and dangerous animals -- are a symptom of positive changes.

The fact that animals, driven away long ago by noise and pollution, are returning to explore or even settle urban regions is a testament to the successful efforts of the nation's environmentalists and conservation authorities, they say. The best way for city dwellers to adjust to the invasion is to simply be aware of the presence of wildlife and know a bit about their behavior and where they tend to spend their time.

"There's a place for wildlife everywhere, including in New York City and including urban environments," Aucoin said. "It's a very good sign ecologically."

Lions and bears, but no tigers

Though they are predators, the coyotes are not much of a concern to city officials and academics. It is the bears and mountain lions that have them somewhat worried.

"We know that there's been cases of mountain lions moving into the cities," Gehrt said, "and the incidents that occurred with mountains lions were actually well within the cities as opposed to on the edges."

Gehrt cited recent incidents of mountain lions found deep in Los Angeles and in city parks of Boulder, Colo. Humans are usually faulted for invading the lions' territory, but lately it has been the other way around, he said.

It is not just a Western problem anymore.

Last year, Chicago police shot dead a mountain lion roaming the streets of the Wrigleyville neighborhood. An investigation later confirmed the lion was not someone's escaped pet, but a legitimate wild intruder, probably from Wisconsin. Reports in Canada and the United States suggest mountain lion populations are gradually shifting eastward, to the upper Midwest and possibly Ontario.

Bears are less of an immediate concern, but even they are beginning to creep into urban centers as well. Some are even getting surprisingly close to the center of New York.

On July 31 a young bruin was found lounging on a golf course in Bergenfield, a populous New Jersey suburb 3 miles from the Hudson River, across from the Bronx. The bear managed to elude police and animal control.

It was the second recent incident of a bear incursion into metro New York. In May, residents of Wayne, N.J., about 15 miles from Manhattan, were put on high alert after a black bear and her two cubs were found roaming the lawns of William Patterson University. Police chased the animals around town for half a day before they scampered back into nearby woods.

The black bear population in New Jersey is getting so large that last month Trenton said it would invite hunters to step in and cull their numbers, infuriating activists. The bear hunt, New Jersey's first since 2005, is scheduled for December. Maryland is holding a bear hunt in October.

Other large cities can expect to see more bear incursions, Gehrt said. He points out that Cleveland records more bear sightings than any other part of his state. He calls them "giant raccoons" that quickly adapt to urban settings.

Are wolves next?

"They're the last one, but I think the jury is still out," Gehrt said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually move toward the outskirts of urban areas."



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