In fact, urban wildlife spotting is one of the best ways to learn about the non-human residents of the city and the roles they play in our unique ecosystem.
An ecosystem is a network of interconnected, interdependent living and non-living things, right down to our squirrels and pigeons, cockroaches and rats. While some of our urban wildlife may not be considered “majestic” or “cute,” it all has much to teach us about ecology, animal behavior, and habitat use.
It is possible for everyone in NYC to be a wildlife biologist. To design your own research study, you start with a question. Maybe you want to learn more about what, where or when an animal eats, or how it interacts with its kin or other species. Did you ever wonder why there are more skunks, rats or raccoons in one area instead of another? Maybe you want to create a “species checklist” for your neighborhood.
The second step is to identify a site. Animals are motivated by food resources, space, protection from predators and other influences. Borders or edges where different types of habitats meet tend to have lots of species diversity. A good place to look is a small neighborhood park.
Third, observe! Check out a few different sites at various times. Which animals are active at dawn and dusk (crepuscular), at night (nocturnal), or during the day (diurnal)? What are they doing? Do they come back to the same places? How are they interacting with other animals? Bring a notebook and record the date, time, location and weather conditions. You will start to see patterns before you know it.
Observing and learning about wildlife in your own neighborhood is an “eco-friendly” activity. Some species can be seen from trails in NYC Parks. Many are not restricted to these protected areas, and actually range quite widely through the city. For healthy biodiversity within NYC Parks, it is important for populations throughout the entire city to be healthy as well.
Remember to keep a safe distance from animals. While the majority of wildlife in the city is healthy and quite timid, never attempt to handle a wild or feral animal. This month, a coyote was spotted in Crotona Park in the Bronx, most likely on a winter trek in search of food and shelter. If you see an animal acting strangely (aggressive, lethargic or confused) or looking sick or injured, please call 311.
Also, please refrain from feeding wildlife—it teaches them to become dependent on people, which can increase human-animal interactions and affects individual animals and populations in negative ways.
Finally, think about how you can apply what you have learned. Educate friends and neighbors about wildlife in your area. Did you notice that loose garbage bags or food put out for feral cats is correlated with the presence of particular animals? Maybe you saw that some animals use a hole in a foundation to gain access to a building. You can use these observations to make decisions about how to humanely and sustainably manage wildlife in your neighborhood and enlighten others about the critters that share our city.
By understanding the variety of animals in your neighborhood, you’ll gain a broader appreciation for wildlife and vital knowledge about how your actions impact the ecosystem.
For information on great free opportunities to see and learn about biodiversity in NYC, attend a wildlife viewing program guided by an Urban Park Ranger. Dates and locations are listed on http://www.nycgovparks.org/ events/urbanparkrangers. Go Wildlife! Go Discover! Go Park!
Marissa Altmann is a member of NYC Parks’ Fellowship and Conservation Corps.