There's a misperception that wildlife is a rural phenomenon, a population best sought in rainforests and jungles. Patented bullshit. New York City has plenty of fauna, but our camera wielding tourists are so focused on the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Times Square's Naked Singing Cowboy, most of them remain oblivious to the complimentary safari transpiring in our subway tunnels, our parks, and some of our finest restaurant kitchens. Our bed bugs are free for the taking, in venues ranging from that cute, wooden bookcase awaiting curbside pick up to the Waldorf Astoria and the Nike Store! Tell everyone!
You think we sit around crying because there are no deer and rabbits to devour our container gardens? Hell no! Let Bambi and Thumper park their white tails upstate! We've got Pale Male and packs of rabid raccoons circling the Diana Ross Playground. My immediate neighbors include several thousand rooftop dwelling honeybees, a French Bulldog consigned to pastel cashmere and European booties, and countless Norway Grays.
This little guide to some of New York City's most commonly observed species represents the culmination of hours of surveillance and study, often from the comfort of my own home, where cappuccino is more commonplace than potable water and any mosquito net is but a boho chic affectation.
Log even a small amount of time in New York City and you, too, will have a gnarly rat story on which to dine out. As you may have heard, we grow 'em big here. When the subway trains are running slow, and you've forgotten your book, they'll make the time go faster by scampering up and down the tracks, seemingly impervious to the third rail. (I've found the ratspotting to be particularly good at the East Broadway stop on the F.) If you'd like to learn more about our Rattus Norwegius friends, check out Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Brooklyn author Robert Sullivan. Zinester's Guide to NYC contributor Kate Black reports that the ones scampering across the west end of the L platform at Union Square like grapes.
Also known as sky rats. The spikes you see bristling from the sills of any window above street level are an attempt to keep those dirty birds at bay. Sometimes I think we might do better to install a couple of spikes on the benches where senior citizens park themselves to feed their feathered friends bread crumbs, croutons, fried rice… thus attracting the kind of rats who don't have wings. Socrates Sculpture Park contains a particularly apt tribute to these hideous creatures. It's called The Dump. At first glance, it appears to be a monument to the noble rat. But who should be riding that giant cement rat's back but a slightly-larger-than-life-size, realistically colored pigeon. Look closer and you'll notice streaks of white cascading down to the plinth.
When I first moved here, I spent a lot of time on the Upper West Side wondering what was up with all those plastic great horned owls on pre-war windowsills. Were they the cosmopolitan equivalent of lawn flamingos? A secret signal? Masons? Brothels too discreet to advertise in the back of the Village Voice? Turns out they're there to fool the pigeons into thinking they're real.
Legend has it that in the 1960s a shipment of Quaker parrots escaped from the tarmac of JFK (possibly because some mob guys jimmied open the crate looking for something else), and the ones squatting in the gothic spires of Greenwood Cemetery's main entrance are their descendants. It does feel rather special to find a pretty green and pink feather in the wilds of Brooklyn. Parrots have also been spotted in the residential neighborhoods near Brooklyn College. Steve Baldwin, who maintains the Brooklyn Parrots website leads free safaris every now and then.
For transient creatures traveling on such short-term visas, they sure manage to shit up our green spaces. There's a reason those of us who live here don't express our carefree sense of fun by rolling down that hill in Empire Park. Better not let me catch you pooping all over the place!
By Ayun Halliday
Mastiffs, pits, and French bulldogs stroll the city streets en masse, but the canines that have made the biggest NYC impression on me are these quivering, bug-eyed souls. Until moving here, I'd had limited exposure to the breed. They are often in their owners' arms, and seem to dress up more for Halloween, probably due to their inability to mount much in the way of resistance. Their best-known representative is Reverend Jen Jr., the beloved companion of Lower East Side Art Star, author and Anti-Slam host, Reverend Jen.
Hua Mei Fighting Thrushes
Hua Mei Bird Garden Sara Delano Roosevelt Park Broome St (btwn Forsyth & Chrystie) (LES: J/M to Bowery) Daily 8am - 10:30am-ish Want to hear something pretty? Get up early and come to the Hua Mei Bird Garden, just north of the Pit where the bike polo matches take place. Every morning Chinese retirees gather to hang out, drink tea and show off their song birds in fancy bamboo cages hung from hooks installed for this purpose. There are hardcore daily regulars, and weekend warriors swell the chorus to about 50 on Saturdays and Sundays. Most of them live in the neighborhood, but there are guys who travel over a hundred blocks to participate. Think of that the next time you don't feel up to walking a 1/4 mile in the rain. The birdies themselves are cute little fuggers with markings that look like eyebrows, but their golden throats are their sexiest feature, particularly when there's a lady bird caged next door.
Cats can put a serious crimp in the short-term sublettor pool. I'm still waiting for someone to design a space-saving litterbox that will perfectly compliment the rest of my décor. They do look picturesque perched in the window. The cat pee smell in certain less-than-upscale grocery stores indicates the presence of feline census takers monitoring the basement rat population. My cat, who was born in a dumpster, but, like Rapunzel, has spent very little time outside the confines of his Ivory tower, is always very interested in plastic bags from Met Food, regardless of what food may be in there.
Interestingly, these were more of a problem in Chicago. Our puny NYC roaches are nothing compared to the monsters partying in the drains of your tropical Honeymoon suite - they just have better publicists.
A fate worse than lice, their stranglehold on the city has dampened my lust for hauling curbside treasure home. Every time I'm tempted, I must evaluate whether or not this find is worth my children being nibbled in their sleep by pernicious, pepper-sized creatures whose removal is rumored to run upwards of four digits, not counting the cost on one's mental health. The last item I judged worth the risk was a romantic photo collage of a 70's era male nude, glued inside a wooden Panteges cigar box discarded outside my local funeral home on Valentine's Day 2010. That said, their eggs are reportedly so sticky that you've probably got one glued to the bottom of your shoe now. Carpe Diem!
For those unable to leave things to chance, several NYC institutions will happily take your money in exchange for some hot animal action:
Central Park Children's Zoo 830 5th Avenue. The oldest zoo in the United States bears little resemblance to its depiction in the popular animated film, Madagascar, though I will forever love that movie for having a giraffe lick a urinal mint off the Columbus Circle subway platform, an act so visceral it caused an auditorium of jaded New Yorkers to scream like little girls. Also, the penguin exhibit is nothing like Batman would have you believe. No underground grottos filled with creepy candy canes and sinister little boats. That's okay. It's freak-out enough to hobnob with polar bears and monkeys in the shadow of the Plaza Hotel. The small admission charge includes the outpost a bit northeast of the main area, where a quarter in the goat chow dispenser will buy you at least one ticklish, unsanitary friendship.
Prospect Park Zoo 450 Flatbush Ave (btwn Empire Blvd & Lake Dr, Prospect Hts, Bklyn.)I'm a softie for this place, which inspired my first kid's book, Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo. It's a favorite Sunday outing for the Hasidim of nearby Borough Park. Not the most comprehensive zoo in New York, but its proximity to other attractions within the park (it's on the free weekend trolley's route) makes it a pleasant enough spot to spend an hour or two. The prairie dog exhibit is fixed up so visiting kids can pop up beside the burrows in plastic domes that would be see-through if they weren't so thoroughly smudged up with little hand and noseprints.
Bronx Zoo 2300 Southern Blvd (btwn E 183rd & Grote St, East Tremont, Bronx). Bronx is home to some big gorillas and multitudes of other fragrant, dangerous, non-native, big ticket creatures beloved by junior naturalists. Lately they've taken to acting like an airline, making the public pay a la carte. Actually seeing the aforementioned gorillas is going to cost you an extra three bucks (unless you spring for the all-access Total Experience, which nearly doubles the price). Avoid those sirloin admission fees by joining the masses on Wednesday, which used to be a very-straight-up free, and is now a suggested admission. The Congo exhibit is nifty, especially if a zoo baby favors you by pressing palms with you through the glass. (I'm thinking one-way mirror?) It's a hike from the nearest subway, and the grounds sprawl, so save your Manolos for the Sex and the City tour.
The New York Aquarium Surf Ave & W 8th St (Coney Island, Bklyn) A 365-days-a-year pillar of science tucked in one cup of Coney Island's mermaid-loving, freak-shooting, honky-tonk brassiere. Don't be intimidated by the big, loud school groups. They'll thunder past soon enough, leaving you alone with such inscrutable (and fishy smelling!) beauties as the jellyfish, seahorses, and stingrays. Things get a tad Coney Islandier in the open-air coliseum where dolphins and sea lions are encouraged to pull all sorts of unscientific stunts in return for prizes.
Ayun Halliday is the author of the recently published Zinester’s Guide to NYC, as well as No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lesssons Learned Too Late, two other self-mocking autobiographies, the children’s book Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo, and a soon to be published graphic novel. She is also the Chief Primatologist and sole staff member of the quarterly zine, The East Village Inky. She lives in Brooklyn with the playwright, Greg Kotis, and their extremely well documented children. Dare to Be Heinie and visit Ayunland: http://ayunhalliday.com
Showdown at the West Esplanade Canal by Darrin DuFord
Signs of Alien Life Among Us by David Lee Drotar
Dial-a-Bird by David Lee Drotar
Other U.S. and Canada travel stories from the archives.
Books from the Author: