Last spring, Washington Heights had an unusual visitor: A coyote found its way to Fort Tryon Park.
Jennifer Hoppa, executive director of the Fort Tryon Park Trust and administrator of Northern Manhattan Parks, remembers when she got the call.
“We had to have the Park Rangers come and they were able to confirm the tracks were coyote’s.” Hoppa said. “Apparently the coyote was using Fort Tryon as a starting point.” It and others had moved south to congregate at Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street, another big green space, she said.
And the coyotes aren’t alone. Fort Tryon park officials and nearby residents said that they are noticing more raccoons, skunks, groundhogs, skunks and snakes. The animals are moving from the Bronx, where for the past 30 years they adapted to suburban conditions. But now their populations are becoming too large to remain sustainable there.
These wildlife critters are slowly spreading south into Manhattan, inhabiting the island they lived on hundreds of years ago before urbanization.
For urban dwellers, the coyotes are the largest and perhaps most surprising of the returning species. Manhattan may have gulches and canyons, but they are more associated with Gucci and tall buildings than with the wild. Its parks are tame.
“They are just reproducing and need to find other areas to move into,” Munshi-South said. “They’re generally moving south because Westchester, to the north of the Bronx, already has a lot of coyotes.”
The coyotes migrated from the Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, where a small group of packs live. Urban ecologist and associate professor at Baruch College Jason Munshi-South is conducting a video study of the coyotes in the Bronx. He said that the coyotes live in the Bronx, and when the population gets too large, male adolescent coyotes venture south, in search of a new home. In the case of the coyotes, they do so by swimming across the Harlem River, which separates Manhattan from the Bronx, or by crossing the Henry Hudson Bridge or the Broadway Bridge.
“They’ve been expanding in this wave into the city,” he said. “And they’re finding that the conditions here aren’t so bad either.”
Fort Tryon Park is particularly attractive. Its 67 acres, 450 types of trees and shrubs, and over-stuffed garbage cans make for an ideal home. Their presence is easily spotted by the torn garbage bags and scattered trash that are common sights now.
“Skunks and raccoons are nocturnal animals so you tend to not see them, but you see evidence of them,” said Nancy Bruning, who lives nearby and exercises three mornings a week in the park. .
Munshi-South said now that the animal populations are permanently established in the Bronx, it will take years before the population finds more sustainable areas to populate, like Long Island.
“They’re not going to disappear anytime soon,” said Munshi-South.
But even with that closer contact, both experts and park officials say the concerns for residents are small.
“There are some concerns with coyotes, for example eating pets,” said Munshi-South. “But if you have a small dog, they really shouldn’t be running around in the park without a leash anyway. And if you have a cat, they should be inside.”
Munshi-South said that the biggest issue is related to human interaction: residents might become too comfortable with the animals.
“There are some raccoons in Central Park that I’ve seen people feeding,” he said. “That should just not be done.” Of the four-legged animals, Munshi-South said he feared that “you might have them start biting people and becoming used to living off of human hand outs.”
Hoppa said that the Parks Department is working on educating people on how to interact with the newcomers. Last week, Fort Tryon Park hosted a wildlife education program called ‘ecofest’ with Hamilton Heights Academy that featured educational environmental songs for children. The park will also host a wildlife appreciation day this November, when children will get hands on learning experience with animals.
“There are owls, and there are skunks, and there are games that kids get to play to learn about the different animals in the environment,” said Hoppa. “It’s great because the kids really learn what the natural way to interact with animals is. And it’s a hands-on opportunity.”
Hoppa said that she and other park officials enjoy the increase in animals.
“I think it’s a learning opportunity,” said Hoppa. “If you’re planning on living in a community that is more than one third open space, you have to learn how to peacefully coexist.”