Broadway, the Empire State Building, shopping on Fifth Avenue—New York City is best known for its culture and man-made infrastructure. But you don’t need pure wilderness to find nature; the city in fact contains diverse and productive ecosystems. Sure, we have rats and cockroaches (who doesn’t?), but there are many more beautiful and unexpected animals if you just know where to look. Here are 10 of the most surprising animals in New York City. Some are visitors, others are permanent residents, but all are worth catching a glimpse of.
You might associate a coyote’s eery howl with lonely nights spent in the desert, like in the movies. But coyotes are opportunistic feeders (they’ll happily munch on garbage, or berries, or kill a small rodent) and are expanding their habitats into urban areas in recent years. Last year, one made its way to the roof of a bar in Queens. But that’s an anomaly, researchers have found—in urban environments, coyotes stick to woody patches, avoiding areas usually inhabited by humans.
American Medicinal Leech (
Leeches might be kind of icky, but they are also pretty cool. They have anticoagulants (compounds that prevent blood from clotting) in their saliva, and they’re approved by the FDA to help veins regrow when doctors reattach fingers. And they’re closer than you think—you can drudge them up from most freshwater ponds in the city.
Snowy Owl (
Despite Hedwig’s presence in the Harry Potter world, snowy owls generally stick to arctic climes. During the winter months, these beautiful and agile predators migrate further south. In 2015, during a particularly brutal cold snap, one was spotted on Governor’s Island, to much fanfare. But not everyone is so excited to see the owls—in 2013, the officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey killed three snowy owls near John F. Kennedy International Airport, claiming that they were a hazard to incoming and outgoing planes.
Jellyfish are the bane of beach season, stinging bathers and complicating the New York City triathlon. Ctenophores look like jellyfish and float in seawater, but they don’t sting. They are also bioluminescent, so when they are plentiful in places like Jamaica Bay or Pelham Bay, they create a beautiful, otherworldly glow, as the New York Times notes.
Painted Bunting (
In December 2015, Brooklynites were offered a rare avian treat: a male Painted Bunting spent a few days in Prospect Park. Usually these small, colorful birds migrate from Arkansas to Florida, though a number of immature birds have been spotted in Cape May, New Jersey. They’ve been seen in New York City just eight or nine times, one expert told the New York Times. But Brooklyn’s mature, adult male, with his stunning blue head, green wings, and dusky red breast was rarer still.
Northern Dusky Salamander (
Salamanders, those awkward river-dwelling amphibians, were common in New York City as recently as 60 years ago. But increasing urbanization has caused their numbers to dwindle, and their genetic diversity has dropped dramatically, too. That is, except for in one area, on a muddy Manhattan hillside that faces the Bronx. A pair of bridges have segmented this habitat. Now, if you analyze the genes in salamanders found on either side of these bridges, you can tell which side they came from. “We built this single piece of infrastructure that has changed their evolutionary history,” said Jason Munshi-South, an environmental science professor at Baruch College, in a 2012 TED Talk.
Diamondback Terrapin (
Turtles aren’t hard to find in New York City—there’s the neighborhood Turtle Bay, Central Park has Turtle Pond, sometimes they turn up in our apartments, and of course there are those released pet turtles that became the (fictional) mutants we know and love in the city’s sewers. But to find real-life turtles that are doing real turtle things, look no further than Jamaica Bay. In June and July, female diamondback terrapins lay their eggs on the sandy shores of the bay. If you time it right, you can watch the little terrapins hatch and make their way into the water. The males will never set foot on land again.
Fin whale (
In the 1700s, whales were a common sight from New York’s ports and harbors. Then whales were over hunted, and boat traffic increased, and they became less frequent. Now whale populations are bouncing back, and New Yorkers can take whale watching tours that depart from the Rockaways or from New York Harbor to see them up close. Humpback whales are the most common, but if you are patient enough, you could catch a glimpse of the elusive Fin whale, or Finback whale. It’s the second largest whale species on Earth, but they’re endangered and they move fast, so they’re typically only spotted a few times per year. But if you do see one, it’s worth it—as one New York Times writer notes, there’s nothing that quite describes seeing a whale so close to the city.
Little Brown Bat (
Summer in New York City means hanging out in Central Park, maybe enjoying a free concert or movie. If you pay attention, just as it’s getting dark, you can see something with about a nine-inch wingspan flapping about erratically. Those are probably little brown bats, one of the city’s nine species of bats. What’s surprising is that each little brown bat can eat 1,000 mosquitoes an hour. It’s not an easy time to be a bat—white nose syndrome has wiped out many bat populations across the country. Luckily, it hasn’t yet come to New York City. In fact, some bat-watchers claim that the number of bats in the city’s parks has in fact increased in recent years. That’s a good thing if you don’t like getting bitten by mosquitoes.
Red Fox (
These foxes’ distinctive red coat and black paws aren’t uncommon—red foxes are the most widely distributed carnivore in the world, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. But despite this, they aren’t common to spot in New York City. The red fox is nocturnal—a tough life in the city that never sleeps—and prefer to spend most of their time in the open, which is no easy feat with so many humans around. They can only be found in the most isolated places in the city. One of our editors spotted one in Tompkins Square Park, and a website claims that another was found in the New York Botanical Gardens.