Urban, untamed coexist in Bronx

Environment: A full-time New York City Parks and Recreation Department wildlife manager keeps an eye on coyotes, deer, wild turkeys and an occasional bald eagle in a surprising spot.

August 11, 2002|By Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson | Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - If one were to poll a group of travel professionals, the Bronx is probably the last place on Earth that would come up as an "eco-tourism destination." What they might be surprised to discover is that the Bronx is filled with wild animals - and we don't mean at the Bronx Zoo.

Along with typical urban fauna like pigeons, squirrels and sparrows, the Bronx is visited by coyotes, wild turkeys, deer and the occasional bald eagle.

In fact, the Bronx is so crowded with furred, feathered and finned species that the New York City Parks and Recreation Department posts a full-time wildlife manager there.

Earlier this year, we had vaguely considered taking a trip to a wildlife hot spot like the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. But when we learned about the Bronx's abundance of wildlife, we decided to save our money. A quick phone call to the Parks Department led us to David Kuenstler, the Bronx wildlife manager, who offered to guide us on a Bronx safari.

The Bronx, he assured us, was crammed with animals - mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and plenty of invertebrates. "Of course," Kuenstler told us on the phone, "I can't guarantee exactly what you'll see." Translation: You can schedule an appointment with the Bronx wildlife manager, but not with the animals he manages.

Subway to safari

Riding the No. 2 subway train into the Bronx on a recent morning, the wildlife wasn't immediately apparent; the elevated tracks provide views of wall-to-wall apartment buildings, peppered with the occasional vacant lot.

Disembarking at the Bronx Park East station, we found ourselves on a gritty, industrial street flanked by a construction site and an auto repair yard. A bit to the west, cars raced by on the Bronx River Parkway.

The sight of a few trees a quarter-mile down the road led us to a low-rise, barracks-type building, the Bronx headquarters of the Parks Department. Walking in, we were greeted by a stuffed coyote - frozen mid-trot - perched above the receptionist's desk.

Kuenstler, 49, dressed in jeans and hiking boots, soon joined us. Coyotes, he said, had first appeared in the Bronx in 1995.

These wild canines are among the few mammal predators that can live in urbanized areas. Their populations have exploded in recent decades and they've pushed into new territory.

"The Bronx is one of the last places where coyotes extended their range," Kuenstler said.

This particular coyote had been killed while trying to cross Jerome Avenue.

Would we be seeing any of these bushy-tailed animals on our safari?

"Unlikely," Kuenstler said.

Even he had never seen a live coyote in the Bronx. "Just roadkills," he said.

Recently, however, he had received a report from a woman in Riverdale who said that a coyote had sauntered right by her house. And there had also been several reports of a mother and two pups hanging out near Van Cortlandt Park.

Kuenstler ushered us into a Parks Department Jimmy, a Jeep-type vehicle, filling us in on some Bronx facts as we bounced over potholes, first heading north onto the Bronx River Parkway and then east onto Pelham Parkway.

24 percent parkland

What a lot of people don't realize, he said, is that the Bronx has a greater portion of its land area (24 percent) devoted to city parkland than any other borough.

Most people are familiar with the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo, both located in Bronx Park in the center of the borough. And certainly the botanical garden has a 40-acre natural forest that holds a profusion of wildlife.

But the Bronx is also home to the city's largest municipal park, 2,764-acre Pelham Bay Park in the borough's northeast corner, and the 1,146-acre Van Cortlandt Park, in the northwest.

Each of these parks is under Kuenstler's purview and far surpasses the 843 acres of Central Park; they also make a great wildlife habitat.

First stop

Our first stop, Kuenstler said, would be Pelham Bay Park. Within its boundaries, Pelham Bay Park includes almost 800 acres of forest, 195 acres of salt marshes and mud flats, 25 acres of grassland and five tiny offshore islands, in addition to its extensive recreation areas.

In the park, Kuenstler has documented such unlikely urban creatures as deer, raccoons, osprey, milk snakes and great-horned owls.

Recently he was astonished to discover four baby bluebirds in a nesting box he had been tending on the edge of the Pelham Golf Course, which is inside the park.

The bluebird - New York's state bird - had not nested within the city limits for more than 50 years.

"It was like winning the lottery," Kuenstler said. And bluebirds are not the only creatures making use of the fairways.

Turkey sighting

"Last month, I saw a group of four male wild turkeys, a hen and seven young on the golf course," he said. "The hen and the young were hanging around a sand trap."

Now considered year-round residents of the Bronx, wild turkeys are believed to have first traveled here in the early 1990s from points farther north on tree-lined roads, like the Bronx River Parkway.

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