Urban Animal Species Mix and Mingle

Equus caballus shares a meal with Columba livia.

Homo sapiens is the dominant species on Central Park South, aka West 59th Street. But we are not alone. Right here on the busy corner of Sixth Avenue and 59th is a peculiarly urban mix of wild, feral and domesticated animals.

The large mammals visible in the photo below are Homo sapiens (subspecies, New Yorker), and two species that originated in North America: Equus caballus (subspecies, suffering carriage horse) and Canis lupus familiaris (subspecies, city hotdog).

Also present on the street are Columba livia (Rock dove, aka city pigeon), Sturnus vulgaris (European starlingand Passer domesticus (House sparrow), as well as unidentified flies, bird mites and other insects enjoying the still-mild weather. Not one of these species – with the possible exception of humans – is considered native.

But I have a question: How long does a species need to be in residence before it is considered native? A few hundred years? A thousand?  Five thousand?

Around 15,000 years ago, give or take a couple of millennia, Homo sapiens crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia, accompanied by Canis lupus familiaris, the domesticated dog. Do we consider those paleolithic humans, our ancestors, to be a wild natural species? Or do we see ourselves as existing, even then, somehow outside nature, at the start, perhaps, of the dichotomy we of man-made versus natural?

Interestingly, around the time that humans were migrating westward, wild horses were disappearing from the continent, along with other large animals, including saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and wooly mammoths. Why did the horses disappear?  Climate change was certainly a factor. But did over-hunting by the newly arrived humans contribute to the extinction of the horse, as it did to the mastodon?  Whatever caused its extinction, the horse was not seen again in North America until the 1500s, when Spanish explorers brought the animals across the water, and unknowingly transformed the culture of indigenous North American peoples.

Plains Indian family with travois and horses, near Calgary, c. 1925 Photo: H. Pollard, McCord Museum

Millions of years before their North American extinction and re-introduction, horses had moved westward across the Bering land bridge, and fanned out across Asia and Europe. They were hunted for food and, eventually, tamed, trained and bred.

Horse cave painting in Lascaux, France

 By 2,000 B.C., horses were serving as transportation. They also served as beasts of burden, carrying goods. As war animals, they changed the nature of battle.

One hundred years ago, New York was still a city of horses. Today, the only horses left in Manhattan are police horses and Central Park carriage horses. I love to see horses in the city, but I pity them.

While the horses wait for their next fare, they share spilled grain with pigeons.  Sometimes, the two species even appear to interest each other.

Passersby rarely notice the little inter-species gatherings that go on all up and down the street.

 Directly behind the patient horses is an unassuming spot in Central Park that marks for me one of my heart-lurching sightings of  a wild native dog, Canis latrans, the Central Park coyote.

Canines originated in North America, spreading, like the horse, westward into the rest of the world, where they were domesticated at many times in many places. Domestication eventually led to breeds like the little dachshund, or badger dog (seen in the second photo), created by German farmers and breeders to control ground-denning wildlife.

But the coyote is a wild thing, found only in North America.  A highly adaptable omnivore, Canis latrans continues to evolve before our eyes, having expanded its range eastward into parts of the continent where it has never been seen. In southeastern Canada, coyotes hybridized with wolves before moving south into New England and New York state.  (The extent of the hybridization is still under debate, with some researchers maintaining the animals should be referred to as coywolves while others maintain they remain coyotes with a soupçon of wolf.)

Coyotes now inhabit the Bronx mainland, and have been been reported in Queens. They are irregular visitors to Manhattan, sometimes taking up temporary residence in Central Park. The March 2010 coyote, the one I was lucky enough to watch on several occasions, lived in the city for a month, before being trapped in Tribeca.

Winter is the time when juvenile coyotes often head out in search of new territory.  It’s been a year and eight months since we last had a coyote in Manhattan – or since we knew we had a coyote in Manhattan. But as another autumn rolls toward winter, I’m ready and waiting, convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the next coyote ventures onto our island.

Let me know if you see or hear anything.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Birds, Central Park, coyotes, Fall, Horses, In the City, November, NYC Parks, Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History, Winter

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10 Comments on “Urban Animal Species Mix and Mingle”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Great post Melissa – I too feel terribly sorry for the carriage horses, not so much the police horses if they are cared for like the ones of Toronto’s mounted – they live a good life, if sometimes dangerous. But coyotes in Central Park? ah now I remember that post of last year. What an adventure to see one.

    I hear them nearly every night way out here in the country, but not seen one in a long time. The local farmers have done their best to eradicate them, which I think is so misguided, and upsetting for the balance of nature – better to get some donkeys in with the cattle and sheep I think anyway.

    Love the photographs, and the picture of the ancient drawing of a horse… wonderful.

    Our natural history in North America seems to consist of finding, making use of or getting rid of, no just living along side of, or working together with… perhaps we’ll learn though, nature obviously is adapting better than humankind is.

    Thanks for a fascinating essay.

    • I agree with you about the police horses. And I do think some carriage horse owners really care about their horses. Others, not so much. I’m interested in your suggestion of putting donkeys in with the sheep & cattle to protect against coyotes. Will the donkeys defend the herd or flock against predators? Are they effective? I’d like to know more.

      We have black bears now, across the Hudson River, in suburban New Jersey. This was unheard of when I was a kid, as were coyotes in this area. Change is afoot, for better or worse, for humans and wildlife.

  2. CGJ Says:

    I think the Coyote’s expansion into new territories, especially urban ones, is a fascinating story.

  3. Yes! I have noticed how the pigeons snack off the horses’ food. The way they pile on top of each other in the feed bucket is simply mezmerizing. Thanks for your posts Melissa; I really appreciate your perspectives.

    • And the truth is that the sparrows are often at the other end of the beast, feasting off seeds or grain passed through the horse’s droppings. Glad you enjoyed the post, Kelly, and thank you for commenting.

  4. mthew Says:

    The horse-powered era is so remote now we hardly remember the side-effects: the clattering noise of hooves, the droppings, the downed horses. Dead Horse Bay was well-named, with dead horses rendered down to grease and glue and bone charcoal for sugar refining, hides too; the manure was converted to fertilizer for the farms of Brooklyn and Queens. Veggies to the city, horseshit back.

    • Oh yes, the city was filthy when horses were everywhere. I started to write about that issue, but the post was already getting so densely packed that I thought I’d leave the topic (along with several others!) for a future story. Thanks for pointing it out. I’d forgotten abt origins of Dead Horse Bay. I think there may have been a rendering plant in the area that became Central Park. Fascinating & strange.

  5. Susie Says:

    Very interesting post!!! Loved it and will be sharing with my eighth grade students today!!!

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