|New York Fauna|
When Europeans settled in our region, they clear-cut woodlands, drained wetlands, and ploughed meadows into farm fields, uprooting the wild animals that lived here. For millennia, these habitats had been home to beaver, muskrat, otter, mink, marten, deer, elk, moose, wood bison, black bear, fox, wolf, cougar, bobcat, lynx, innumerable birds -- wild turkey, crane, eagle, osprey, and the now-extinct Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon -- and water-roiling schools of fish that in spring swam upstream to spawn by the tens of thousands. When the new settlers moved in, wild animals slowly migrated out or were pushed out. The domestic livestock of the Europeans were turned loose to graze and browse freely in fields, marshes, and woods. It was not long before other grazers and browsers such as deer, elk, bison, and moose migrated out. Over-hunting caused game birds to decline so drastically that by the early eighteenth century closed season was declared on them in New York. (For more information on the history of birds in New York, go to the Birds text page.)
Hunting as it was practiced by the Europeans took a heavy toll on the wild animal population. Fur-bearing mammals such as mink and otter were heavily hunted, but beaver was hunted to near-extinction because of its high value on the market. Beaver pelts were especially esteemed for the maunfacture of the felt hats that were the fashion rage in seventeenth-century Europe; beaver testicles were believed to have curative powers; and beaver oil was thought good for "dizziness, trembling, rheumatism, lameness, and pain in the stomach." The European traders recruited the Indians in the hunt, giving them guns in exchange for pelts. Within decades of the Europeans' arrival, beaver was extirpated from the region.
Any wild animals that threatened their livestock were killed with impunity. Because wolves attacked their cattle in the woods, the colonists placed bounties on their heads. A town order of 1770 reads: "Forasmuch as divers inhabitants of this colony have suffered many grievous losses in their stock, both of sheep and neat cattle for the prevention of which and encouragement of those who shall destroy wolves in said colony, and that the breed of wolves within the colony may be wholly rooted out and extinguished, be it enacted, etc., that in the county of Westchester there be paid twenty shillings for a grown wolf to be killed by a Christian, ten shillings for such a wolf by an Indian, and half that sum respectively for a whelp." Such policies effectively eradicated the wolf from the region.
Centuries of pollution and overfishing have decimated marine fauna. Already by the mid-nineteenth century, wild oysters were gone from New York waters. Oystermen seeded the old nurseries with domesticated oysters, but these became so tainted by raw sewage a ban on commercial oyster and clam harvesting was imposed in the early twentieth century. Modern sewage treatment has helped the recovery of shellfish, but nitrogen run-off from fertilized lawns and farmfields, as well as from sewage plant wastewater, is causing algal blooms in estuaries like Long Island Sound. Normally, algae provides nutrients for larval shellfish and young fish, but excessive algae deplete the oxygen in the waters, which in effect suffocates the marine animals. That is just what happened in Long Island Sound in 1987, when a huge algal bloom reduced the oxygen level so drastically that fish and shellfish were decimated.
Massive fish kills in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been traced to oil and chemical pollution. In addition, nuclear power plants like that at Indian Point in Buchanan, New York, just 24 miles north of New York City on the Hudson, kill millions of fish by sucking them into their turbines and by literally cooking them in heated discharge water. According to Con Ed's own admission, in 1977 the Indian Point plant killed 2,215,890 fish -- and that does not take into account the billions of fish eggs and larvae that were destroyed.
New York Wildlife today
The wolf has never returned to our region, but a number of wild animals have adapted to our urban habitats. The elimination of their natural predator, the wolf, combined with the spread of suburban and exurban settlements that provide prime edge habitats and forage, has favored an explosion of the deer population. The deer are not only munching on prized garden plants, but they are ravaging the understory of woodlands in much the way the colonists's cattle once did, preventing new growth, and destroying habitats needed by nesting birds and other wildlife. The disappearance of the wolf also opened a niche for another wild canine, this one a migrant from the West -- the coyote. Twice, sick coyotes have stumbled into Central Park. Red foxes are known to breed in Westchester and northern Bronx, and may roam far and wide following streams and parkways. Raccoons roam the streets at night, raiding garbage cans not only in surburbia but in the urban wilds. And as exurban developments spread into hitherto wild areas, the black bear is making its presence known to the human interlopers.
Amphibians and reptiles
Wetlands, streams, and ponds provide habitats for 32 species of reptiles and amphibians. These include the box turtle, painted turtle, and snapping turtle; garter snake, brown snake, ribbon snake, northern water snake, and more rarely, the black racer and milk snake; the red-spotted newt, red-backed salamander, and dusky salamander; Fowlers toad, and a half dozen or so frogs such as spring peepers, green frogs, and leopard frogs.
The brackish waters of New York's extensive estuaries are inhabited by both fresh and saltwater species of fish, including striped bass, alewives, and shad that swim upriver to spawn; weakfish (sea trout) that spawn in the estuaries; summer flounders (fluke), and bluefish larvae that feed in the estuaries in summer months. In deeper waters, such as the Mud Hole of the Hudson River Canyon, fishermen can catch bluefish, black fish, porgy, cod, sea bass, and even tuna. Unfortunately, huge trawlers have replaced the old draggers, putting drag-net fishermen out of business and decimating fish stocks. The sight of blue-fin tuna migrating by the thousands every spring from the waters off Spain, Portugal, and France into the New York Bight is now but a memory in old fishermen's minds.
The recovery of anadromous fish populations is more of a success story. Anadromous fish are those that swim upriver in spring to spawn. Since colonial times, it was noted that dams obstructed the passage of these fish. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working in partnership with a number of public and private agencies under the rubric of SNEP (Southern New England-New York Bight Coastal Ecosystems Program) to construct fish ladders over these dams. These efforts, combined with river clean-up efforts, have brought back fish that had disappeared from our region, including alewives, shad, blueback herring, striped bass, and salmon.
Often in my walks on the beach, I encounter the upturned body of a dead horseshoe crab, its segmented triangular abdomen and five pairs of "walking legs" (the sixth pair are the pincers) exposed to the sky, half-eaten by gulls. He may have been stranded at high tide after mating, an event that occurs only once a year. In May, at full moon, horseshoes by the thousands catch incoming waves and lumber onto shore to mate, males mounting females. Each female lays 500 or so greenish eggs in holes they've scooped in the sand just above low tide line -- caviar for the shorebirds who descend in hordes to feast, fueling themselves for their migratory journeys north. Red knots, sandpipers, and ruddy turnstones gorge themselves on the egg masses when the tide recedes. The larvae of the horseshoe so closely resemble ancient trilobites that they are called "living fossils." It's hard to believe that a species that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years is now endangered. For decades, they have been used by fishermen as conch bait and by farmers as fertilizer, and more recently, they have been harvested for their medicinal value. As their numbers have plummeted, migratory red knots, which have depended on horseshoe eggs to fuel themselves for their long journeys northward in spring, have also experienced drastic reduction. Restrictions on harvesting horseshoes have been imposed in hopes they will recover.
credit: Vicki Bustamante
credit: Vicki Bustamante
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