These Wild Creatures Are Returning to Save New York City – Next City

On warm weekends, the Bronx River Alliance conducts guided canoe trips along the river; most people are surprised to find these untouched pockets of nature in the borough. 

Photo by Timothy Vogel via Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

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These Wild Creatures Are Returning to Save New York City

Three once imperiled species are finding homes amid the city’s rooftops, garden plots and waters, a promising sign of environmental viability.

Story by Thomas Hynes

Published on Sep 28, 2020

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “Wild City: A Brief History of New York City in 40 Animals,” by Thomas Hynes, published this spring by Harper Collins. Hynes’ book is an “illustrated guide to 40 of the most well-known, surprising, notorious, mythical, and sublime non-human citizens of New York City, and love letter to its surprising ecological diversity.” We’ve chosen three excerpts from the book representing animals that are making comebacks in the city thanks to restoration efforts by humans; these animals now provide great benefits back to humans. Read on.

Oysters

Oysters are one of New York Harbor’s best shots at clean water, as well as one of its best defenses from future storm surges. These are the same oysters New Yorkers have done their best to decimate with centuries of pollution and overconsumption. The oysters hold no grudge, however, and have returned to help restore the harbor, even if the city probably doesn’t deserve it.

Way back in 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed into New York City, he happened upon one of the world’s most impressive natural harbors, which held 220,000 acres of oyster beds below the surface on the harbor floor—nearly half the oysters in the entire world.

The ensuing wave of European visitors to Manhattan were introduced to eating oysters by the local Lenape, who would open the shells by wrapping the entire oyster in seaweed before tossing it on a fire. The new Europeans loved the tasty bivalves, and oysters quickly became synonymous with New York City, as Mark Kurlansky’s brilliant book, The Big Oyster, skill-fully outlines. Yes, long before hot dog and halal carts could be found everywhere, oysters were the city’s ubiquitous fare, the original street meat.

Everyone in New York ate oysters. The rich saw them as a delicacy, and the poor enjoyed how cheap and easy to collect they were. Oyster taverns popped up all over the city to feed the seemingly insatiable appetite. The Canal Street plan, a popular oyster option, offered nineteenth-century diners unlimited oysters for six cents.

Of course, this pace could not endure, and soon the oyster population faced a multipronged existential threat. First, to feed too many people eating too many oysters, they were overharvested. By 1820, the oyster beds around Staten Island were depleted. Undeterred by this harbinger of things to come, New York began to harvest oysters at an even greater rate. By the early 1900s, over one billion a year were being pulled out of the area’s waterways, which, even in this oyster- rich area, was not sustainable.

(Illustration by Kath Nash)

Another major threat to the oyster beds was the city’s changing shoreline. Once an ideal oyster habitat of marshy, rocky shallows, it was soon replaced with a nearly unbroken string of bulkheads, piers, and landfill. It was good for real estate, shipping, and commerce, but bad for marine biodiversity.

Lastly, waste management, or the lack thereof, dealt a devastating and final blow to city oysters. Until shockingly recently, in the 1980s, New York City was dumping millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage into the harbor every day. Not surprisingly, this was bad for oyster beds. Back in 1921, the New York City Health Department was forced to close the Jamaica Bay oyster beds, out of which some 80 million oysters a year were harvested, due to fears of foodborne illnesses, including typhoid. From there, the end came fast, and six years later, in 1927, the last city oyster bed, in Raritan Bay, was closed.

New Yorkers stopped eating their oysters then, but it would take another half century, until the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, for the harbor to be given respite from pollution. By then, it was too little, too late. New York City oysters would survive as a species, but they would not be fit to eat again ever.

And just like that, New York City squandered one of its greatest natural resources. That’s the thing about oysters: they reflect their surroundings. If people living near them are reckless with their environment, then it will show up in the oysters. Their typhoid-laden meat was simply a manifestation of New York’s ecological sins.

Truly, New York’s history with oysters is one of neglect and foolishness. But looking to the future, New York would do well to make amends with the oyster, given all the oyster could do for New York.

Figuratively speaking, New York City was made with oysters insofar as they provided a cheap and abundant food source. But in addition, parts of New York City are in fact constructed with oyster shells, including the lime used in Trinity Church on Wall Street. Nearby, Pearl Street is named for the piles of oyster shells left there by the Lenape.

In Tottenville, Staten Island, a wholly different kind of oyster structure is being considered for the future. SCAPE Landscape Architecture has introduced Living Breakwater, a proposed series of oyster walls reinforced with concrete— essentially sea walls created from oyster reefs that can bear the brunt of storm surges and rising sea levels—to be built just past Staten Island’s southern shore, an area particularly beat up during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Gena Wirth of SCAPE told DNAinfo in a 2014 interview that the oyster walls could “reduce water velocity, reduce erosion of the shoreline, and reduce the height and intensity of waves.” Tottenville, which once dubbed itself as “the town oysters built,” is now wagering that its town’s best shot at survival is to build its oyster reefs back up.

Also betting big on oysters is the Billion Oyster Project, a modest enterprise with huge ambitions. As the name suggests, its mission is to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor by 2035. Oysters act as a keystone species, attracting other marine life to live around them, from microscopic organisms to crabs and fish. But of all the things oysters can do, their most amazing ability is cleaning the waters in which they live. These tiny beasts of burden are capable of filtering up to an extraordinary fifty gallons of water per oyster per day.

Billion Oyster Project got its name from some back-of-the-envelope math: if one billion oysters each filter fifty gallons of water a day, that could completely clean the water in New York Harbor every three days. The calculations may be imprecise, but it’s certainly worth a shot. Since launching in 2014, they have planted over thirty million oysters across five reef sites, including right off the coast of Governors Island and at the mouth of the Bronx River.

Billion Oyster Project is affiliated with the New York Harbor School. Their shared facility on Governors Island offers city kids hands-on experience with oyster monitoring and reef restoration. On weekdays throughout the warmer months, students with maritime ambitions, and maybe a few with community service hours to fulfill, ferry out to Governors Island to help construct gabions, a rebar-reinforced structure (think of them as oyster condominiums) that will eventually be filled with oyster shells.

The shells are donated by restaurants from all over the city, which not only aids the project but also diverts about eight hundred thousand pounds of waste from ending up in a landfill every year. Oyster larvae are then introduced to these oyster condos in the Harbor School, allowing the spat to safely find a shell surface to call home. In this way, oysters live like human New Yorkers: in crowded clusters, often on top of one another.

It’s a truly ambitious mission. But according to Sam Janis of Billion Oyster Project, getting the job done will realistically call for trillions of oysters, not just a billion. “In some ways, New York Harbor is unrestorable. I mean, not restorable by our own hand. Nature has its own course,” says Janis. “However, compared to fifty years ago, there is a lot of life in the harbor. Many magnitudes more biodiversity and bioproductivity. No longer dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the harbor every day can do that.”

So even though it remains a long shot, the oysters are down there below the surface working tirelessly for the benefit of New York Harbor. They are greatly outnumbered for the job, sure, yet still determined to leave the water a lot cleaner than they found it, a lot cleaner than New Yorkers left it.

Honeybees

In 2015, the largest known marijuana-growing facility in New York City’s history was discovered by honeybees, which were drawn to large vats of maraschino cherry juice left unattended at the Dell’s Maraschino Cherries factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the front for the operation. These bees, and the cherry-red honey they made, ultimately led environmental inspectors to investigate the facility, which led to warrants from the US Drug Enforcement Administration and what the New York Times headlined “The Fall of the Cherry King.” It’s a crazy story, and one that might never have come to light if not for the bees.

This was an unintentional sting job. Bees can’t be trained, not even by cops. Instead, bees do what bees do, which is collect an easy-to-find sweet thing and turn it into honey for the good of the hive. They are just as happy with fields of organic flowers as they are with vats of cherry syrup.

(Illustration by Kath Nash)

The bees that ratted out the Red Hook weed growers were neighborhood rooftop bees kept by a local chef, a more common fixture since the 2010 repeal of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani’s beekeeping prohibition. Today, cops only get involved with bees when they swarm, which occurs whenever a beehive collectively decides to split up and create a new colony.

It’s a fascinating display of how bees function as a eusocial superorganism. But in a crowded place like New York City, it can also be a problem.

Thankfully, the NYPD has a few bee cops in their ranks, including Officer Michael Lauriano. With his mustache and close haircut, Lauriano looks the way a New York City cop might be portrayed on television. Only instead of the standard NYPD blue uniform, he wears a white shirt (long sleeved, of course) to better see the bees buzzing around him. When a new swarm is reported, Lauriano is called. High up on a ladder, with an improvised vacuum, he is cool as can be, hoovering up thousands of presumably very angry bees.

Andrew Coté is called if ever a bee cop can’t be summoned. Coté is a fourth-generation beekeeper, and it’s been his full-time job since 2003. He has around five hundred hives in his keep, which makes him among the city’s most prolific beekeepers. All those bees can produce up to twenty-five thousand pounds of honey per year. Coté has also received “thousands” of stings from angry bees. After all, beekeepers don’t make honey—they steal it.

During the summer months, Coté says there can be as many as five swarm calls a day, and the swarms can occur anywhere. In 2017, Coté and two assistants removed a swarm that landed four hundred feet above Times Square. A few years earlier, in 2015, a swarm found its way to some unlucky guy’s locked-up bike on West Fifty-Sixth Street.

Coté keeps his own bees all over town, including on the roofs of the United Nations and the Waldorf Astoria, among other locations. Much of the honey he sells every Wednesday in Union Square bears a label indicating the location of where it was made, such as the High Line, Bushwick, and Da Bronx. Each varietal has its own delicious flavor, its own local culinary story to tell.

When he’s not responding to swarms, tending to his bees, or selling their honey, Coté can be found teaching classes to the New York City Beekeepers Association. During the sessions, which sell out weeks in advance, the aspiring beekeepers sit attentively, each with a notepad and dog-eared copy of Beekeeping for Dummies.

The classes are fascinating. For example, two bees left alone won’t reproduce. Hives are over 99 percent female, though only the queen can bear offspring. At her prime, she lays around two thousand eggs a day. These eggs ideally will have been fertilized by male drones from different hives who die in the process. And when a queen begins to falter in her egg laying ability, nurse bees will begin producing a replacement queen right under her nose. To do so, a dozen eggs are set aside and fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly, which the nurse bees produce from glands in their heads. When a new queen emerges, she immediately kills the other hatchlings with her stinger—queens are the only bees that can sting more than once—before setting out to fight the sitting queen bee to the death.

Hive politics aside, beekeeping is a lot of work. It requires constant hive checks. Beekeepers even must contend with the mood of their bees who don’t necessarily love it when a human dressed as an astronaut comes to steal their honey. According to Geraldine Simonis, head beekeeper at Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm operation, varroa mites, which can lead to colony collapse, are also a major problem.

Protecting bee populations against colony collapse—any threat really—is critical. A loss of bees doesn’t just mean no honey. It also means no cucumbers, no strawberries, no natural pollination, no nothing. As Simonis puts it, “Bees are important only if we want to keep eating food.” Brooklyn Grange is able to grow a lot of food, thanks in large part to its thirty-one beehives. They currently grow more than eighty thousand pounds of produce per year from their five acres across three rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens.

Rooftop farms and gardens are crucial because they capture and reuse rainwater otherwise destined to overburden the city’s infrastructure. The soil also absorbs heat better than a standard tar roof, thereby mitigating the urban island heat effect. Above all else, these gardens produce food that doesn’t need to be delivered to the city via gas-guzzling truck. In return, all these green spaces require is an empty roof, a bit of topsoil, a willing community, and, of course, some bees.

Beavers

The beaver is the most important animal in New York City history, and tributes to these industrious little critters can be seen all over town: the city flag has two tiny beavers; in Lower Manhattan, Beaver Street is one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares; dozens of beavers are carved into the walls of the Astor Place station on the number 6 line. What’s probably most surprising, however, is that real-life beavers can actually be seen in New York City — specifically on the Bronx River, usually around sunset — paddling around, doing their dam thing. Although they were once here in abundance, beavers were driven away for two hundred years because of pollution and overtrapping. But it took only two beavers, José and Justin, to usher in a new era for these creatures. Their return is a testament to the city’s environmental improvements and a high-water mark for the remediation efforts of the Bronx River Alliance, an organization committed to cleaning the city’s only freshwater river.

(Illustration by Kath Nash)

As far back as the 1630s, New York was influencing the global fashion industry by way of beavers. In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto writes that “the fur trade was the colony’s [New York’s] entire reason for being” and describes beaver-made felt as a “status-symbol-cum-necessity throughout Europe.” By the late 1600s, according to Science Daily, more than eighty thousand beaver skins were exported annually from North America, often through Manhattan. According to Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars, “the beaver became America’s first commodity animal. Beaver pelts became a currency. Trade in them created an economic network that spanned the Atlantic Ocean for 300 years.” This was bad for beavers but great for business. It was particularly great for John Jacob Astor, who would eventually be known as the richest man in America thanks to a fortune he originally made from trapping. In the 1830s, perhaps sensing things to come, Astor divested entirely from the beaver game and moved into real estate. Soon the rest of the city would follow, transitioning from a tangible economy based on natural resources to one that was more abstract and speculative.

According to Linda Cox of the Bronx River Alliance, the overzealous trappers were only part of the problem. The Bronx River, once a haven for beavers, was facing its own ecological demise. Like a lot of waterways during that time period, it had served as an open sewer, lined with mills and tanneries with zero environmental regulations. Even if local beavers had somehow been able to survive the market demands of the felt trade, they would not necessarily have found a suitable habitat elsewhere in the city.

Efforts to restore the river, which runs twenty-three miles from Westchester County down to Long Island Sound, began in 1888 when land was set aside for Bronx Park, which is now home to the New York Botanical Garden and the adjacent Bronx Zoo. A subsequent solution for restoring the river came in 1908 when the Bronx River Parkway, a first-of-its-kind project, began construction. It may sound counterintuitive now to attempt cleaning a river by building a highway alongside it, but at the time it was seen as a revolutionary development in recreational land use.

Most important, the project included an actual sewer pipe to divert waste away from the river.

In 1974, a new wave of remediation efforts began, spearheaded by Ruth Anderberg and her organization, Bronx River Restoration, which in 2001 would morph into the present-day Bronx River Alliance. The cleanup was no easy job. Sure, the river was no longer an open sewer, but it was still a de facto dump. In The Bronx River in History and Folklore, Stephen P. DeVillo describes a city on the brink of environmental ruin by way of the river. “The Bronx, along with the rest of New York City, was reaching its nadir, and to many people the thought of restoring the Bronx River, was at best, a quixotic notion.”

Slowly but surely, though, small signs of progress began to show, and in 2008 the craziest thing happened: a beaver was spotted in the Bronx River, the first New York City beaver in more than two hundred years. He was the buck- toothed vindication of decades of hard work and environmental activism.

He was also good for the river. Beavers are a keystone species: their dams raise water levels, which leads to additional plant growth, which attracts insects, which feed fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. In other words, beavers make the whole damn ecosystem go round.

Shortly after the sighting, it was decided the prodigal Bronx beaver should be named José, in honor of US representative José Serrano of New York’s Fifteenth Congressional District, a tireless champion of the river’s remediation. In a statement found on his website, he says, “If a beaver chooses to live in our river, we are succeeding in our goal of restoring a wildlife-friendly waterway.”

Two years later, in 2010, a second beaver was spotted on the Bronx River. This time, the naming was put to a vote, and by an overwhelming majority, the name Justin was selected in honor of Canadian pop star Justin Bieber.

According to Cox, José and Justin most likely came to New York City by way of Westchester County or Connecticut, a migration pattern from the suburbs to the big city that is similar to those of many Millennial humans. “It’s not so amazing that beavers headed here,” she says. “It’s more amazing that when they headed here, it worked out.” She is quick to point out that while a population of two beavers is small, it still qualifies as a “thriving” one. Their return is just one example of the Bronx River Alliance’s success in saving the once-blighted waterway. Fish and birds have also returned. An American mink has even been spotted.

As a way to showcase this winding ribbon of returned wildlife, the Bronx River Alliance hosts an annual flotilla, in which dozens of boats, canoes, and other buoyant vessels travel down the river together as a floating party. On other warm weekends, they offer guided canoe tours, which run for a couple of hours, usually on Saturday mornings.

One of the popular tour launch points is Shoelace Park, an aptly named string of park- land alongside the river, north of the botanical garden, east of Woodlawn Cemetery, and about two blocks west from the 219th Street subway station. Canoes, paddles, and life vests are provided as part of the tour. Those without a friend are paired up, and after a brief refresher on safety, it’s time to paddle.

Before long, the hum of street noise fades as the river approaches the Bronx River Forest, one of the few truly untouched sections of New York City. From there, the canoes drift through the botanical garden and eventually the Bronx Zoo.

The river is still not perfectly clean — there are still a few car tires and empty beer cans to be found. Even the occasional condom will float by or, as it’s affectionately called on the canoe tours, “a Bronx jellyfish.” For the most part, though, the river is serene and full of life coursing along the way. It’s an incredible experience. At times, it’s hard to believe it’s the Bronx. “People sometimes think that natural areas in New York City are pretend natural areas. They’re not really natural areas. They might say: ‘This isn’t really a river,’” says Cox. “Well, it is real! It really operates like a river. It really has lots of species of fish in it. It has lots of birds along it. It has the beavers too. … Yes, it’s real!”

There is no guarantee of seeing a beaver on the canoe tour, but still, the experience of communing with nature in the very middle of the Bronx, after decades of neglect, is pretty eye opening.

Excerpted from “Wild City: A Brief History of New York City in 40 Animals,” by Thomas Hynes, published this spring by Harper Collins. Copyright © 2020 by Thomas Hynes. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Kath Nash. Reprinted with permission from Harper Collins.

Thomas Hynes is a writer who lives in Brooklyn Heights with his wife, Veronica, and their dog, Ladybug. His work has been featured in Sierra Club, The Awl, the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum, Gothamist, Business Insider, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PRWeek, and Untapped New York.

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