by Savannah Mazda
Living in a fairly quiet, manicured neighbourhood in Queens, there are certain things I never expect to see. Wildlife happens to be one of them. I’ll never forget the day that I was walking my own rather-manicured additions to the neighbourhood, my Yorkie-Poodle mix, Daisy and my Maltese-Poodle mix, Muppet, and I saw just this: out of no where, a swooping bird of prey came down and tried to make off with Muppet, in the middle of a Queens park. My stepmother heroically managed to save the dog, but unfortunately the bird turned its attention elsewhere, and a common pigeon was less lucky. We later identified the attempted dog-snatcher as a red-tailed hawk, and while I couldn’t believe that this thing I had always associated with the wild was living and hunting in my neighbourhood, I later found out that there is a well-known nest of red-tailed hawks living not too far from me, in Astoria, Queens (Yolton, urbanhawks.blog.com, p. 1). It just goes to show that my neighbourhood of Woodside, Queens, despite being manicured and man-made, still has diverse animal and plant life.
Queens has been growing in diversity and development since the early 1900s, over one hundred years ago now. The boom followed the building of the LIRR, which made Queens incredibly commuter-friendly in a way that it had not been before. Suddenly, real-estate developers had an interest in Queens, and the previously fairly undeveloped county saw new buildings and settlements erected practically overnight. One hundred years ago saw the population of Queens practically double, and all because of the addition of a train-line. This was the beginning of the change of the face of Queens, of urbanization, and of the diverse Queens we know today (Fons, cooperator.com, p. 10-12).
The real change and diversification of Queens, however, at least in terms of the human population, occurred just under 50 years ago, in 1968, when “Congress restructured the legislation on immigration from third-world countries,” leading to a surge in immigration, which in turn led to extreme diversification of the population of Queens. This also resulted in new buildings being erected, new stores opening, and a general cultural explosion as immigrants from all walks of life settled in Queens and made it their home. While it could be said that Queens lost some of its natural wildlife in terms of plants and animals because of the urbanization of the neighbourhood, it also grew in diversity because of the new population of people, such as Russians, Greeks, Asians, and the Irish. (Fons, cooperator.com, p. 13). Even today their influence can be seen in so many neighborhoods, such as the heavily-Irish populated Woodside, full of pub trivia and fish and chips, or Flushing Queens, which could be said to rival Chinatown.
While it is sometimes hard to find examples of really wild wildlife in New York City (excluding of course, our familiar friends the roaches, rats, and raccoons), there are actually many species of plants and animals that are native to Queens, and indeed the greater New York area, as one poor puppy of mine found out first hand. I’ve already spoken about the family of red-tailed hawks in Astoria, but in fact New York is home to a number of birds, including songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors, ranging from birds as large and imposing as eagles down to the common sparrow that New Yorkers often see pecking up breadcrumbs from the street. There are also many different kinds of mammals native to Queens and New York, as well as one marsupial, the opossum. As for the rest of them, although not many of the larger ones can be found inside the urban city any more, some of the mammals native to New York include mice, rats, skunks, squirrels, weasels, raccoons, rabbits, bats, and even larger animals like bears and cougars, although it is uncommon to sight the latter animals inside the city outside of a zoo setting. Foxes, however, are common, and often rummage through garbage for food, just like raccoons. Aquatic rodents, such as beavers, are also native to New York, and can still be seen in some places where there are bodies of water (nyfalls.com).
The native plant life of New York and more specifically Queens is equally diverse. In terms of native trees, Queens is home to a variety of Maples, Birches, Ashes, and Oaks, as well as the Poplar, Hornbeam, Hackberry, Redbud, Fringetree, Flowering Dogwood, and many others. It is also home to a variety of shrubs, such as Alders and Chokeberries, and four different kinds of Sumac. The native flowers of New York State are too numerous, but it is home to a number of perennials that thrive in both the sun and the shade, switch grass, butterfly weed, wild ginger, and the yellow trout lilly, to name a few (plantnative.org). Although these species are native to Queens, the plant life in my neighbourhood appears to be manicured and planted by humans, with the exception of perhaps the trees.
When I walk around my neighbourhood, one of the first things I am always struck by is how much greener it is than it appears. I don’t think of myself as living in a particularly rural or even suburban area, but when I look around and see all of the trees and flowers and plants I realise that perhaps I am luckier than I realise, especially considering I actually live right across the road from a park. There aren’t many species that I see in my excursions that technically fit into the label of being ‘native,’ as most of them were planted by people to make for a nice living environment, but one thing you will always see in my neighbourhood at certain times of year is Maple Sycamore helicopter seed pods littered all over the ground (plants.usa.gov). The trees in my neighbourhood are perhaps the most ‘natural’ of the plant life, along with the plants colloquially known as weeds. One thing that isn’t hard to find in Woodside, Queens, are dandelions (botanical.com). They pop up everywhere, in the cracks of pavements, on the side of the road. I happen to enjoy seeing them, whether or not they’re weeds or pests, because there’s something simple about them that makes me happy, the idea of this little plant that happens to crop up everywhere you go.
Some of the plants that I saw were clearly planted in order to be aesthetically pleasing to the neighbourhood, because while people here do not have yards, there is planting space on the roads. For example, I observed neat patches of daffodils (theflowerexpert.com) and rose bushes (heirloomroses.com), and next to that a well-groomed patch of what I believe to be horsemint (eattheweeds.com). They were all planted around the same place, and at the very least I think the roses and the mint were planted somewhat for smell, as that whole corner of the block had an amazing scent. The daffodils weren’t actually in bloom, but I recognised them right away, just by sight. Another plant that I found which was obviously planted by people for aesthetic purposes was a group of pansies (gardening.about.com). Overall, I discovered that the plant-life where I live seems to be very deliberately planted, and yet there was diversity in it too, not to mention that there were still things like dandelions popping up everywhere, leading to a diverse mix of native plants (trees and dandelions), and implants brought in by humans. All of them contributed to the greenery in my neighbourhood, and they make for a pleasant walk and calming environment.
Among the greenery of my neighborhood you will often find little furry feet trotting along and on occasion, but while some of them are native New Yorkers, the majority of the ones I see on a daily basis and/or interact with are people’s pets, which consist primarily of dogs. As I’ve mentioned, I have two dogs, a Maltese-Poodle and a Yorkie-Poodle. My neighbour has a Pitbull, and while I walked around I came across a yellow Labrador as well. And of course, there is the tale of the now-infamous (at least in my family), dog-snatching hawk. Also common in my neighbourhood are pigeons and mice, in fact I have a very small house-guest currently residing in my kitchen. We’ve yet to collect rent, but needless to say we hope he won’t be staying for long.
Diversity can mean many things, and just because an area has lots of plant and animal life that came to be at the hands of human, does not mean that the community is not diverse. Regardless of what outside things are brought in, certain things seem to push through regardless, creating a sort of marriage between the manicured and the wild. Animals will sometimes invade you home, regardless of whether you want them to or not, and at certain times of year, you won’t be able to take a step without the crunch of helicopter seed pods under your feet. It is the mix of new and old that makes Queens unique, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re looking for a red-tailed hawk or a teeny tiny dog, look hard enough, and eventually you’ll find it. Muppet is doing just fine, by the way, and seems no worse for the wear despite his harrowing hawk encounter. In fact he still rushes to the park with excitement. No, he’s not concerned, it’s me that ends up keeping an eye on the skies.
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Yolton, Bruce. “Urban Hawks.” ‘Urban Hawks’ N.p., n.d. Web. 17 June 2015.