CENTRAL PARK IN THE DARK
More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife
By Marie Winn.
304 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.
July 18, 2008
In her charming 1998 book, “Red-Tails in Love,” Marie Winn chronicled the story of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who made his home in the heart of New York City, romancing a series of mates over the years and siring nearly two dozen offspring from a nest high on the 12th-floor facade of a fancy Fifth Avenue apartment building — a story that would gain worldwide attention in 2004 when the residents of that Fifth Avenue co-op had the nest removed, provoking an outcry from bird lovers and even some hard-core, bird-agnostic New Yorkers.
In “Red-Tails in Love” Ms. Winn also gave us some enchanting glimpses of Central Park as the place where the wild things are, and her new book, “Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife,” is very much a companion volume to that earlier account. In these pages she gives us a delightful chronicle of the animals that come out to hunt and play in the park at night, while providing, in her operatic account of the ups and downs of a group of screech owls, a gripping narrative that rivals that of Pale Male and his mates.
Ms. Winn, a former nature columnist for The Wall Street Journal, is not only highly knowledgeable about the park and its many inhabitants, but she is also able to communicate her passion for this patch of urban wilderness with grace, humor and élan. She gives us affectionate portraits of the other wildlife aficionados who share her willingness to brave rain, snow, cold and dark to observe the park’s nocturnal critters.
At the same time, she conveys the magic and enduring mysteries of Central Park, a place, as she noted in her earlier book, that was created “as an improvement on the wild” where “city dwellers could come and enjoy the illusion of wilderness without any of its inconveniences or dangers” but that through nature’s alchemy has begun to turn from facsimile into the real thing.
Here, in an oasis of green sandwiched between apartment buildings of steel and concrete, live raccoons, squirrels, woodchucks, frogs, butterflies, mice, rats, bats, catfish, bass, carp, Canada geese, mallards, woodpeckers, vultures, kestrels, hawks and owls: a free-range menagerie rivaling the captive collection at the Central Park Zoo. Here, former pets — goldfish, turtles and rabbits, abandoned by their owners — have made new lives for themselves. Here, some 275 bird species have garnered the park accolades as one of the nation’s top birding sites, right up there with Yosemite and the Everglades.
Here, on the north side of the Great Lawn, Ms. Winn tells us, is a tree where hundreds of robins, mainly males in need of a bachelor pad while their mates sit on their eggs at home, gather to spend the night. Here, on the East Drive, a little south of the Boathouse Restaurant, is what Ms. Winn and her friends call the Moth Tree, a tree that used to ooze sap that attracted an astonishing variety of moths. (More recently, she reports, the ailing tree recovered, stopped leaking sap and hence became less of a moth magnet.)
The one problem with “Central Park in the Dark” is that Ms. Winn rarely records the year something happened, only the day and month, arguing that “exact dates aren’t particularly significant in natural history,” an observation that, even if true, still makes for irritation on the part of the lay reader. A smaller quibble is that she has also elected not to provide any pictures of the many species of birds, animals and insects that she discusses in these pages, even though she points out that she took hundreds of photographs that “helped me get the details right.”
So what exactly did Ms. Winn and her fellow night stalkers find in Central Park in the dark? They found more than 100 species of moths. They observed the weirdly complex and (to some) exuberant spectacle of slug sex. They witnessed the last stage of cicada metamorphosis, by which the dull, brown nymph is transformed into a gauzy green creature of fairy-tale beauty. They experienced the “quasi-religious exhilaration” of seeing owls make their evening fly-outs to hunt for food. And they used bat detectors — devices that translate “ultrasonic bat songs into frequencies people can hear” — to look for bats in the Ramble and the North Woods.
Ms. Winn tells us that one winter more than 1,000 grackles and starlings crowded into 3 of the 10 trees surrounding the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, suggesting that some atavistic memory caused the birds to pick a well-lighted, public place where nighttime predators might be less likely to attack. She tells us that a pheasant family with five chicks used to graze in the little meadow below the stairs to Belvedere Castle, where human fans worried that the birds were at risk from dogs let off their leashes at night. And she tells us that a great horned owl, a huge bird that reaches a height of 22 inches, once came to stay in Central Park for an unprecedented 40 days.
The most compelling story in this volume, however, is the saga of the little screech owls that were released as part of the parks department’s efforts to reintroduce 10 plant and 10 animal species into the city’s parks. Several were casualties of car collisions, an increasingly dire hazard given the birds’ flight patterns and increased auto traffic in the park. One seemed to have been eaten by the great horned owl. And another appeared to have been murdered by a different screech owl, which perhaps coveted its territory.
Ms. Winn’s accounts of the owls she and her friends came to know best — Little Red and her mate, known as the Riviera gray, and another pair known as Spiffy and Unmade — possess all the anthropomorphic charm of her telling of the ballad of Pale Male and his mates, and they leave the reader eager, upon finishing this book, to rush to Central Park in search of a glimpse of Harry Potter’s favorite birds.
“As I write these last words at the last possible moment before my book goes to press,” Ms. Winn says at the end, “the owl scene is hopping in Central Park. Three pairs of screech owls are nesting in various parts of the park — owl etiquette prevents me from telling you the exact location, I’m sorry to say, but someone will show you the way. Wear binoculars — that’s the key. And beware — owl-watching is addictive.”