City dwellers discover that the forest will have its revenge

Inching his way along a 10-inch stone ledge outside the 27th floor of New York Hospital, Christopher Nadareski has a bird's eye view of Manhattan.

A wildlife biologist for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Nadareski slides toward a nest of peregrine falcon chicks, which he will examine before applying a leg band. It's a daunting task, with Nadareski wearing a heavily padded snowmobile suit and a white motorcycle helmet as protection from the birds' nipping beaks and powerful talons.

Even more formidable, however, was the journey of the falcons. Driven to near-extinction in 1970 by the pesticide DDT, peregrine falcons later repopulated after biologists released the birds in New York State and elsewhere in the Northeast. In 1983, the first two pairs of falcons returned to New York City, nesting on the underside of the Verrazano-Narrows and the Throngs Neck bridges. Today, New York boasts more falcon pairs than any city in the world, with 12 nests on bridges and buildings.

But the typical meeting of man and beast tends to be fraught with tension and turf battles. In her new book, "Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City," nature writer Anne Matthews says the real problems begin when humans stop saying "aww" and start dialing 911. More people and animals live in close proximity now than at any other time in American history, Matthews says.

Matthews takes us on a journey across the meshing landscape from high above the city, inside falcon nests, to its underbelly, where 28 million rats inhabit the subways and drainage pipes. She expertly layers in details of how nature and skyscrapers stand side-by-side.

Along the way she gives us an interesting history of New York City and its build-up, and of the wildlife that has come back to inhabit the remaining natural habitats in the city, which include estuaries, mud flats, forests, salt marshes, and 28,000 acres of park land.

The writing is rich, colorful, packed with facts, and could cause even the most jaded New Yorker to see the city in a new light. Readers who enjoy John McPhee or Mike Davis likely will find this an exciting read.

The book would benefit, however, from some photos of the skyscraper falcon nests, birds migrating down Midtown Manhattan avenues, or even a few raccoons nesting in city drains.

Matthews uses New York as a bellwether, "the miner's canary of American city life." However, she gives ample examples of other cities and suburbs where people have pushed back the environment, and where nature now is reclaiming some of its turf.

Wild turkeys forage in New York's Central Park, raccoons raid refrigerators in Queens, and even a black bear was captured on a golf course in the tony New York suburb of White Plains. In Washington, D.C., a deer jumped through a window at Dulles airport, and beavers felled cherry trees in an attempt to dam the Tidal Basin.

Even suburbs are under siege, with owls coming to pick off chihuahuas and other small pets, foxes lingering outside living room windows to watch television, and mountain lions cooling off under garden sprinklers in southern California. While animals and birds adapt easily to the ready food and plush comforts of city and suburban life, so far the two-legged dwellers have been slow to accommodate their natural brethren.

But there are some exceptions. For example, the Empire State Building's management sometimes dims the lights during migration season, so as not to confuse birds steering by the stars. More likely than not, however, migrating birds end up circling the brightly lit Chrysler Building or World Trade Center until they die of exhaustion.

Matthews fairly weighs the impact of wildlife reclaiming cities, including the introduction of diseases like West Nile virus and exacerbation of allergies. She also muses about the future of an "unnatural wonder" like New York City, drawing from past events. By 2100, for example, the superstorms that have been striking a few times a century may hit New York every five years. Water could flood major sections of New York, driving millions of rats and garbage to center city.

Matthews wraps up with the ultimate perspective: 15,000 years ago, ice covered New York, and it will do so again 15,000 years from now, no matter how hard man resists.

r Lori Valigra is a freelance science writer living in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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