You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?
—Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye
Every winter, visitors from all over the world ask the same question. Part of what makes Central Park so special is the diverse wildlife population that resides here, but why is it that the animals that make the woodlands and waterbodies buzz during the warmer seasons seem to vanish altogether in the cold winter months?
When the animal population is faced with freezing temperatures and icy conditions, ‘tis the season for survival. But there’s no need to worry — the mammals, birds, and reptiles that call Central Park home (either temporarily or year-round) have adapted to survive the cold, employing various winter strategies that will get them to spring.
While the Central Park Conservancy cares for these creatures’ habitat, it’s our partners at NYC Parks who manage all animal activity. We spoke with Sergeant Rob Mastrianni of the Urban Park Rangers, who gave us a peek into the many fascinating ways that Central Park’s wildlife makes it through the cold winter months.
When the temperature dips below 20 degrees, how do these notoriously opportunistic woodland residents stay warm? Like other snow-dwelling mammals (ahem, humans), they put on a coat! Raccoons’ coats will grow thicker during the winter, trapping in heat. To best take advantage of that additional warmth, they stick together in a group, cuddling in hollowed out trees and other natural nooks. During summer and fall, raccoons will eat a lot of fat, storing most of it in their tail which they use like a blanket in winter. Raccoons aren’t true hibernators. However, when food is scarce, they can sleep for a week or two curled up in a reduced metabolic state known as torpor.
Red-tailed hawks are year-round residents of the Park (in fact, Ranger Rob recently rescued and released a rehabilitated juvenile red-tailed hawk into Central Park). During the colder months, these birds see to their “romantic affairs” — as Ranger Rob calls them — to prepare for the winter. They mate for life, so winter is a time to rekindle their courtship. You can find hawk couples soaring together in January, preparing for nesting season (which begins around mid-March) and defending their territory from other migrating raptors. During nesting, they’ll gather branches and sticks to build or maintain their nest in time for egg-laying. According to Ranger Rob, male and female hawks arrange and re-arrange their partner’s twig placement, “like a real couple during an interior decoration project.”
From left to right: the great horned owl, long-eared owl, and barred owl.
In winters past, Central Park has seen a migration of different types of North American owls ― including barred owls, long-eared owls, and great horned owls. Ranger Rob recalls that historically, the Arthur Ross Pinetum has been an ideal winter home for migratory owls. The evergreen trees provide leaf cover for them to hide from other birds who “mob” them during the day, attempting to scare them away. Hidden in coniferous trees, owls will sleep against the trunk for camouflage during the day, and make Central Park their home for a few weeks (sometimes until March).
Black-capped chickadees are almost universally considered “cute” because of their oversized, round head, tiny body, and unrelenting curiosity. Their migration to Central Park is driven by the search for sustenance ― they’ll search for seeds, insects, and winter berries. Thanks to the Conservancy’s efforts to plant appropriate food sources for the animals, a good meal is easy to come by in the Park. They’ll also take fat from dead animals, which as Ranger Rob notes, is “not as cute.”
Squirrels begin their winter prep in the fall. They’ll collect acorns (sometimes over 300 for one squirrel) and bury them to stockpile for the winter. Squirrels have a great sense of smell, so they can find their buried acorns. But they don’t always find every last one, which is why they are oftentimes credited with accidentally planting oak trees!
Turtles are an inevitable summer sight, resting along the shores of Central Park’s water bodies. But during the winter, it’s as though they just disappear. But where to? In what Ranger Rob calls an “incredible adaptation to avoid the cold winter,” Central Park’s turtles bury themselves under mud at the bottom of frozen water bodies. There, they hibernate, conserving energy until the water thaws and it’s time to head up to warmer temperatures.
After smaller water bodies — such as the Pond — freeze over, ducks will begin the search for open water. If you don’t see them at the Harlem Meer or the Lake, you’ll find them at the Reservoir, where the water’s surface is usually too large to freeze. The Reservoir is a popular winter destination for birders looking to document waterfowl, as the population also includes migratory ducks (including ruddy and bufflehead ducks). In a collaborative survival move, ducks on the Reservoir will oftentimes swim together in a circle to bring food to the surface of the water.
While the Park’s animals shift gears to survive the winter frost, our work to maintain their natural habitat continues throughout the colder months. From scheduling construction projects around migratory bird season, to creating shallow waterbodies that promote a diverse aquatic population, the Conservancy’s landscape architects are mindful not only of the Park’s visitors, but of the wildlife that calls Central Park home. Visitors can also do their part to keep the animals safe by not feeding them. Together, we can ensure that Central Park provides a welcoming and sustainable environment for all, including the animals.