Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye
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?
December 6, 2021: This article has been updated to reflect changes since its original publishing.
Part of what makes Central Park so special is the diverse wildlife population that resides here. And the habits of our feathered, furry, and scaled neighbors don't just pique the interest of Holden Caulfield. Every winter, visitors from all over the world ask us: Where do the animals that make the woodlands and water bodies buzz during the warmer seasons go in the cold winter months?
When the animal population is faced with freezing temperatures and icy conditions, ‘tis the season for survival. While many migrate to warmer climates, plenty of mammals, birds, and reptiles have adapted to survive the cold, employing various winter strategies that will get them to spring.
The Central Park Conservancy cares for these creatures’ habitat year-round. We leave snags (dead or dying trees) in the woodlands that provide refuge and an abundant supply of food, and we prioritize nourishing native plant species throughout the Park. But 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 winter.
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.
Unfortunately, many people are misinformed about raccoons, which has devastating ramifications for these animals. It’s completely normal for a healthy raccoon to be out and about at all hours as they've adapted to stay awake when food is most readily available. If you do spot a raccoon in the daytime, they should not be considered dangerous or assumed to carry rabies (which is extremely rare). Just keep a respectful distance and continue on your way.
Red-tailed hawks are year-round residents of the Park (in fact, Ranger Rob has rescued and released rehabilitated red-tailed hawks into Central Park on numerous occasions!). 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 raptors (or a determined blue jay). 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 human couple during an interior decorating project.”
That's right! Coyotes have been present in New York City since the 1930s and spotted in areas like Central Park's Ramble and the North Woods. Their coats adapt to the changing seasons, becoming fuller and longer in the colder months. Coyotes also mate for life, and late winter is their peak mating season. Coyote pups are born approximately two months later, and once they are approximately 9 months old, they usually begin to venture off on their own. Coyote sightings are rare, but these omnivorous canines become more visible during this time. It's important to leash your dog, keep your distance, and remember—the Park's 843 acres are big enough for all of us to enjoy throughout the year!
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 eat 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, relying on heat from their environment in a process known as brumation (whereas warm-blooded animals hibernate). There, they conserve energy until the water thaws and it’s time to head up to warmer temperatures.
We didn't forget about you, Holden! 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 wildlife mentioned here have adapted to grueling New York City winters, the same sadly does not hold true for all animals. People often mistakenly release domestic animals into urban greenspaces. This most frequently happens to domestic ducks, who cannot fly. Also unlike their wild counterparts, they don’t have the natural instincts to forage for food or defend themselves from predators. When abandoned in City parks, most don’t survive more than 24 hours. Those who do will die from lack of open water and food come winter. If you see an animal that doesn’t seem to belong, contact an Urban Park Ranger or a licensed rehabilitator who can help get the animal to safety.
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 water bodies 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 and carrying out any trash that you bring into the Park rather than creating large piles at garbage and recycling receptacles. Non-food items, such as plastic wrappers, fishing line, and masks, pose an enormous threat to wildlife. Together, we can ensure that Central Park provides a welcoming and sustainable environment for all.
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