12 Ways to Find Nature in the Big City

Finding the wild amidst skyscrapers and taxis.

By Amy Wray

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New York City may seem an unlikely habitat for someone studying ecology or other subjects rooted in field biology. But in fact, in many ways it is the perfect home.

A biologist might spend a few months at a time in the field but the most time-consuming parts of research often rely on lab facilities, museum collections, or multiple overheating laptops that just never seem to have enough memory. So while seasonal fieldwork to collect samples might take place in the remote wilderness, the rest of the process may very well happen in a larger city. This means that big cities, like Manhattan where I live, can end up attracting many professional wildlife scientists who aren’t necessarily studying pigeons, subway rats, or bedbugs.

Work, vacations, and even the occasional strategically-located conference sometimes offer the chance to visit glamorous biodiversity hotspots — but not everyone has the chance to visit the Amazonian rainforest or the Great Barrier Reef on the regular. While urban ecology is its own exciting field of study, there are also plenty of ways for off-the-clock scientists as well as casual biology fans to connect with nature while in the city. For both professional biologists and general wildlife enthusiasts who may be drawn to large cities for work, school, or other reasons, an urban lifestyle can still provide plenty of access to nature-friendly hobbies and activities. Surprisingly, a huge amount of interesting and unique biodiversity does exist even in the city — if you know what to look for and where to find it.

12. Enjoy the park… by light or by dark

Perhaps the most obvious, but certainly not overrated, option for finding wildlife is among large urban parks. Central Park provides 843 acres of paths, gardens, and sprawling lawns, and anyone looking for a bit of an escape from the city can easily relax among the bird, insect, and plant life of this beautiful space. The park, however, can also provide some more unusual wildlife sightings during its off-peak hours: at dawn, dusk, or nighttime. When the sun sets in the city, animals like owls, bats, and moths come out to explore. By night, parks in large cities not only provide an entirely different array of wildlife, but are also generally more quiet and peaceful — providing a break from the stress of the city without even having to leave it. Depending on the park, you might also want to carry some bear spray to feel safer (and even more outdoorsy). 

11. Get wild at your own personal zoo

Speaking of off-peak hours, a great time to visit the zoo is during bad weather. If it’s raining or snowing, bundle up and brave the elements and you might even have a normally-crowded place like the Central Park Zoo all to yourself. Without noisy crowds, both you and the animals will be less stressed and you’ll have a better chance of getting a great look at some awesome wildlife — you might even catch them playing in the snow!

10. Look up little parks

Big parks aren’t the only places to find nature in a city — smaller spaces like “pocket parks” or community gardens are also great places to find turtle ponds, rare flowers, sculptural gardens, and more without leaving the city. Web searches make it easy to find these small oases, and exploring on your own could also lead to finding the perfect shady (or sunny) spot to relax and enjoy a bit of nature.

9. Befriend birds of a feather

Even outside of the park, wildlife like birds of prey can also be seen from time to time. A red-tailed hawk even resides on the Columbia University campus! Feral birds can also be interesting to the urban wildlife watcher, and cities like San Francisco and New York both have established populations of wild parrots. These colorful invaders can be found around Telegraph Hill and Brooklyn, respectively.

8. Meet up with marine life

Access to water was once essential for transportation, and today many big cities are still found near bodies of water. Rivers, lakes, and oceans not only provide beautiful scenery against a skyline, but also provide homes for hugely diverse wildlife. In New York, geese and mallards might be the most common sight — but other ducks, cormorants, seals, and even whales can also be spotted with a bit of luck.

7. Fish for unexpected aquariums

Aquatic life isn’t just restricted to naturally occurring bodies of water, and you don’t have to go all the way to Coney Island to see a great aquarium (but it’s still worth it if you can!). Lots of restaurants, hotels, and bars have fish tanks, including my favorite in the lobby of New York's Kimberly Hotel — which is supposedly the largest privately owned saltwater aquarium .

6. Explore exotic tastes

Botanic gardens are a great place to see plants, but they can also provide important habitat for other wildlife. However, if you're looking for exotic plants, you can also find them closer to home in bodegas and markets. Neighborhoods like Chinatown are also great places to find biodiverse food plants from around the world — including beautiful, hard-to-find items like durian and dragonfruit.

5. Flyaway home

Large cities generally have big airports, which can makes them a good choice for field biologists who travel internationally for research. Airports, which are often found near the outskirts of large cities, can also provide important habitat for local wildlife. JFK airport, for example, shares space with a 9,000 acre wetland — the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge — which provides habitat for more than 300 species of birds. Since people need to get to and from these locations anyway, urban wetlands near airports are also generally easy to access and can even be reached by public transportation.

4. Slither into niche conventions

Even near large cities, different animal and exotic pet conventions can offer a chance to see exotic captive animals up close. Reptile shows — expos where vendors and pet enthusiasts come together to display amphibians, reptiles, arthropods, and even crocodilians — happen periodically all over North America and can be an interesting place to see rare animals and unusual varieties up close. Although aspects of the reptile trade — for which vendors and buyers travel may over state boundaries depending on lax pet regulations— may be ethically questionable or even illegal, these types of conventions do provide an interesting look at a truly unique subculture of animal enthusiasts.

3. Follow nearby known wildlife sightings

In New York, venturing into the outer boroughs can also provide some wildlife sightings — including a famous beaver who lives in the Bronx river, and deer, marine mammals, and wild turkeys which can be spotted on and around Staten Island.

2. Take a two-wheeled trip

If you have access to a bike, exploring the outskirts of the city can be fantastic for seeing some wildlife. The New Jersey Palisades are easily accessible by taking the slightly-terrifying bike path over the George Washington Bridge. Wildlife like Peregrine falcons, other raptors, swallowtail butterflies, snakes, and frogs are often seen at this scenic park along the Hudson River. Afterwards, you can also brag about your sustainable mode of transportation and how good you look in spandex.

1. Just get out of the city

For a true sense of escape, leave the city from time to time. Getting away from it all doesn’t necessarily mean venturing deep into the wilderness. Fantastic options are generally accessible by public transportation or by a surprisingly short drive. While getting into the wild can be difficult for wildlife enthusiasts relegated to life in a large city, nature is everywhere if you actively seek it out. Hopefully, these suggestions can provide some alternatives for finding the natural world — and perhaps can even make up for all those times you’ve seen a pigeon trying to eat a cigarette.

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Amy is a Master's student at Columbia University, where she studies pathogen diversity in common vampire bats. In her spare time she enjoys swimming in the ocean, reading about literary theory, wrangling chinchillas, and becoming friends with as many other people named Amy as possible.

Follow @amykwray

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