Thursday, October 30, 2008

A morning in Athens Square Park

I claim a slat bench in the northwest corner of Athens Square Park, place binoculars in my lap, and enjoy a sip of coffee, purchased at a nearby 7-Eleven. The Japanese-owned chain convenience store was introduced to New York City just three years ago and, despite its suburban associations, has quickly spread throughout Manhattan and the boroughs. The neighborhood bodegas must learn to compete, or they will soon go the way of the dodo.

Another "invasive" colonizes Athens Park. House sparrows (Passer domesticus) chitter tirelessly in the lower branches of the park's London Planetrees (Platanus x acerifolia). Like most Americans, these birds trace their origins to the Old World. The species was introduced to the United States from Britain in the mid-19th century. Also called English sparrows, the adaptable and hearty birds are now abundant over most of the globe, particularly in urban locales.

Because the male's markings are seasonally indistinct and the female's coloring so drab, urban bird watchers aren't much excited by house sparrows. Furthermore, the species' ubiquity and "invasive" status ensure that they are the object of some animus. Not so for me; I have a soft spot for the trophic generalists, those species able to eke out a living - even thrive - across a range of unexploited ecological niches.

Prince among the trophic generalists is the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). Clothed in a white-speckled, iridescent suit of blues, blacks, purples and brown, the starling is dashing, if despised. Like so many American immigrants, the bird made a fresh start in New York just before the turn of the 20th century. According to recent estimates, the approximately 200 million starlings that call North America home all descend, Old Testament-like, from one group of birds (numbering between 60 and 100) released into Central Park in 1890. Shakespeare enthusiast Eugene Schieffelin believed his goal of introducing all bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare was a worthy one. Legion biologists disagree.

I'm not sure that their concern is wholly legitimate. The xenophobic couching of the terms - "invasive," "alien," "exotic" - is worrisome, and I also favor the realist's long view. Given the opportunity, all species spread when and where they can, and ecosystems, like climates, are forever in flux.

A starling inspects the base of a plinth atop which sits the bust of Aristotle. On the square's northern edge, two carelessly discarded cans of Arizona iced tea and a bottle of NesQuik chocolate milk lie at Socrates' feet. The word "SEX" is crudely scratched into the philosopher's bronze.

Heading south on 30th Street, an impatient driver pumps his car horn, producing a series of agitated beeps that alarm three pigeons, or rock dove (Columba livia), pecking at the ground near a workboot-wearing, cigarette-smoking man in his early forties. Butts litter the paved park. Cigarette smoking is the unofficial national pastime of the Greek-American men who frequent Athens Square Park.

Including me, there are four men here this Tuesday morning at 7:00 AM. The other three are smoking. We cast occasional glances at one another. My binoculars and note-taking seem especially irksome to one.

Behind my bench, heavy-winged houseflies (Musca domestica) buzz uncertainly about the shaded trunks of thin Eastern Redcedars(Juniperis virginiana), planted in a row along the park's western fence. As I watch the insects, sunlight reveals for a moment an unanchored silk, the remnant of a spider's obscure industry.

The Redcedar's sky-blue berries remind me of Virginia winters. I recall scrubbing sap from sticky hands after chopping and stacking cedar logs. My father explained to me that cedar is a good burning wood, but that was little consolation at the time.

A municipal garbage truck heaves and moans west on 30th Avenue. Not long thereafter, the city's Parks & Recreation trash collector arrives in his dark green uniform. He collects the more obvious litter with a long-handled claw. Socrates' cans and bottle go with him.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2008


Caril Chasens said...

Urban wildlife...such a wild field for evolution, as species enter new and changing habitat... There must be some selection of feral beasties.
The last time I was in NYC, around 1965, I looked out the window over the alley.... two animals stood up. Bulldogs? No, a pair of enormous alley cats. My friend claimed that they had gotten big to prey on the enormous rats. And alligators, the source of such allegations.............

Hungry Hyaena said...


I haven't seen many over-sized alley cats in my time here, but there are definitely a surplus of gators. ;)