Friday, June 11, 2010

Chipmunks in Central Park?

Eastern Chipmunk [photographed in New Jersey]
Photo by LLOYD SPITALNIK http://lloydspitalnikphotos,com

Last week I received an e-mail from Judy Jamison, a birdwatcher I'd met recently during Steve Quinn's Spring Migration bird walks. She reported a non-avian sighting:


Last Saturday, June 5, about 9:30 a.m, I was walking my dog with a friend, Isabelle Manuel. We were waiting to cross from west to east at the traffic light near Summer Stage, when a chipmunk, fleeing two attacking English sparrows, streaked past us in the teeth of oncoming traffic, which it obviously found less of a threat than the sparrows, and made it safely to the other side. Although my two grown children both inform me it is nothing unusual - that they have both seen chipmunks in Central Park., it is a first for me.

Judy Jamison
Had I been there, it would have been a first for me too. In all my years as a Central Park Regular I've never come upon a chipmunk. In July 2008, around the time Central Park in the Dark was published, I was asked to be the week's "expert" on the City Room blog of the NY Times. [ ]The subject, naturally, was wildlife in Central Park, and one of the first questions posted was about chipmunks. Here's the Q & A from the City Room blog, as it appeared on July 24, 2008:

Q. Why are there no chipmunks in Central Park?

Winn's A:

I’ve been looking for an answer to that question for a long time. Since there are plenty of chipmunks in Prospect Park, I thought I’d see if Rob Jett, a great birder and naturalist who lives in Brooklyn, might come up with an answer. His City Birder blog has been a source of information about urban wildlife and natural history for many years. In fact he came up with a fascinating theory, the first good one I’ve heard. I’m ready to buy it. Here’s what he wrote:

Hi Marie,

That's a very good question. I've asked a lot rangers, biologists and naturalists, but nobody ever had a good answer. My guess is that it has something to do with the relatively high percentage of remnant forests versus open habitats.

Much of Prospect Park, as we now know it, was already forested. It's not unreasonable to assume that the present chipmunk populations descended from ones that were in the forests when urban designers arrived with bulldozers and axes. I don't think Central Park had the same extent of Northeastern hardwood forests as Prospect Park. If it ever did, it was removed and replanted by city planners.

This is from the website " Central Park History ":

"It took a massive human effort to transform the rocky and swampy site that the city had purchased in 1856 into a landscaped park. By the time Central Park was completed, workers had gone over every foot of ground, raising or lowering the surface; they had transformed natural drainage courses into artificial subterranean waterways and created the illusions of picturesque abundance and distant prospects. In the first five years, laborers excavated, moved, or brought into the park nearly 2.5 million cubic yards of stone and earth -- enough to raise the level of a football field eighty stories. With pickaxes, hammers, shovels, and 166 tons of gunpowder (more than the amount fired at the Battle of Gettysburg), they cut through more than 300,000 cubic yards of gneiss rock veined with granite. Stone breakers crushed 35,000 cubic yards of this rock into paving stone. Contractors supplied 6 million bricks, 35,000 barrels of cement, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel, and 19,000 cubic yards of sand. Gardeners fertilized the ground with more than 40,000 cubic yards of manure and compost and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. Out of this immense expenditure of labor and materials -- 20,000 men and $5 million by 1866 -- emerged the park's drives, paths, bridges, hills, lakes, lawns, and scenic vistas. [Ch62]"

If Eastern Chipmunks populations ever existed within the area that is now Central Park, they would certainly have been displaced by all the construction. They need woodlands, but now they have them - Reintroduction program, anyone? ;-)

Cheers, Rob

PS from Marie in 2010:

I have heard of a few chipmunk sightings in Central Park over the years, one by Michael Bonifanti, another by Alex Wilson. Both are accomplished birders. But [like Judy Jamison] all reported seeing a single chipmunk on a single occasion. The general consensus has always been that these sightings represented escaped pets. There has never been any evidence of a breeding population of these small striped mammals in Central Park. So the mystery remains.

If anyone has any other chipmunk sightings to report, or any other theories about their absence from Central Park, I'd be eager to receive them here.