The best books to learn about the surprising history of New York City wildlife

Who am I?

I was drawn to the topic because I love everything about New York City. But, I also loved how the topic seemed at odds with itself. New York City wildlife felt like a contradiction of terms. Sure, there might be some rats, pigeons, and cockroaches here, but that was it. Well I was very wrong. Learning about the city’s natural history and legacy of wildlife allowed me to learn about the city in a whole new way. It’s also a great comeback story and it has been so inspiring to learn – and see! – how effective a few short decades of environmental regulations have been in making this a greener city. 


I wrote...

Wild City: A Brief History of New York City in 40 Animals

By Thomas Hynes,

Book cover of Wild City: A Brief History of New York City in 40 Animals

What is my book about?

Wild City is an account of New York City’s rich legacy of wildlife and natural wealth. This book is a story of how the wild world has collided with our built urban landscape over the centuries. It is also a comeback story about a city on the edge of environmental ruin that has since become a greener and cleaner habitat for all species. The book’s 40 profiled animals are divided into five sections: natives, celebrities, workers, returned, and newcomers. These surprising and hopefully funny stories of our nonhuman neighbors offer a novel and usually unsung perspective on the history of New York City, and provide a concrete example of how environmental regulations and advocacy can help even an artificial urban ecosystem thrive. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

Thomas Hynes Why did I love this book?

If the United States had been settled west-to-east, there’s a good chance Manhattan would have been made a national park. That’s how biologically diverse this city is at its core. This book provides the broadest view of New York City history by describing the area before European settlement and the ensuing urbanization. This book uses historical maps, GPS data, and other inputs to reveal the surprisingly rich natural history of New York City, while also providing a thoughtful analysis of how dramatically things have changed, as well as a compelling framework for a more sustainable future for New York. 

By Eric W. Sanderson, Markley Boyer (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Mannahatta as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson first set foot on the land that would become Manhattan. Today, it's difficult to imagine what he saw, but for more than a decade, landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson has been working to do just that. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City is the astounding result of those efforts, reconstructing in words and images the wild island that millions now call home. By geographically matching an 18th-century map with one of the modern city, examining volumes of historic documents, and collecting and analyzing scientific data, Sanderson re-creates the forests of Times Square, the…


Book cover of Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York

Thomas Hynes Why did I love this book?

Gotham Unbound tells the story of the 400 years since Europeans settled and urbanized New York City and what impact that has had on the ecosystem. Spanning from Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609 to Hurricane Sandy in 2012, this book is crucial in understanding how New York City has physically and fundamentally changed in a relatively short amount of time, including the many men from Peter Stuyvesant to Robert Moses to Donald Trump who tried to shape and mold the city to their vision. 

By Ted Steinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gotham Unbound as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2015 PROSE Award for US History

A "fascinating, encyclopedic history...of greater New York City through an ecological lens" (Publishers Weekly, starred review)-the sweeping story of one of the most man-made spots on earth.

Gotham Unbound recounts the four-century history of how hundreds of square miles of open marshlands became home to six percent of the nation's population. Ted Steinberg brings a vanished New York back to vivid, rich life. You will see the metropolitan area anew, not just as a dense urban goliath but as an estuary once home to miles of oyster reefs, wolves, whales, and…


Book cover of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City

Thomas Hynes Why did I love this book?

This field guide is a thorough almanac of all the surprising critters that call New York City home. Each page carries with it historical context along with biological information and gorgeous illustrations of each individual species. This comprehensive catalog of New York City’s flora and fauna is a must-have for any urban wildlife devotee. 

By Leslie Day, Mark A. Klingler (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York just might be the most biologically diverse city in temperate America. The five boroughs sit atop one of the most naturally rich sites in North America, directly under the Atlantic migratory flyway, at the mouth of a 300-mile-long river, and on three islands-Manhattan, Staten, and Long. Leslie Day, a New York City naturalist, reveals this amazing world in her Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City. Combining the stunning paintings of Mark A. Klingler with a variety of photographs and maps, this book is a complete guide for the urban naturalist-with tips on identifying the…


Book cover of Heartbeats in the Muck: The History, Sea Life, and Environment of New York Harbor

Thomas Hynes Why did I love this book?

Written forty years after the Clean Water Act, this book discusses the arc New York City’s harbor took from biologically productive asset to deeply degraded dumping ground to recently rehabilitated ecosystem. This book is particularly interesting in how it provides a vantage point to what is going on below the surface, where wildlife thrives but is rarely noticed. 

By John Waldman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Heartbeats in the Muck as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Heartbeats in the Muck traces the incredible arc of New York Harbor's environmental history. Once a pristine estuary bristling with oysters and striped bass and visited by sharks, porpoises, and seals, the harbor has been marked by centuries of rampant industrialization and degradation of its natural environment. Garbage dumping, oil spills, sewage sludge, pesticides, heavy metals, poisonous PCBs, landfills, and dredging greatly diminished life in the harbor, in some places to nil.
Now, forty years after the Clean Water Act began to resurrect New York Harbor, John Waldman delivers a new edition of his New York Society Library Award-winning book.…


Book cover of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City

Thomas Hynes Why did I love this book?

This book revealed a pastoral Manhattan few of us could imagine, including feral pigs that roamed the streets, and horses that transported everything and everyone around town. Set in the transformative 1800s when New York City underwent unprecedented urbanization, this book shows how farmers and other New Yorkers who worked the land were ultimately squeezed from Manhattan for more profitable tenants, and how Central Park, and other open spaces, sought to replicate all that recently displaced nature.   

By Catherine McNeur,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Taming Manhattan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

George Perkins Marsh Prize, American Society for Environmental History
VSNY Book Award, New York Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America
Hornblower Award for a First Book, New York Society Library
James Broussard Best First Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic

With pigs roaming the streets and cows foraging in the Battery, antebellum Manhattan would have been unrecognizable to inhabitants of today's sprawling metropolis. Fruits and vegetables came from small market gardens in the city, and manure piled high on streets and docks was gold to nearby farmers. But as Catherine McNeur reveals in this…


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Book cover of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

Maryka Biaggio Author Of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

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Who am I?

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What is my book about?

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What is this book about?

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