By ELIZABETH ROYTE
Published: June 22, 2008
Is it dangerous to lark in Central Park at night? Not really, Marie Winn says in “Central Park in the Dark.” The “precinct enjoys the city’s lowest crime rate,” she writes. This may be true on a per acre basis (not per capita), but still, it wasn’t until the author came to know the park extremely well that her fear of the night receded, “though it never disappeared completely. Familiarity breeds content.”
CENTRAL PARK IN THE DARK
More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife.
By Marie Winn.
Illustrated. 304 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $25.
And content (emphasis on the first syllable) too: wonderful nocturnal content that spans copulating slugs, silver-haired bats, co-sleeping robins, murdering wasps, sap-sucking moths and cannibalistic owls. What drew Winn, a longtime birder and the author of “Red-Tails in Love,” about the hawks Pale Male and Lola, to such obscure subjects? The same thing that motivates any good scientist. “Curiosity, the desire to know and understand,” she writes, and a natural “eagerness to learn.”
Lurking in the woods of Central Park with a like-minded cohort, Winn invites passing strangers to peer through her binoculars at sleeping birds and proudly supplies the names of moths that alight on a bed sheet illuminated by black light: “We were showing off a bit of course, but our urge to include others had a deeper reason: we were in on an amazing secret, and we couldn’t bear to keep it to ourselves.”
Such giddiness permeates “Central Park in the Dark.” “It was huge!” she writes of a barred owl. “Double wow!” Naked enthusiasm is rare in science writing, perhaps because it’s considered unprofessional, or anathema to intellectual rigor. E. O. Wilson has said that field biologists have a lot more gee whiz, or sense of wonder at nature, than other types of scientists, and that’s certainly in evidence here.
Like most serious birders, Winn does have scientific aspirations. She diligently notes the time and light conditions of owl fly-outs (the moment the birds leave for night hunting); she analyzes the contents of long-eared owl pellets (a regurgitated bolus of indigestible animal parts, including fur, feathers, bones and teeth); and she laboriously keys out the names of moths. Like real scientists, she and her pals are competitive, jargon-happy, a little nerdy and possessive of their turf. That’s the flip side of the sharing impulse — while happy to point out a roost to a neophyte, Winn gloats when a card-carrying “Ecologist” can’t find it without her help.
While conducting basic science, Winn makes some real discoveries. For example, white-footed mice, not previously known to inhabit Central Park, are actually superabundant there. How did she find out? She spent several evenings with a stereoscopic microscope studying the tiny bones teased from those pellets. “Take apart a large number of owl pellets to find a predominance of Peromyscus leucopus skulls,” Winn writes, “and you’ve surmounted the shortcomings of human vision. You’ve penetrated the darkness with the help of an owl’s digestive system.” To pinpoint the screech owl’s moment of fly-out, she realized, after several years of blinking and missing, listen for the escalation in robin chatter.
The work of field biology isn’t all eureka moments, of course: Winn logs countless hours, year after year, in bitter cold, stifling heat, rain and snow. Uncomplaining, she rises hours before dawn, conducts extracurricular research (on the mortality statistics of Eastern screech owls, for example, or the history of automobile traffic in Central Park) and risks becoming a statistic herself. Only twice was she truly frightened by potential predators: once by some regular guys pretending to be undercover cops (“like the guys on ‘21 Jump Street,’” they told her) and once by undercover cops pretending they were regular guys. The payoff for her labors isn’t a Ph.D. thesis or a peer-reviewed publication but the pure pleasure of poking around. (That, and sometimes the opportunity to say “I told you so” to park officials and credentialed scientists.)
Winn proves that citizen naturalists have an important role to play in conservation and stewardship. But her ceaseless anthropocentrism and a fixation with “love” sometimes made me cringe. “All our senses quickened at the thought of owl romance,” she writes. Nothing would please this ornithological yenta more than an owl hookup and babies. Winn reads love poems to long-eared owls on Valentine’s Day and claims to hear them “murmuring sweet nothings to each other.”
If this kind of thing made you quit “Red-Tails in Love,” you may feel a similar impulse with this book. I did, but Winn’s subject matter, her easeful writing (“We were in that tiresome lull between spring migration and fall migration otherwise known as summer”), her humor, emotional honesty and exuberance quashed my quibbles. On the whole, “Central Park in the Dark” is a delight; I’d follow Winn into the park at any hour.
Elizabeth Royte, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” and “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.”