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From the Spring 2012 Conservationist for Kids

A young forest of mixed tree species

Exploring Habitats

By Gina Jack

New York State has many different kinds of habitats, including rivers and lakes, marine waters, wetlands, grasslands, shrublands, alpine areas, and different kinds of forests. Even cities offer wildlife habitat. Each habitat features different kinds of plants and supports different kinds of animals.

Forests

Forests are known for their trees: coniferous, deciduous, or a combination of both. Other plants include shrubs, small trees, and herbaceous (non-woody) plants. Each layer of the forest, from the tree tops (canopy), to the shrubs and other plants along the forest floor, and the area in between (understory), provides for the needs of different kinds of animals.

When Europeans arrived in what is now New York State, the land was mostly forested. As the land was settled, much of the forest was cleared for farms. Forest habitat was lost, along with the animals that lived there. Over time, some of the farms were abandoned and forests grew back, with the animals that rely upon this habitat returning as well. Today, most of New York is forested again.

A pileated wodpecker on the side of a tree with a young woodpecker sticking its head out of a hole in the tree
Pileated woodpecker (Photo: Gerry
Lemmo)

Young forests are important habitat for many woodland animals.

Wildlife to watch for:

  • gray and red squirrels
  • chipmunk
  • scarlet tanager
  • woodpeckers
  • salamanders
  • toads
  • wood frog
  • ruffed grouse
  • deer

Grasslands

An open field of grasses with trees and low hills in the distance
Grassland

Grasslands are wide open areas where herbaceous plants, such as flowers and grasses, are found. If left alone, shrubs and trees will begin to grow, and this habitat will slowly change to forest. Grasslands were once more common, maintained by farming practices (haying). They are becoming scarce as farms disappear and these grassy areas grow back up into trees. Many grassland birds require large open spaces. As big areas of grasslands are lost due to natural changes and human development, so are the homes of these species.

Ground-nesting birds and burrowing animals find safety and cover among the dense grasses.

A black and white bobolink perched on a plant
bobolink (Photo: Eric Dresser)

Wildlife to watch for:

  • woodchuck
  • eastern bluebird
  • white-footed mouse
  • meadow vole
  • bobolink

Freshwater Habitats

Freshwater habitats have one thing in common: water. Swiftly moving waters (rivers and streams) and calm waters (lakes, ponds, and wetlands) support different kinds of aquatic wildlife, plus animals visiting to drink and to forage. Plants include cattails, bulrushes, algae, water lilies, duckweed and other water-dependent species.

Over hundreds of years, small ponds may naturally fill in, becoming wet meadows and finally forests. People change these habitats, too. Some wetlands have been filled in or drained to make them more suitable for farming or building. New York's wetlands laws protect freshwater and tidal wetlands, preserving these important habitats.

A great blue heron walking through low wetland vegetation near a pool
Great blue herons hunt in wetlands.

Wildlife to watch for:

  • fish
  • beaver
  • dragonflies
  • caddisflies
  • turtles
  • ducks
  • herons
  • muskrat
  • river otter
  • raccoon
  • mink
  • osprey

Urban Areas

Urban areas provide habitat for many kinds of wildlife. Tall buildings serve as cliff-type habitat for pigeons and falcons. Crows are common. Trees along city streets offer limited food and shelter for most urban wildlife. For more cover and food, wildlife may turn to the parks, cemeteries and other green spaces, large and small, scattered around our cities. Truly wild natural spaces, undisturbed by people, are few and far between.

Many people living in cities help wildlife. We put out bird feeders and plant wildlife gardens that attract butterflies and birds. Sometimes, if garbage isn't properly stored, we provide food for wildlife when we did not intend to.

A peregrine falcon perched high up in a city
Peregrine falcon (Photo: Barbara Loucks)

Wildlife to watch for:

  • raccoon
  • gray squirrel
  • peregrine falcon
  • red-tailed hawk
  • cottontail rabbit
  • mice
  • fox
  • songbirds (robins, sparrows, etc.)

Photo: A young forest, an important habitat for many woodland animals