Anyone who has passed by the monstrously large residential complexes known as Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on First Avenue between 14th and 23rd streets knows they account for a prison-block-like swath of red brick. Lesser known is the fact that the magical forest of tall trees and rolling green hills that wind through the 110 buildings have given rise to one of the city’s most vibrant squirrel communities.
There, the foliage is literally alive with squirrels—in the brush, in the grass, jumping from tree to tree! But on the pathways, squirrel and man walk and crawl as equals, and indeed a newcomer to the area will be surprised at how often his path is interrupted by a friendly vermin begging his pardon for a spare crumb.
“People here love them,” said one resident. “We protect them and feed them. That’s why they come straight to you.”
The man proceeded to demonstrate this phenomenon by looking a nearby black squirrel in the eye and jamming his hand in his pocket, as if to retrieve something. The black squirrel, along with a nearby gray, gingerly trotted over to the man and stood tall on their hind legs, forepaws hanging limp.
It’s a squirrels’ paradise. It is also the one place in New York City the black squirrel can comfortably call home. Black squirrels run free at the Bronx Zoo and around Fordham University, reports Pat Thomas, the zoo’s curator of mammals. And of course there are the Cinnamon Squirrels of Riverside Park. But when it comes to flourishing black squirrel populations, the 80 acres on which Stuy Town and Cooper Village sit is it. Residents estimate they make up some 40 percent of the hundreds of squirrels there.
“Everyone surprised!” said the private housing development’s groundskeeper, Jose Cavallo, referring to how people respond to the black squirrels. “They have the same personality. They have sex together with gray squirrels.”
(Mr. Cavallo added that occasionally the fun gets out of hand: “Sometimes they fall out of the trees and die.”)
On a recent Sunday afternoon, some of the residents discussed the distinguishing behavior of black squirrels.
“The black squirrels like to bully the gray ones,” said a woman with a European accent. “They think they are the minks of the squirrels.”
“The first thing I did when I moved here was call my mom in New Jersey to say, ‘There are black squirrels here!’” said Alexandra, who works in retail.
Mary Mohoney said her nephew recently visited and was elated to see his first black squirrel. “He named it Miguel.”
Mr. Thomas insisted that the black squirrel is merely a different color phase of his gray brethren. The curator affirmed that both fall under the species Sciurus carolinensis. Similarly, a panther is a different color phase of a leopard, he said.
“Behavior-wise they would act just like a gray squirrel—which is what they are,” he said.
The question of how the much rarer black color phase arrived in Stuy Town-Cooper Village is a bit of a mystery, not adequately explained by Mr. Thomas’ succinct science: “You tend to find them in pockets because the squirrels there carry the genes for black color.”
Some point way back to Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, when 18 Canadian black squirrels were released in Washington, D.C. Others are unmoved by even a hint of mystique.
“Just as much of a pain in the neck as the others,” said an older resident of Stuy Town who was wearing a green Barbour jacket, jeans and polished leather shoes. “They get killed or squashed like any other squirrel.”