A few years ago, when Lisa Couturier was working on a graduate degree in literary ecology—a self-directed discipline examining the intersection of environmentalism and literature—at New York University, she longed to see wildlife. But her daily commute took her nowhere near parkland, so she took what she could get: She began to pay attention to the mice in New York City’s subway tunnels.
“I would come home late at night and they would always be out and about,” she recalls. “I know they’re not everyone’s first choice, but I would watch all the things they would do.” They sensed very early when a train would be arriving; they would all scurry into hiding just a moment before she herself saw or heard any sign of it.
Couturier’s attention to the otherwise ignored creatures of the city has paid off, with the publication of her first book, The Hopes of Snakes & Other Tales From the Urban Landscape. In it, the Bethesda-based Couturier writes just over a dozen short essays—half new, half previously published—about the wildlife of New York City and of greater Washington. Her tales of species obscure and extraordinary range from Canada geese in highway medians and coyotes in Montgomery County parks to seals in New York’s East River and peregrine falcons perching on top of skyscrapers.
Couturier’s love of nature blossomed in the unlikely locale of Rockville, where she lived close to Rock Creek Regional Park until she was 16. As a girl, she loved National Geographic documentaries and idolized primatologist Jane Goodall. When an injured robin suddenly appeared in a hallway of her high school, Couturier convinced her science teacher to let her take the bird home and rehabilitate it. Heeding the advice of the local Audubon Society, Couturier taught the bird how to dig for worms. Three weeks later, she set it free.
“I had always wanted to travel the world, but I knew as a child that would be a long way off,” says Couturier, 42. “So I made the best of what I had, which is whatever was in and around my suburban neighborhood. Back then, parents were able to say, ‘Just go out and play—see you at dinner.’ So when my Mom said that, I went outside roaming.”
One essay in The Hopes of Snakes took Couturier back to her old stomping grounds: the traffic-clogged shopping magnet of Rockville Pike. When she ventured back to Rockville after earning her graduate degree, she became engrossed by the massive flock of crows that always seemed to gather at dusk around the intersection of Rockville Pike and Montrose Road. A little research revealed that the crows were continuing to congregate there as they had for generations—even as new buildings and pavement swallowed most of the trees they’d been using.
“They gather there for two reasons,” says Couturier. “One is safety in numbers, since they’re hunted by the great horned owl. And the other is that they exchange information about food resources.” Crows, she says, are more socially sophisticated than one might expect, with long-lasting family units and strong adaptation skills, which seem to have served them well in the Pike’s changing landscape.
Full-speed-ahead development is reducing the amount of untouched woodland and open space close to big cities. But environmental protections, Couturier says, have also enabled many species that were once considered in decline to make a comeback.
“Mountain lions are now heading East,” she says. “We have more deer than we ever did in pre-European days, and more forested land. It will be interesting to see how we are able to coexist.” —Louis Jacobson