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The Natural and Unnatural History of the Koi Pond at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

Brooklyn Botanical Gardens OverviewI have always looked to public aquariums and botanical gardens for inspiration in my own work.  I have visited koi ponds in many places, including some of the famed beauties in Kyoto, Japan (I plan an article on these shortly), but my favorite is, oddly enough, located in the heart of Brooklyn, NY. 

Koi and Cherry Blossoms

The 52-acre Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, opened in 1910, houses a huge, spectacular pond, home to some of the largest and oldest koi to be found anywhere.  The surrounding grounds are planted with 42 varieties of cherry trees, all of which bloom in April and May…seeing this spectacle in combination with schools of colorful koi is an experience of a lifetime (the garden hosts the largest cherry blossom festival, or Sakura Matsuri, to be found outside of Japan).

A rainy spring day many years ago granted me my first look at a koi breeding frenzy…I had previously observed hundreds of carp spawning in the Bronx River, and was suitably impressed (some of these lunkers topped 40 pounds in weight!) but the roiling, colorful koi put their drab ancestors to shame.

An Urban Legend Revealed

I was first drawn to BBG in search of the huge soft-shelled turtles which were said to inhabit the koi pond.  Less cynical than most of my fellow New Yorkers, I had since childhood followed up on any and all reports of urban wildlife, however fanciful.  I had some pleasant discoveries – copperhead snakes did indeed live under the George Washington Bridge and sturgeon still swim the East River, and some disappointments – Flushing Meadow’s “lungfishes” turned out to be American eels.

I found 135 red-eared sliders and several snapping turtles in the pond, but the soft shells eluded me for decades.  Then, while having lunch near the pond (I was working at the nearby Prospect Park Zoo at the time) I spied two huge spiny soft-shelled turtles (Apalone spinifera) basking on a small island.  They remain the largest I’ve ever seen (fish a favorite food!), and must have been living there for upwards of 50 years.  Although native to New York State, spiny soft-shells are quite rare here, and never seen anywhere near NYC. 

Piranha, Osprey and Other Visitors

I enjoy visiting areas that serve as retreats for urban wildlife, and have had many wonderful surprises along the way.  BBG is an important resting place for migrating birds, with over 200 species having been recorded.  The koi pond also yields some surprising visitors from time to time – including “transplanted” bass, sunfish, eels and red-bellied piranha!

Ospreys have made a major comeback in the USA, and are now seen quite near New York and other coastal cities.  Last spring a pair under camera surveillance in Norwalk, CT (The Maritime Aquarium) were regularly observed to bring quite large (and expensive!) koi to their chicks…I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until these huge “fish hawks” visit Brooklyn! 

 Further Reading

You can learn more about the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s koi pond and amazing plant collection (10,000 species at last count) at http://www.bbg.org/.

Please write in with your questions and comments.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

22 comments

  1. avatar

    this isnt telling me anything i need to no about fish and their habitat were they live and how they act i need fish infomation

  2. avatar

    Hi Tae,
    Thanks for your observation. Please feel free to post any questions you have regarding fish, pond or aquarium topic and we’ll do our best to provide you with an answer.

  3. avatar

    I am exploring the possibility of constructing a koi pond on the balcony of my Brooklyn apartment. Has anyone had any experience in this?

  4. avatar

    You would need to consider any homeowner/zoning regulations to make sure you wouldn’t need permits and approval, and you would need to consider the weight that a koi pond would carry to be sure the balcony is structurally sound enough to support the pond. Water is about 8 pounds per gallon, and factoring in building materials it will be a lot of weight. To properly house koi you will need a large pond 500 gallons or more and with proper depth to ensure proper winterization and as to not overheat in the sun. A small deck pond with comets, sarasas, and shubunkins may be a possibility if the above information proves to be daunting.

  5. avatar

    Thanks for the info! At the moment, we are keeping juvenile butterfly “koi” in an indoor aquarium at the moment (3″) but really want to move out of doors this summer to grow and thrive. What depth is required to prevent deep freezing in NYC? It is actually a roof-deck, not a free-standing balcony so we might be able to stack more weight if we do it right. Also, we understand the at 50/gal per in, we might not need bio-filtration or o2, is that reasonable?

  6. avatar

    Butterfly koi do not tend to get as big as traditional koi, bu they are still carp, but they can double in size in a year for the first few years and they produce plenty of waste. You’ll want good mechanical filtration and biological filtration never hurts in keeping the chemistry stable. Most filtration systems will have both built in. O2 can come in the form of a bunch of plants or 2 but surface agitation will certainly provide enough, even in the form of a small fountain or bubbler. Outside ponds should be about 3 feet deep for the fish to winter over properly. The idea is to ensure that the pond does not freeze solid and that the fish have enough area that is not frozen to move around. A vent through the ice to the surface will ensure proper gas exchange.

  7. avatar

    Thanks! There would be a need for a heater in that case?

  8. avatar

    Maybe not a heater, but a de-icer may be handy. De-icers produce just enough head to keep a hole in the ice to allow gasses to vent.

  9. avatar

    Frank, nic

  10. avatar

    Frank, nice article, will be in Kyoto in 2 weeks, any ponds I dare not miss? chuck

  11. avatar

    Hello Chuck, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the kind words and interest in our blog.

    Following are a few of those that I visited…not all have koi, but the ponds are spectacular, Kinkaku-ji in particular; always interesting birds, insects and turtles to see as well. The website texts are in Japanese, all I have at the moment, but I did a quick check and Wikipedia listed at least one (see below) so others may be carried as well. Local people will know of smaller ponds…Kyoto residents are, almost to the person, very proud of their home and all it has to offer – the small, sometimes private ponds I saw were amazing.

    If you are interested in fish and aquatic life in general, by all means visit the Kaiyukan Aquarium in Osaka, just “next door” to Kyoto…do whatever it takes to get there, you will be stunned. Actually, aquariums in Japan are not to be believed, not only as regards the range of species, but also the set-ups and technology. Try to visit pet stores as well – the odd and unusual are much in favor, and most resemble public aquariums more than pet stores. One I visited in Tokyo (for 4 hours!) had dozens of tanks of catfishes, in excess of 50 species!

    Takaragaike   http://www.takaragaike.net/01.html

    Midorogaike http://www.kyoto.zaq.ne.jp/tyrannosaurus/tanken6suisei.html
    Listed as a national treasure, more lake than pond.

    Many temples have ponds in their garden and they most have Koi. Two very nice ones are:
    Kinkaku-Ji (“Golden Shrine” in many tourist guides) : http://artworks-photo.sakura.ne.jp/photo/kyouto/2/image013.htm
    Tenryu-ji (World Heritage): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenry%C5%AB-ji

    Please let me know how it goes. Have a safe trip and enjoy,

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  12. avatar

    i wanna give away my red ear slider turtles and i was thinking about leaving them in the koi pond. it looks like a beautiful and good place for a turtle to live in. can i put them in the pond and if i can then would it be a good place for them? and so where is the koi pond????

  13. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    Red eared sliders get along with koi at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens because of the large size of the pond…the fish are easily able to avoid the turtles. In a typical home pond, however, sliders often make life miserable for the fish….even if the koi are too large to catch and eat, the turtle may chase them about, nipping at fins and tails. However, sliders vary in this regard – some don’t bother fish, especially if they are well fed. I suggest that you try to introduce the turtle at a time when you can be nearby for an entire day or so, to keep an eye on things.

    In general, however, outdoor ponds are ideal for turtles, providing access to natural sunlight and nutritious insects. You will also be surprised, I think, at the increased range of behaviors and activity level that your turtle will exhibit. Raccoon predation can be a concern, however. While sliders generally stay close to the pond, if the area is un-fenced males may wander in the breeding season and females may do so if they develop eggs (this can happen even if no male is present). You’ll also need to provide a dry basking site in a sunny location.

    If you’d like to read more about keeping sliders outdoors, please see my article Keeping Red-Eared Sliders in Outdoor Ponds (how’s that for an on-point reference!).

    Good luck, enjoy and please write back if you need further information.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  14. avatar

    so would u reccomend for me to leave my res turtles in the koi pond forever??

  15. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your feedback.

    An outdoor pond is the best situation for sliders and similar turtles, assuming you keep in mind those points mentioned in my earlier response (escape, predators, attacking the koi). If you live in an area that experiences a cold winter, you’ll need to bring the turtle indoors at that time.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  16. avatar

    i dont know if i should put my turtle there because they are really small. one of them is about 1 1/2 inch and the other is about 3 1/2 inches
    im scared that my turtles dont know what r preditors

  17. avatar

    hi my name is judy i want to get res turtles so i can sell them for like $7 or 8$ since i have no money to buy them im just gonna take them from the pond . what is the correct address of the pond im planning on going to the pond on july 24 2009. im gonna take like about at leat 20 turtles.

  18. avatar

    Hello Judy, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens is located within Prospect Park, Brooklyn…please enjoy a visit there. However, collecting turtles is strictly prohibited. Security guards are always posted near the pond, and anyone bothering the fish or turtles is quickly escorted out of the park. Also, the turtles stay well out of reach of visitors, and would be impossible to capture.

    In any event, there really is not much of a market for red eared sliders, as they are bred by the millions on farms in the southeastern part of the USA.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  19. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog

    The pond at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens is stocked with all the turtles it can handle at this point. Releasing turtles into the pond is now strictly prohibited, and security guards are always on hand to enforce that regulation.

    In any event, small turtles would be quickly out-competed by the many adult turtles and koi that inhabit the pond, and would not survive for long. Please do not release your turtles into other artificial or natural ponds. Red eared sliders are not native to New York, and are a serious problem here and in many other countries (they out-compete native species, etc.)

    For assistance in finding a home for your turtles, please contact the adoption coordinator at the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, http://www.nytts.org.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  20. avatar

    thanks 4 your help

  21. avatar

    Hi, can you suggest a place to donate koi that have outgrown my tank?

  22. avatar

    It may be a good idea to advertise them on craigs list or in a local news paper. Ideally you’ll want to find someone with a large pond that can take them as they are not really meant to be aquarium fish and will thrive in the right outdoor environment. Local pet stores or pond stores may take them as well, but you’ll have to contact them to see what their policies are.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.