The origin of the name Prall’s Island, located in the Arthur Kill, is uncertain. It was named either for Arent Jansen Van Naerden Prall (1698-?), who purchased the island after arriving from Amsterdam in the mid-1700s, or for Abraham Prall (1706-1775), a prominent Staten Island farmer. It was originally known as Dongan’s Island, after New York Governor Thomas Dongan (1634-1715), who took the office in 1688. The name was later corrupted to Duncan’s Island. Prall’s Island did not take hold until the late 19th century.
Although its only current permanent inhabitants are birds, Prall’s Island was once a major farming center. The island was used primarily to grow salt hay (spartina patens), a cash crop used as farm feed. In the 1930s, Prall’s Island was expanded to its current size when dredged material from the Arthur Kill Channel was deposited there. However, the island saw little activity, except during the world wars, when the military anchored surplus ships off its shores.
During the late 1970s, development ideas were proposed for the island, including a bus depot and a waste removal site. However, bird watchers had begun to recognize the significance of Prall’s Island as a bird sanctuary. After a number of herons were seen on the island, further studies revealed that several species of birds, including egrets and ibis, were breeding in the area. These discoveries put an end to any discussion of developing the island.
The island was assigned to Parks by the Department of General Services in 1984, to be preserved as a wildlife refuge. The New York Audubon Society has a 30 year lease, which dates back to 1985, allowing it to use Prall’s Island for educational and scientific purposes. A study of avian life is being conducted by the Audubon Society and the Manomet Observatory in Massachusetts. Scientists are monitoring nesting sites and studying the habits and diets of migratory birds.
The Audubon Society has documented 400 pairs of nesting birds on the island. Species include the glossy ibis, the black-crowned night heron, the little blue heron, the snowy egret, the cattle egret, and the great egret. Although these species are not rare or endangered, their presence in an urban area in such large numbers is unusual.
A minor catastrophe took place in 1990 when an oil spill occurred in the Arthur Kill near Prall’s Island, and about 700 birds died. Many birds, however, were saved by environmentalists and Staten Island’s bird lovers.