Archive for February 2011

Of Rats, Red-tails and Rodenticides

February 28, 2011

Yesterday’s walk in Riverside Park yielded the now-common but always thrilling sight of a hawk in a tree.

Inelegant rear view of red-tail.

I soon realized the bird was dining, but on what?

Mystery meat.

A downy substance floated on the slow-moving air, leading me to assume the hawk was plucking a bird.  But the shape of the prey just didn’t look quite bird-like. It seemed a little too big and uniformly colored.

What's on the menu?

The hawk seemed to be having difficulty getting the dining table set up just right. It gripped the carcass in one taloned foot and, turning this way and that, repositioned its prey in different spots on the branch.

Does the fork go on the right or the left?

At one point, it lifted high the foot that held the prey, and hopped along the branch for quite a distance on its free foot.  Then it picked up the body in its beak, and, well, leapt to the far side of a bend in the branch.

Leaping

There the hawk laid the body down in such a way that a long, naked tail draped almost gracefully along the side of the branch.

That ain't no songbird. Note the tail to the left of the hawk.

No wonder it didn’t look quite like a bird.  It was a rat. A big, fat street rat. I celebrated in my heart to see a rat being disposed of,  and in my head, I sang along with my great-grandmother:

“Hooray, Hooray, the chicken gelegt an ei!”

Bubba and Zeyde, my great-grandparents with my grandmother (far right) and her siblings. Taken sometime around 1910 in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

(My father recently taught me this catchy litle Yinglish, as in part Yiddish, part English, celebratory chant – “Hooray, hooray, the chicken has laid an egg!” – and I confess I’ve been eagerly seeking occasions to use it.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate all rats. My friend, Charlotte of The Rat’s Nest, though currently ratless, has owned several charming and affectionate domestic rats. They would come when she called, and served her family as in-house comediennes, as you can see in Charlotte’s amusing short film, Ratz: The Movie.

And then there are the wonderful life-saving African pouched rats that are trained to sniff out mines and can detect tuberculosis faster than a traditional lab test.  Hey, even here in NYC, I took pleasure in seeing a rat swimming in the Morningside Park pond.

Just another brown rat, but it seemed positively bucolic slipping in and out of the water.

But my neighborhood on the southern edge of Morningside Heights is positively overrun with street rats, and I am only too delighted to see my local rats transformed into hawk fodder.

Had enough?

The hawk eventually flew off, leaving the rat behind on the branch.  I turned to share my discovery with a gentleman who had stopped nearby to admire the hawk.

“It caught a rat,” I said happily.

“Oh no,” he said, lowering his binoculars. “That’s bad.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Rat poison,” he declared. “It can harm the hawks.”  And he is right.

City Notification

Most buildings in the area put out poison bait boxes, as does the city.

The poison in rodenticides causes internal bleeding that kills the rat over a period of days.  During that time, the animals may return several times to feed at the bait station, raising the level of toxins in their bodies until they themselves are poisonous. Secondary poisoning is the term for the poisoning of a predator by eating poisoned prey.  Small predators like hawks are at risk; eyasses (baby hawks) and still-developing juveniles are particularly vulnerable.

Baby hawk in Riverside Park, August 2010. Photo by Nabil Esphahani. Click photo to read Leslie Albrecht's lovely article in DNAinfo.com, and see more photos.

Parent hawks unknowingly feed poisoned rats to their nestlings.  In 2008, tests proved that rat poison was the cause of death for three baby red-tails that had hatched in Riverside Park.  Last year (2010), two Riverside nestlings seem to have successfully fledged. At least one of the hawks that I regularly see in the park is a juvenile.

The eyes of a young hawk start out pale, and darken as the bird matures.

Rat poison is a tricky issue, and not just in NYC. Across the country, the deaths of owls, hawks, and small predatory mammals have been linked to secondary poisoning by rodenticides.

Here in NYC, we desperately need to control our rat population.  But how?  How can we lower the number of rats without also putting at risk the majestic raptors that have taken up residence in our restored urban green spaces?  These wild birds provide an elusive but essential connection to the natural world, offering us glimpses of their alien lives and the strange thrill of recognition that wildness still exists, alongside – and within – us humans, even at our most urbanized.

I hope we can encourage private businesses, restaurants, superintendents, building managers and the Parks department to use only those poisons that are least likely to harm non-target species, like our red-tails, and to use them only when necessary.

But we should all take some responsibility for creating a rat-friendly urban habitat.  After all, it’s the endless supply of food that leads to the city’s swollen rat population.  NYC is a rat gravy train.  So let’s stop feeding the animals.

Photo by Vince Noir at Bedford Avenue (click to visit Subway Art Blog)

“What?” you sputter indignantly. “I would never feed a rat.”

But chances are you do feed them, if indirectly.  Every time you drop food in the park, you’re feeding the animals.

Brunch in Riverside Park: where's the shmear?

Every time you toss a half-eaten pizza or hot dog into the street or the subway tracks, you’re feeding the animals.

Get it while it’s hot: free pizza on 110th Street

Every time you use an open city trash can, you’re feeding the animals.

This sparrow and starling hopped in and out of the trash can, pecking at a sandwich.

Every time you neglect to clean up after your dog, you’re feeding the animals. (Yes, rats eat the undigested food in feces, and no, I will not post an illustration.)

And every time your building places trash bags on the street to await the arrival of garbage trucks, believe me, you’re feeding the animals.

Make yourself comfortable while you wait for the Sanitation Dept.

But what to do?  We have to put our trash somewhere, and trash cans and trash bags are the responsible place to put it.  Yet I know that trash night on my block is rat party night.  The supers pile the big black bags into miniature mountain ranges.

After the blizzard: Himalayan trash bag mountain ranges.

The rats slip beneath the piles and tunnel, like miners, into the bags, gnawing easily through the plastic to reach the rotting riches of refuse.  One evening last week, I heard a strange rustling as I neared Amsterdam Avenue, and saw a trash bag moving as if it were alive. Rats, of course.  We regularly see them running across the sidewalk to or from the trash piles or darting into the shadows behind the wheel of a parked car.  Three times, my dog, Esau, has caught a rat, and once a mouse, while walking, leashed, in New York.

So yes, I’d like to see the rats gone. Disappeared. Vamoose. But I want to protect our hawks.

Anyone know a good piper, pied or otherwise?

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633). Painting by Augustin von Moersperg (1592)

(Curious to know if your block has a rat problem? Visit the Rat Map at the city’s Rat Information Portal.)

NYC Raccoons and Red-tails in Winter

February 22, 2011

Snow frosted the city yesterday.

Broadway and Riverside split at 107th Street, looking lovely

The water towers wore white skull caps.

A crow surveys 109th Street from atop a water tower

Esau was on the alert for wildlife

Prey?

but the park was quiet

Steps lead toward the river

The retaining wall is always beautiful, and especially so with a dusting of snow.

Raccoons live here.

The entrance to the large raccoon den is once again piled with snow.

I once saw six raccoons emerge from this hole in the wall.

It’s been over a month since I’ve seen a raccoon here, and I’m starting to worry. Raccoons in northern climates pack on the fat in autumn so that they can spend less time foraging in the coldest days of winter and more time curled up in their den. They don’t actually hibernate, but they may sleep away several weeks of bitter weather, living off their fat stores and waiting for milder days. It’s been a cold and snowy winter, so maybe my Riverside Park raccoons are just dozing away the cold and dreaming of spring. But still I worry. (Check back soon for an update on raccoon rabies in NYC.)

Sledders were out

Traipsing up the hill

as were walkers

A man strolls in an only-in-New-York fuchsia faux-fur coat

ice dancers

Olympics pairs, they are not

and a single cross-country skier

Heading south

as well as a passel of happy dogs.

Happy but headless snow dogs

No birds to be seen yesterday.

Branches empty of animals

Unlike Sunday, when a hawk devoured a songbird on the bare ground beneath the retaining wall

Red-tail takes a break from pulling entrails

The snow had finally melted in parts of the park

Back to work

and the hunting was good

Do you mind? I'm eating here.

After a few minutes, the hawk soared over my head, so low that I ducked to avoid contact with the carcass gripped in his talons.  He swooped up to a branch high above the ground in search, perhaps, of privacy from paparazzi like me

Alone at last

And there, finally taking the hint, I left him to his meal.

Esau’s Beard: Blowin’ in the NYC Wind

February 19, 2011

Blowin' in the wind

It’s crazy windy out there today, people.

WINDS…NORTHWEST 25 TO 35 MPH WITH GUSTS 45 TO 55 MPH. ISOLATED GUSTS TO NEAR 60 MPH ARE POSSIBLE LATE THIS AFTERNOON AND THIS EVENING.

– National Weather Service Wind Advisory

Okay, did you catch that? Isolated gusts may reach up to 60 mph. Sixty miles per hour! Those are some powerful gale-force winds.  The Weather Service Advisory entreats us to “Please secure lightweight items, such as garbage cans…”

A quick stroll towards Riverside Drive confirms that garbage cans might benefit from a bit more security.

Dysfunctional garbage can

It’s not just garbage cans that need securing.  Hold on tight to your hats, pets and small children, if you take to the streets today.

A street sign at 109th and Broadway tilts and rattles dangerously.

One way which way?

Garbage cans topple and roll all along Riverside Drive

Rollin' in the aisles

Esau and I skipped the park for fear of flying branches. And Esau’s beard nearly took off once or twice.

That beard needs to be better secured, buddy.

The winds should die down by tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, hold on to your beards, and watch out for flying objects.

Urban Wildlife Mysteries

February 15, 2011

Even a quick visit to Morningside Park yields an urban mystery or two.  The little pond is completely iced over.

Ice and bare branches

Compare to last spring when two egrets regularly visited to fish near the waterfall

Gone fishin’

Today a flock of brightly colored balloons seems to be nesting on the island

(I somehow deleted the photo, so imagine, if you will, a score of balloons lying in a gaudy heap on bare ground.)

in roughly the same spot where a set of mallard ducklings hatched in the final days of May

New ducklings moving out from the nest

The carp, turtles and frogs that live in the pond should be sleeping now, down in the dead leaves and muck at the bottom of the tiny pond, waiting for winter to give up the ghost. When the water warms, they’ll rouse to life.

They’ll bask

Soaking up the summer sun

and loll

Lazy day

and swim.

But today is mid-February and there is no water, only ice.  So how to explain the presence, on the path that runs along the eastern edge of the pond, of a pair of dead fish.

As if it had leapt over the edge of the pond's retaining wall

Someone had fish head for lunch.

Oh, dear

The pond has been frozen for days. Where did the fish come from? How did they die? Why are they here?

A sign on the back of a bench offers the promise of rescue.

Good to know. But what about the fish?

The photo of the sign was taken in midsummer, when there were no ladders to be seen. Now the ladders are ready for trouble.

Beautiful red ladder ready for rescue

On the way home, we passed beneath a tree filled with dozens of sparrows, all singing at the top of their little lungs. Spring really is coming.

But what about the fish?

Hey, what about the fish?

Squirrels Taunt Hawks, and Pay the Price

February 8, 2011

For the past few months, I’ve seen red-tailed hawks almost every day on my walks with Esau in Riverside Park or on the upper boulevard that runs parallel to Riverside Drive.  The bare branches make them easy to spot, and they seem always hungry and on the look-out for prey.

They often choose to perch in spots where they can keep an eye on promising activity both inside the park and along the Drive.

Red-tailed hawk gives me the hairy eyeball.

Sometimes they open their great wings and soar right over your head on their way to a better look-out.

Beautiful.

On the coldest, bitterest days of winter, the park appears almost empty of wildlife. The squirrels are hidden in their leafy nests, curled into their bushy tails for warmth. The songbirds, too, are out of sight, huddled in the warmest spots they can find.

A long walk on a cold day revealed only a couple of sparrows near the Forever Wild bird feeder, puffed up like miniature Michelin men.

Baby, it's cold outside.

Later that day, on the upper path, a juvenile hawk tried unsuccessfully to snatch a pigeon from a small flock that pecked for seeds on the snowy sidewalk.

It must be hard to be a hawk in winter.

But then, just a couple of days ago, the weather suddenly turned bizarrely mild, and the slumbering squirrels erupted into demented, spring-like bouts of foraging and carousing.

Walking on air

It was probably the presence of so many mad crazy squirrels that elevated yesterday to a three-hawk day.

This is how it was.

At the 108th Street staircase, a hawk kept a baleful eye on rioting squirrels, looking a bit like a beleaguered security guard at a rock concert trying not to get riled by a gang of rowdy teens.

One squirrel ran up and down the tree trunk right in front of the hawk.

I can see you.

Once or twice, the twitchy little mammal made its way right out toward the branch where the hawk sat, and even stretched its body toward the bird.  The squirrel would then quiver with excitement for several seconds, as if it had taken a dare, and was trying to get up the courage to actually touch the big bird.

A second squirrel then joined the first, and the two of them played chase just a few feet from the hawk.

Joining in the ruckus

What is it with squirrels? Why provoke an animal capable of catching and devouring you?

I’ve seen this behavior quite often in the park, and am baffled by it. Oh, I understand that squirrels in a tree are probably quite safe, as the hawk must swoop down with force, talons first, to catch and kill.  But being safe doesn’t explain the behavior. What evolutionary benefit can there possibly be for squirrels to get so unnecessarily close to a powerful predator?

Take a look at what we saw just two blocks away, when we resumed our walk.

Yup, that’s a second red-tail with a partly-eaten squirrel. The hawk is uneasy about being watched from above by yet another red-tail.

Third hawk keeps an eye on second hawk’s lunch.

Just a few weeks ago, I posted a story with several close-up shots of a juvenile red-tail lunching on squirrel inside the park.

Yum.

So what in the world is up with the squirrels? Why do they tempt fate?  Why get close to a predator?  How can this behavior possibly serve the squirrel?  Why doesn’t instinct keep them away? Is there such high evolutionary value to curiosity or boldness in squirrels that the trait overcomes a natural fear of being eaten?

Dear Reader, if you know the answer or have a good theory, please leave a comment.

Update March 3, 2011: This post is now part of I and the Bird #145, a birding blog carnival.
Please visit the wonderful British Columbia blog, Island Nature, for links to more bird posts.


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