Archive for August 2011

Morningside Park on Hurricane Sunday and NYC Wildlife Rehabilitation

August 31, 2011

On Sunday, when the hurricane had passed, after strolling the grounds of Saint John the Divine to check on the peacocks, I continued east to Morningside Park.  A downed tree completely blocked the 110th Street staircase:

The rain had been too much for it, and it had just toppled over from its roots:

The water in the little pond was as high as I’ve seen it:

A flotilla of more than 40 ducks swam about:

One or two dozed:

A few preened and nibbled at mites:

Two turtles swam near the water’s edge, looking for hand-outs, ducking under when I tried to snap a photo. Animals in the park seemed hungry after waiting out the storm. One squirrel dove straight inside a garbage can, then perched on the rim.

Robins fluttered through the trees on the hill, while sparrows foraged near the ball fields

A small flock of pigeons pecked hungrily in the grass

and one dark pigeon huddled behind a bench, clearly ill or injured.

I wondered whether I should do something to help it. I had tried once before to get help for a sick pigeon, but was shunted from one agency to another. All the while, I was standing in the rain on a street corner and worrying about being late for the theater.  As far as I can tell, the city doesn’t help pigeons, because, as feral animals (once domesticated and now wild), they are considered neither pets nor wildlife and as non-natives, they are not a protected species. I abandoned the bird that day, and did the same on Sunday.  But I’m not entirely comfortable with my decision, and have decided I need to formulate a personal policy, both compassionate and rational, on when, and how, to intervene with injured or ill animals.

Yesterday, I happened to pass the future home of The Wild Bird Fund.

The Wild Bird Fund is a non-profit organization that helps to save birds and wildlife in New York City.

Surprisingly, NYC is the only major city in the United States that doesn’t yet have a wildlife rehabilitation center, although it has its share of extraordinarily dedicated and skilled rehabilitators.

I crossed Columbus Avenue to Animal General Hospital, where Wild Bird Fund is currently housed, and asked the receptionist if the Fund helped pigeons.

“Of course,” she replied. “Pigeons are their star client.”

So if you find a bird in need, call Wild Bird Fund at 646-306-2862.  Until their own home is ready, the rehabilitators are working out of Animal General on the west side of Columbus Avenue at 87th Street.  They see wild bird cases by appointment only on Monday – Friday from 1- 3 PM. Their clients include owls, swans, kingfishers, ducks, hawks and, of course, pigeons.  They welcome donations.

Please comment to share your own experiences and thoughts on when, and how, to intervene with wild (or feral) animals.  And check back soon for follow-up posts on the subject.

NYC Peacock on Hurricane Sunday

August 30, 2011

In the early evening on Hurricane Sunday, after Irene had blown by, I headed over to Saint John the Divine to find out how Morningside Heights’s three neighborhood peacocks had weathered the storm.

Some restaurants were open, and the city was returning to life.  On Amsterdam Avenue, kids hid out behind a car parked in front of the Hungarian Pastry Shop.

At Saint John’s, small branches tried to block passage through the lovely cast iron gates.

On the cathedral grounds, treetops swayed in the gusting wind.

Despite downed leaves and twigs, the Biblical garden looked as peaceful and orderly as ever.

Outside the garden, one peacock loafed about in front of the coop he shares with two other peacocks. See that elongated speck below the windows? That’s him.

Let’s take a closer look.

But wait a minute: what happened to his tail feathers?

When last seen several weeks ago, the gentleman had been standing on top of his shack, and he was stylin’.

It’s tempting to imagine that the poor guy lost his tail feathers struggling like Lear against the hurricane’s winds and rain. But in truth, we can’t blame Irene for his diminishment.  It’s simply that time of year.

As summer comes to an end, peacocks shed their dazzling breeding plumage.  In early spring, they’ll regrow those glorious tail feathers in preparation for the summer mating season, when they strut and shiver their spread tails to attract peahens.  From April to July or August, the peacocks of Morningside Heights shake their tail feathers at every opportunity, even though they are all males and have no contact with potential mates. They don’t seem to care who, or even what, they shake their booty for. The white peacock regularly displayed his glory to an indifferent hedge.

Although I only spotted one peacock, the security guard assured me that all three had come through the storm with, er, flying colors.  I walked on to Morningside Park (about which, more soon), then turned toward home.

Blue skies broke over Columbus Avenue.

After the Storm on the Upper West Side

August 28, 2011

Earlier this morning, Hurricane Irene’s rain stopped and the streets appeared quiet.

The wind seemed light. So after waiting and watching for a while, listening to news reports and feeling pretty sure that this was not the eye of the storm, Esau and I ventured outside.  Because when a dog’s gotta go, a dog’s gotta go.

On our street, we saw plenty of leaves on the sidewalk

and downed twigs

as well as small branches

The land-grabbing eternal puddle on the corner of 108th Street and Broadway had expanded its empire, but not more than after the usual rainstorm

As we headed toward Riverside Drive away from the protection of buildings, we could feel the wind off the Hudson. We knew there had been flooding on the Cherry Walk earlier.

But all we saw was puddles

Okay, they were big puddles.  Some seemed to transform Riverside Park into a mangrove swamp

and others created miniature lakes on once-grassy expanses

But it was nothing we haven’t seen before.  Dogs and their humans were out in force.

On the way back, we saw that clean-up had begun.

As I write, the sun is trying to break through the thick white sky, and the cat is pigeon-hunting on the window sill. We’re lucky here on the upper west side, and we know it.  We hope our fellow New Yorkers who slept in the shelters last night can go home soon. And we’re thinking of everyone, up and down the east coast, who took the brunt of this storm.

Check back soon for an update on Morningside Park in the aftermath of Irene.

NYC Wildlife Before the Storm

August 27, 2011

Saturday morning bird watch on West 108th Street

No animals are visible on today’s late afternoon dog walk in Riverside Park on the eve of Hurricane Irene’s arrival. Well, actually many animals are out, but only two species: humans and canines.  No wildlife. Not a single bird or squirrel.  Even the cicadas are silent, and the animal world seems to be tucked out of sight, quietly waiting, while over on Broadway, the humans scurry about emptying the local hardware stores of batteries and flashlights.

The animals are still there, of course, curled into nests, dens and dreys just yards away from us walkers. They know how to disappear. They do it all the time. On Friday, a raccoon performed a vanishing act.

First, a bit of wall-walking …

Then, a balancing act …

And, ladies and gentlemen: watch closely.  Now you see me …

Now …

… you don’t!

And … hoopla! I’m back!

Here’s hoping all the animals find safe haven and come through the storm safely.

Whatever Happened to the Rabid Raccoons of Central Park?

August 23, 2011

Remember NYC’s great raccoon rabies outbreak of 2010?

Is it safe out there?

It began in the summer of 2009 with two rabid raccoons in northern Manhattan.

Riverside Park Raccoons

Several months passed and all seemed quiet on the epidemiological front.

And then, boom! ten rabid raccoons were reported in December 2009, all of them in or near Central Park.

Rabies is a highly contagious and virtually always fatal viral disease of the brain and central nervous system. It is transmitted through the saliva of an infected and symptomatic animal, usually by a bite. Descriptions of rabies reach back thousands of years into the ancient world. According A Rabies-Free World, Aristotle wrote that “dogs suffer from the madness. This causes them to become very irritable and all animals they bite become diseased.”  Irritable?  That seems like an almost pathologically understated description of symptoms that include “slight or partial paralysis, cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium.”   Let’s just say it’s a bad disease.

Rabies Advisory signs appeared in the parks.

By late fall 2009, rabies advisory signs had appeared in Central, Riverside and Morningside Parks, showing a rather cute drawing of a raccoon head with large letters proclaiming: Leave Wildlife Alone.

No one seemed to know how many raccoons lived in the city parks, but for months, the rabies cases kept on coming. (Visit Out Walking the Dog’s archives to read earlier posts on the rabies epidemic. )

Between January 2010 and the middle of September, a staggering 123 cases of rabies were confirmed.

I wondered how the city would ever regain control of such a virulent disease in a park where every inch of space is shared with humans, dogs and other wildlife. Would it treat with oral vaccines? Would it try to eradicate the raccoons? Would the city panic?

And then, suddenly, it was over.  And aside from a single case in February 2011, there has been no raccoon rabies reported in Manhattan for almost a year.  What happened?

You may remember reading about the extraordinary initiative that was quietly undertaken by the USDA to trap, vaccinate and release every one of Manhattan’s many healthy raccoons.  (Surprisingly, marshmallows seem to be the urban raccoon’s bait of choice.)  Well, despite skeptics, that labor-intensive program worked, at least in the short term.

The population of Manhattan’s raccoons is smaller and healthier. This hole in Riverside Park’s retaining wall once housed as many as six raccoons; today there are two.

Our narrow island is again rabies-free. Fingers crossed that it stays that way.

Why I Haven’t Posted All Summer

August 14, 2011

All through the summer, I’ve seen wonderful things:

A bald eagle perching by its nest in Lyme, New Hampshire

Black-crowned night herons stalking fish in NYC’s Morningside Park

and 1,500 miles west, stalking fish in Texas.

Grackles panting in the 100-degree Texas heat

and a mysterious river dog emerging from the Hudson;

Raccoons lounging in the Riverside Park retaining wall as evening blanketed down

and two baby red-tails jumping and playing in Central Park

Marvelous sights, indeed.  But for the past two months, I’ve not been able to write about what I see.  For my silence, dear readers, I apologize, and for your patience and your inquiries, I thank you.

It’s been a tough summer.  I’ve been sorely missing one particular reader, a reader whose overflowing pleasure in each new post was only equaled by his curiosity and willingness, at 88 years of age, to learn and marvel.  Readers of the comment section of Out Walking the Dog may recall the terse yet effusive praise of “Daddy-o,” who sometimes simply wrote: “More! More!”

Born in Brooklyn in 1923 and raised in New Jersey, my father, aka Daddy-o, moved to Manhattan to attend Columbia University and, aside from a stint of seven years in Connecticut, never left.  He was among the most cultured and rational-minded of New Yorkers, yet he imparted to me an abiding fascination with the natural world.

To say simply that my father “loved nature” would be misleading.  His relationship to nature, as to most things, was complex, layered and richly ambivalent.

For the past 45 years, maybe more, he spent virtually every weekend and a month each summer on the south shore of Long Island.

There he grew gorgeous flowers, attracted songbirds, cast into the surf for bluefish, fought to maintain patches of local wildness, and planted river birches to block the McMansions that cropped up in erstwhile potato fields.

And there he engaged in bitter warfare with any of nature’s agents, be they animal or vegetable, native or invasive, that threatened the boundaries of his cultivated Arcadia.  The phragmites that dominated the shoreline of little Mecox Bay, the tick-harboring white-tailed deer that nipped the heads off his beloved day lilies, the bittersweet vine that gobbled everything in its path, such plants and animals were of the devil’s party; their encroachments unleashed in my father a righteous warrior who pushed back hard against the anarchic threat of uncultivated and invasive nature.

The Battle of the Bittersweet Vine became a personal Thirty Years War of  hacking, chopping and tearing of roots.  Decades ago in Connecticut, this most urbane of men borrowed a neighbor’s 22 rifle and sat in wait for the barbarian muskrats that were tunneling into his lawn. Age did not mellow this fighter;  in his 80s, he swore no meat ever tasted as good as the venison from a hapless deer, undoubtedly bent on heinous vegetable depredations, that a friend killed on his property with a bow and arrow.  His response to the arrival of coyotes in Manhattan in February 2010 was to say wryly, “It’s the end of civilization,” and to, at least in part, mean it.

But it was with my father that I first experienced the unexpected thrills of engagement with the natural world, looking for beetles in the damp dirt beneath a rock, capturing crickets, watching for bluebirds in spring, or rowing behind a water snake as it swam along with a still-kicking bullfrog halfway down its throat.

My father, who spent his life inquiring with compassion and clinical interest into the workings of the human mind, never lost the capacity to be amazed at the wonders and horrors of both the natural and man-made worlds.  I miss him mightily.

Arnold M. Cooper, M.D.
March 9, 1923 – June 9, 2011


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