Archive for the ‘cats’ category

Urban Wild and Feral Life in Spring

March 21, 2014

Spring is officially here. Red-tails are nesting, peacocks are showing, and male mallards are acting downright crazy.

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Trees are still mostly bare, which means you can more easily spot wildlife.

And feral life. The feral cat colony in Morningside Park seems out of control this spring. The cats are everywhere around the pond, stalking  ducks and other birds.

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But that’s a topic for another post.

For now, let’s put away the ice rescue ladder, and celebrate the arrival of another spring.

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Below are links to a few of Out Walking the Dog’s odes to springs past:

Two-Eyed Prophecy of Spring

It’s Spring; Everybody Sing!

Spring Fling in Morningside Park: Be Still, My Heart

Spring in Three Cities

NYC Signs of Spring: Red-tails Nest and Mr Softee Sings

NYC, Again with the Snow

February 3, 2014

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Again this morning, snow.

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Here are a few images from our snows of the past month.

Esau waits for me in Riverside Park.

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Dog prints on the retaining wall high above the park.

Who's been walking on the wall?

Who’s been walking on the wall?

In Morningside Park, a feral cat makes its way along the cliff near the iced-over waterfall.

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The cat’s white legs look like little ice falls.

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The pond in Morningside Park is sometimes frozen.

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Other times, some kind of bubble machine prevents it from fully freezing.

Bubbling pools in Morningside Pond.

Bubbling pools in Morningside Pond.

After the snow, the sky clears and a hawk flies over the snowy landscape of Central Park.

Red-tail after a snowfall.

Morningside Park: Sunbathing Turtles, Molting Mallards, Feral Cats

June 21, 2013

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All the rain we’ve had recently means the animals in Morningside Park are living the lush life.

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Green, green and greener.

And the sunshine brings out sunbathers.

Turtle pile-up.

Turtle pile-up.

Turtles are everywhere, on the rocks and in the water.

Female mallard and turtles.

Female mallard and turtles.

Today, mallards and turtles are the dominant species in the little pond.

Cooling off.

Cooling off.

Now that the excitement of breeding season is over, male mallards are molting into eclipse plumage. Drab feathers replace the brilliant iridescence of breeding plumage.

Molting mallard.

Molting mallard.

Not every bird is on the same schedule. The head and neck of the duck below glitters and shines, although he is well into his molt.

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Still breaking out the bling.

Each year during their molt, ducks lose their flight feathers, rendering them especially vulnerable to ground predators. What ground predators, you may wonder, do ducks have to worry about here in our urban park? Well, feral cats, dogs off the leash and, possibly, raccoons. Morningside Park’s feral cats have been more visible than ever this past winter and spring.

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It’s no coincidence that someone is regularly feeding the cats.

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The spot for the feedings is right by the great stone staircase, on the cliff behind the pond. The pond and its surrounding vegetation draw nesting ducks as well as sparrows, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, robins, night herons, egrets and many other species. The cats are beautiful animals, and I understand the impulse to care for them. I understand trapping, neutering, vaccinating, and releasing them. But feeding them? Given what we now know about the devastation to North American songbirds since cats were established in the New World, do we really want to be feeding them?

We know a lot about the negative impacts of feeding wildlife, and I was happy to see these signs in Morningside Park.

Please Don't Feed Waterfowl.

Please Don’t Feed Waterfowl.

The signs address intentional feeding. But inadvertent feeding, in the form of trash and dropped food, is what keeps our rodent population so healthy – and I’m not just talking about squirrels, like the one below.

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Squirrels don’t need bakery rolls.

Our urban ecosystem works best without hand-outs. Let them forage for themselves.

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Top Posts of 2012, Part One

December 28, 2012
The dog and I thank you.

The dog and I thank you.

As the end of the year approaches, the dog and I would like to thank our loyal readers for their regular visits to Out Walking the Dog. And as our community continues to grow, we’re  delighted to welcome readers – and commenters – from all over North America as well as Great Britain, Italy, Finland, Spain, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and beyond.

Here is the first installment of Out Walking the Dog‘s Ten Most Popular Stories of 2012.  These stories, all written and published in the past year, cover topics that include waiting dogs and feral cats, the effect of human-generated trash on wildlife, the arrival of coyotes on Staten Island, squirrels, and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. (Oddly, the most popular story of all remains a post I wrote in 2010: Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got its Spikes. It has received far and away the most hits each and every year for three years now. Go figure.)

Most Popular Stories, Ten through Six

White kitten, Randall's Island, NYC.

White kitten, Randall’s Island.

10. Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral explores the lifestyles of NYC felines from cats that work to keep delis and bodegas mouse-free to feral cats that roam urban parks and streets. Free-roaming cats, both domestic and feral, cause a surprising amount of ecological damage as they kill birds that evolved without defenses against these efficient non-native carnivores. Are Trap-Neuter-Release programs a humane response to feral cat colonies or part of a larger ecological problem?

NYC Red-tail Eats Rat.

NYC Red-tail Eats Rat.

9. The Trash of Two Cities: How Our Trash Kills Our Hawks is a favorite post of mine. In it, I trace the 2012 deaths of NYC raptors to NYC’s overabundance of trash. Secondary poisoning kills raptors that consume rats laden with rodenticides (see post #6, below). All animals, including rats, seek food, water, and a safe place to rear their young. NYC provides all three in abundance, with trash providing most of the food that sustains our sizable rat population. The key to effective pest control is keeping our trash off-limits to animals. A visit to Philadelphia leads me to compare that city’s solar-powered compacting trash cans with the open cans and dumpsters of New York.

8.  The Waiting Dogs of NYC is a photo essay of New York’s ubiquitous waiting dogs. Dogs wait for their owners outside restaurants, shops, post offices. Some wait in pairs, some wait alone. Some wait happily, some wait anxiously. My dog, too, waits. But the bond between an urban dog and its owner is strong.

Esau waits.

Esau waits.

NYC coyote: Mark Weckel.

NYC coyote: Mark Weckel

7. Another NYC Borough Falls to the Coyote muses over the first documented sighting of a coyote in Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill. How did the coyote get to Staten Island? What research is being done in NYC to find out more about where our urban coyotes are living? “As I’ve been saying for a couple of years now, coyotes are coming, people. In fact, they’re here.”

6. Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail documents the community reaction to the demise of a red-tailed hawk known as Mom who nested each year in Riverside Park.  Over the years, Mom survived a string of bad luck, including the death of a mate from secondary poisoning (see post #9 above) and the destruction of her nest with three nestlings in a storm.  But last year was a tough one for NYC’s hawks with at least four dying from rat poison. We visited the charming memorial put up in the park at Mom’s nesting site.

Riverside Park Memorial

Riverside Park Memorial

Check back before the new year for the top five stories of 2012.

Feral Cats of Riverside Park

November 12, 2012

Feral cats live in urban parks throughout New York City.  Yesterday I went looking for Riverside Park’s small feral cat colony to see how they had weathered Hurricane Sandy and last week’s Nor’easter.

First I spotted evidence that the cats’ caretakers were still on the job.

Of course, Riverside Park is home to a few other animal species who may happily partake of whatever food and water is put out for the cats. The food bowl was empty, and the water bowl was spilled. Hmm. Could be the work of the local raccoon family, although I haven’t seen them around much lately.

But who’s that behind prison bars?

Let’s draw a little closer.

Beautiful.

After a couple of minutes, the tortoiseshell cat disappeared into the dark recesses behind it, and its amber stare was replaced by this pale green stare.

So as far as I can tell, the cats are fine.

Dealing with feral cat colonies is a complex ecological and moral issue. For more on NYC’s feral cats and the Trap-Neuter-Release program that sustains them, visit Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral.

NYC October Animal Round-up

October 27, 2012

In early October, a cat and a man dressed in shades of green emerged out of the still-green leaves along Riverside Park.

walking the cat

Just out walking the cat.

The cat was completely calm and walked well on its long leash, unfazed by Esau the dog and other fascinated canines.

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Walking the wall with kitty.

The man said he had started leash-training when the cat was still a kitten. He would head to Riverside Drive at 3 in the morning when the streets were quiet. Days passed, and they stayed out later and later into the morning as the city woke up, until the cat gradually became accustomed to the hustle and bustle of traffic, dogs, people and the rest of the urban hubbub. They are an impressive pair.

The man tries to get the cat to pose for a picture, but it has other plans.

Also on Riverside Drive, well-camouflaged sparrows filled the branches of a baby tree.

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A sparrow tree.

Here’s a closer look.

A gathering of sparrows.

We paid a quick visit to the “Forever Wild” section of the park, where migrating warblers and nuthatches abounded.

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Esau is forever wild.

Leaving the park, we crossed one of the islands, or medians, of Broadway, where we discovered a tiny corpse.

monarch butterfly corpse

A tiny corpse on Broadway

We bent to take a closer look. It was a monarch butterfly, looking as beautiful as ever, but with a strange yellow substance coming out of its underside. Are monarch guts bright yellow? I was not able to find any answers to this question, so, my trusty reader, please tell me, if you know.

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Monarch butterfly on Broadway.

Further down Broadway, a man sat on a barbershop pony, while talking with a friend.

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Just another bit of Broadway.

Over at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, a squirrel hung upside down to gorge on berries.

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Upside down at the Cathedral.

We watched the little animal for at least five minutes, during which it remained upside down, calmly reaching for berries with its paws and nibbling away, as if this was its usual position in the world.

Eating berries behind the Cathedral.

  Two brightly colored animals walked the grounds of the Cathedral.

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Two lovely creatures (well, four, counting the pigeons at the left).

We went back to Riverside Park at dusk, this time descending the steps into the park.  A raccoon lounged in the mouth of its den high in the retaining wall.

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Raccoon gets ready to start its day at dusk.

A mother gazed at the raccoon, while her child gazed at Esau, tied to the chain link fence.

Raccoons high on the wall; mother and child below.

The sun went down, and the raccoon began its nocturnal prowl with a walk on the wall. Raccoons sometimes walk the wall on all fours.

Riverside Park raccoon

A walk on the wild side of the wall.

At other times they stand erect, looking like bulky little mannikins edging along a high ledge.

Raccoon does its “man on a ledge” impression.

When it got too dark to follow the raccoon’s progress easily, we went home where Esau took his stuffed dog to bed.

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Good-night.

Hot Town, NYC

September 4, 2012

Minnie Mouse sells flavored ices on 109th Street.

It’s the day after Labor Day, and even this hot summer is drawing to a close.  The air is thick and heavy today as what’s left of Hurricane Isaac passes us.  And I’m thinking about summer in the city.

The way the colors are brighter than at any other time of year.

Remember when manikins (and womanikins) faced front, even in tight pants?

The way Amsterdam Avenue comes alive in the heat.

Caribbean blues on Amsterdam Avenue.

Girls in bright colors pass in front of a meat market on Amsterdam and 107th Street.

Another block, another meat market, this one on Amsterdam between 108th and 109th.

On 108th Street, a prayer meeting closes the street.

Hold hands or raise them high, bodies swaying.

Over on Broadway, too, August colors shimmer.

Famous Famiglia offers Italian ices in the summer.

On 59th Street, a plumed carriage horse was working hard, maybe too hard.

Carriage horse passes children on their way into Central Park.

Animals of all species need to slow down, cool down, and take it easy.

Dogs.

Esau rests by tiny blue flowers.

Squirrels.

Lazy Boy squirrel.

Birds.

Through gular fluttering, a form of panting, birds can cool their bodies.

Humans.

Beneath the parasol, amid an array of stuff, a person dozes.

And cats.

Why we have benches.

The cat pictured in the above photo isn’t just any tabby.  It’s the (locally) famous Samad’s Gourmet cat,

Samad’s Gourmet on Broadway.

a very cool kitty, well known on the street, who is not above moonlighting in record sales.

Would you buy a used record from this cat?

But the photo just above was taken in cooler days, in the middle of winter, when a working cat doesn’t mind a little extra responsibility.  Mid-summer is a whole other story.

“So chill in the heat I can barely breathe.”

But perhaps the cat comes alive on a summer night, as the Lovin’Spoonful classic has it:

Cool cat lookin’ for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city,

Ah, let’s just let the Spoonful tell it:

Home From Dallas, Celebrating NYC

August 4, 2012

I’m home!  After a wonderful month in Dallas, rehearsing and performing my play, NYC Coyote Existential (more on coyotes in Dallas in a future post), New York’s parks seem impossibly green. As I wrote in the play, the summer green of the Northeast can seem “almost hallucinogenic, layer upon layer of vertigo-inducing green, like something out of Apocalypse Now or H.P. Lovecraft, the color alive and sentient.”

Of course, everyone here in NYC is busy complaining about the heat. But hey, after a month in Dallas with one day after another of three-digit temperatures, well, I’m just not buying all the moaning. Sure it’s hot, and yes, it’s soupy.  NYC heat is like going a few rounds in a clothes dryer with a wet towel. Hot. But Dallas at 108 degrees is like walking straight into a giant pizza oven.

The biggest difference is that here in NYC, we walk everywhere, to the subway, to the supermarket, to the hardware store, so we’re actually out in the heat. Pretty much wherever you need to go, you walk to get there.

In Dallas, not so much.

Dallas is a quintessential American car city, where many people walk only from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned home to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned store to … well, you get the idea. So as long as the air-conditioning is working, you can avoid the full impact of that mind-boggling heat. The animals, of course, seek natural cooling sources, which means, first and foremost, water. Here, a mixed group of waterbirds cools off and feeds at the White Rock Lake spillway in East Dallas.

I’ll write more about Dallas and its animals soon. Right now, though, I’m celebrating NYC in the dog days of August.

On Thursday evening, as we drank margaritas on the roof of our apartment building, a fat, phenomenally red moon – the Sturgeon Moon – rose in the east, and a red-tailed hawk landed atop the school next door. The hawk perched in the deepening shadows so long that I wondered if it was going to stay all night. When it finally flew off, its wide wings caught the light of the moon and lit up for a split second like the wings of a predatory angel.

No, I don’t have pictures. You’ll just have to take my word.

Down in the apartment, a tiny green inchworm – more like a quarter-inchworm, really – clung doughtily to the kitchen faucet.

Tiny worm

It reared its unimaginably small head and seemed to be trying to figure out where to go. I put it on a nearby jade plant, where it will probably either die or gobble up my only plant before transforming into a moth ready to gobble up my winter clothes. But how did it get onto the faucet in the first place?

And on Friday, six flights down and one block east, a small but mighty ant carried a huge, winged, red-headed carcass (identification, anyone?) up and down a fence railing, the iron so beautifully rusted that it resembled wood.

In Central Park, the water has turned completely green with algae, and the willows appear to be melting in the midsummer heat.

A fat freckled fish lurks near the shore.

And this morning in Riverside Park, the wall leaners and sitters are out in force.

A dryad with her cat sips a cold drink and gazes at the passing world.

After a while, the nymph hoists the gigantic cat onto her shoulder

and heads up the hillside.

I am so lucky to be back in Manhattan, where dryads carry giant cats through the streets and parks.

A Tribute to Two Cats

February 25, 2012

Cats and humans may have been living together for as long as 10,000 years. In 2004, researchers found the remains of a cat and a human buried together in a 9,500 year-old gravesite in Cyprus.

By that timescale, the dozen years my family and our two cats lived together are microscopic, almost undetectable. But those twelve and a half years were, as it turned out, feline lifetimes. Our cats died this month, two weeks apart, and today I’m finding it hard to remember life before Pudding and Leia.

Born in an East Dallas warehouse in the relentless heat of a Texas summer, the kittens were taken in by a rescuer who cared for them, along with two other feral litters, until they were old enough to be adopted. We were the lucky ones who took them home.

To the uninitiated, the cats resembled each other,

Leia on the left, Pudding on right with half-moustache.

but they couldn’t have been more different.

Pudding was a big lug of a cat, sweet-tempered and laid-back, the kind of guy you might find in the corner bar, buying a pitcher of beer for his buds.

Big lug.

All his life, Pudding adored my son, hustling to the door when he got home from school and hanging out in his room, like a pal.

Leia, on the other hand, was the runt. Until her last years, she spent an inordinate amount of time hiding in closets, avoiding contact with people. Except for me. Leia was crazy about me.  Head over heels.  Smitten. Gaga. She’d gaze at me as I worked with a slightly demented intensity, like an over-needy lover desperate for an opening.

I loved her dearly, but I avoided looking in her direction, since even inadvertent eye contact could unleash a feline litany of demands, reproaches and yearnings. One night, as my husband tried to read, my son filmed Leia and me.

The apartment has grown suddenly larger with the loss of these two creatures. Small in body, and large in spirit, they gave us joy. We miss them.

Rest in peace, Pudding and Leia.

Lives of City Cats: The Working and the Feral

February 13, 2012

Once upon a time, cats were common fixtures in NYC stores, greeting customers in the doorway of the fishmonger or lounging in a patch of sunlight among resoled boots in the display window of the shoe repair store. The corner deli, the candy store, and the Chinese laundry – Manhattan’s equivalent to the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker – each had a resident feline.

They weren’t pets, these cats. They were working animals, who paid for their room and board by working nights in rodent control, and days in customer development, allowing people like me to scratch their ears.

Several cats still work my stretch of Broadway. Most impressive is the fine, fat beast attached to Samad’s Gourmet between 111th and 112th Street. Friendly and self-assured, the cat loafs outside the store in fine weather, and has been seen trundling into neighboring shops, just to say hello.  On a mild January day, it helped out in the sales department of the neighborhood vintage record seller.

Would you buy a used record from the cat?

But not all neighborhood cats are living the good life of Samad’s cat.

Ten days ago, I encountered this black cat on the retaining wall of Riverside Park.

Maybe the cat is on the lam from a nearby apartment. Or maybe it’s a member of Riverside Park’s small feral cat colony, which shares an indoor space with the occasional homeless person.

Riverside Park cat colony. Photo from April 2010.

Volunteers have trapped each animal, and taken it to a veterinarian where it is neutered or spayed before being returned to the park. By preventing the cats from breeding, the proponents of the Trap-Neuter-Return program hope the colony will eventually die out.

Feral cat in Riverside Park, 2010.

Meanwhile the volunteers quietly provide food and water,

Who else eats at this buffet?

and advocate for the protection of the cats.

A hodgepodge of baskets and boxes

I don’t know how many cats are cared for in Riverside Park, although I have never seen more than three.

But surely, as the presence of the black cat on the wall indicates, there will always be a new recruit, whether an unwanted pet dumped in the park, or a runaway in search of greener pastures, finding its way to the easily accessible food and shelter.

Across the country, there is a dawning awareness that domestic cats, both feral and pet, are fierce and effective predators that can have a devastating affect on birds and other wildlife. A recent study cited by the American Bird Conservancy estimates that cats may be responsible for over half a billion bird deaths each year. Approximately half of that astonishing number is attributed to feral cats and the other half – that’s 250,000 dead birds – to pet cats that are allowed outside. Peter Marra of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute told the New York Times in 2011, “Cats are way up there in terms of threats to birds — they are a formidable force in driving out native species.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love cats.

Pudding (1999-2012), an indoor city cat, ponders what to read next.

But if cats are truly an invasive species causing potentially serious harm to the ecosystem, then free-roaming cats raise surprisingly complex and far-reaching questions, among them how to ethically and humanely manage feral cat colonies and even our own pet cats.

Feral cats are found all over New York City in parks, parking lots and alleys between buildings.

A small colony lives in Morningside Park. With its population of ground-nesting birds, its rough terrain and bushy undergrowth, Morningside is well-suited to the little feline predators.

White cat soaks up some rays on a mild January day in Morningside Park.

On Randall’s Island, in the shadow of the Triborough – er, I mean, the RFK – Bridge, a marmalade kitten stretches,

while its sibling, or friend, keeps pale green watch on passing humans.

Two grown cats groom and watch the world go by from an East Harlem lot,

while a few blocks away, on a rare grassy patch, two kittens hone their predatory skills with a game of hunter-and-prey.

Readers, I welcome your thoughts on cats, both feral and pet.


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