Archive for the ‘coyotes’ category

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.

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.

Another NYC Borough Falls to the Coyote

April 6, 2012

A coyote has been spotted in Staten Island.

Photo by Nick Mirto. Click image to visit SILive.com

New Jerseyan Nick Mirto saw the coyote in Staten Island’s Freshkills landfill on a recent run to dump a load of soil. Luckily for us, he pulled out his trusty iPhone and snapped the above photo. On previous trips, Mirto has seen herds of white-tailed deer and two red foxes at the site.

How did the coyote get to Staten Island? Well, deer swim across the Arthur Kill from New Jersey, as you can unmistakeably see in this video, taken by a boat captain: Two Deer Swimming To Staten Island.  Like deer, coyotes are strong swimmers, and they certainly inhabit New Jersey.  You can see in the map below that it’s not terribly far.

Juvenile coyotes often disperse at this time of year, kicked out by parents who are preparing to raise a new litter.  Most of the coyotes that have shown up in Manhattan over the past decade or so have been juveniles between one and two years of age. My guess is that the Staten Island coyote, too, is a young animal in search of new territory to call its own.

According to a CUNY Brooklyn website, “The Fresh Kills Landfill covers 2200 acres, can be seen with the naked eye from space and is taller then the Statue of Liberty, at a height of 225 ft.”  That’s a mighty big area for a coyote, full of prey. If you can ignore the fact that the landfill is stuffed with toxins, it would seem to be a pretty happy hunting ground for a coyote.

On other New York coyote news, Science Friday just posted a lovely video of the on-going studies being conducted by wildlife biologist Mark Weckel. Studying Coyotes in NYC.  The video reveals that a camera trap photo below, which I had guessed was taken in Van Cortland Park, was actually taken in Yonkers.

Camera Trap Photo: Mark Weckel. Click image to visit Science Friday.

As I’ve been saying for a couple of years now, coyotes are coming, people. In fact, they’re here.

NYC Coyote Round-up: Walking the Talk, Talking the Walk

March 24, 2012

Ever since 2010, when I came face to face with a young female coyote in Central Park, I’ve had coyotes on the brain. As my regular readers know, I’m fascinated by (some might say, obsessed with) the urban coyote phenomenon and bowled over by the extraordinary story of migration as these highly adaptable wild dogs have spread out of their native home in the Great Plains, across the continent and into every imaginable habitat, including our suburbs and cities.

Coyotes in an unidentified NYC park. Photo: Mark Weckel. Click image to go to New York Times Green Blog.

Another winter has come and gone with no new coyote sightings in Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t going about their business nearby.  For years, coyotes have been quietly living and breeding in the Bronx (where I suspect the photo above was taken). Recent coyote sightings in Queens induced the usual breathless, frothing-at-the-mouth coverage by local media.

A coyote in Queens, nicknamed Frank by researchers, photographed by a trail camera. Click image to go to article by Mark Weckel and Chris Nagy.

Today I have five happy bits of New York City coyote news:

1. A recent article by  Sindya N. Bhanoo in the New York Times Green Blog looked at New York’s urban coyotes with refreshing calm and genuine curiosity. Bhanoo uses well-chosen quotes – from a researcher, the head of the urban park rangers and even a high school student involved in a coyote study – to educate readers about urban coyotes, reassuring the frightened (simply seeing a coyote is not cause for alarm), cautioning the foolish and/or sentimental (don’t feed, don’t approach, etc.), and even pointing out the possible benefits of having a top predator in the hood (rodent and deer control).

2. Today, Proteus Gowanus, Brooklyn’s interdisciplinary art gallery and reading room, was the starting point for a coyote walk.

Led by artist Dillon de Give, the walk was intended not to look for coyotes, but as a way to imagine how a coyote might travel through Brooklyn. Sticking to green spaces whenever possible, Dillon led walkers into  Manhattan and north to Hallett Nature Sanctuary at the south end of Central Park. Hallett, a one-acre area that is off-limit to both dogs and humans, was used as a resting spot Manhattan’s coyote visitors in 2006 and 2010.

3. Next weekend, de Give will embark on his annual Lah walk.

Image by Dillon de Give. Click image to visit Dillon’s website.

According to Dillon’s website:

“Lah” is an annual project that commemorates the spirit of Hal, a coyote who appeared in Central Park in 2006 and died shortly after being captured by authorities.

Lah illustrates how a coyote might find its way into Manhattan with a reverse human journey out of the city: a hike retracing a potential coyote-like path through greenspaces. Citing examples of juvenile coyotes that have made long dispersal trips, the walk averages around 50-60 miles.

The walk has been performed solo, in a group, and in a pair.

In 2010, I joined Dillon and his fellow Lah walkers on the first leg of their journey from Hallett to the north end of Central Park, leaving them at Frederick Douglass Circle to continue their way north for several days.

4. On Saturday afternoon, March 31st, Frank Vincenti, Director of The Wild Dog Foundation, will lead a Coyote Lecture in Forest Park in Queens. Frank is a passionate advocate for co-existing with coyotes, and will be talking about coyote natural history. I’m guessing he will also talk about the growing population of NYC coyotes, and the latest DNA research showing that many Eastern coyotes carry wolf genes, acquired during their long migration by inter-breeding with a remnant population of Red wolves. For more information, visit the NYC Parks Department or call (718) 846-2731.

5. And last, an invitation for NYC readers to join me for a staged reading of my hot-off-the-presses new play:

New York City Coyote Existential
(a short play with science & songs)

Apologies for the blurry screen shot. Some day, I’ll learn to scan.

This is a bare bones reading in a small gallery space at Proteus Gowanus. It will feature the wonderful actress Mary Shultz as The Coyote with music by Thomas Cabaniss. Please be aware that seating is very limited, and is first come, first served.

Check back soon for updates on New York’s coyote news.

‘Midnight: The Coyote, Down in the Mouth’ by Tim Seibles

February 28, 2012

As my regular readers have undoubtedly discerned, I have certain urban animal species on the brain. Rats, raccoons and coyotes, among others, roil the mental waters. In the throes of fascination, I call on science, art and poetry.

Urban Coyote with Rat by Atty Gell.

An earlier post quoted Stanley Kunitz’s marvelous poem, Raccoon Journal.  Today it’s time for coyotes to get lyrical.

I recently came across this reading by Tim Seibles of his poem, Midnight: The Coyote, Down in the Mouth. It’s a wonderful reading, best heard, I think, without the accompanying images. But since I couldn’t find a purely audio version to share, here is the poem, illustrated and animated to within an inch of its life. You don’t have to watch, only listen. And enjoy.

You may read the poem here in Seibles’ book, Hammerlock, which you can buy here, or order from your local independent bookseller. Mine is BookCulture on West 112th Street.

Top Five Urban Nature Stories of 2011: From Peacocks to Mastodons

December 31, 2011

Yesterday we began our coverage of Out Walking the Dog’s Top Ten Stories of 2011 with Numbers Ten to Six. The stories explored urban coyotes and whales as well as a secret garden in the middle of New York City and two peculiar NYC plants, one of which is connected to an on-going ancient British festival.

Today the countdown continues with the top five stories. Here we go:

Number Five:
Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights takes a look at the pure-white free-roaming peacock of Saint John the Divine. My readers appear to be in the grip of a communal fascination with peacocks in general and white peacocks in particular. Well, who can blame them? The birds are extraordinary. More peacock posts will follow in 2012.

Number Four:
City Hawk Snatches Chihuahua? recounts an eye-witness report by a fellow dog walker in Riverside Park of a red-tailed hawk flying off with a pink-leashed chihuahua. Believe it or not, similar stories are regularly reported. Urban legend? Fact? You decide. With a made-to-order illustration by Los Angeles writer and blogger Charlotte Hildebrand.

Number Three:
Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels and Rats? is a search engine favorite, as readers from NYC and around the country seem especially concerned about the possibility of rabies in squirrels.  I wrote the post almost two years ago, during the early days of the NYC raccoon rabies epidemic, but it continues to receive a large number of hits.

credit: Marcelo Barrera

Number Two:
NYC Coyote Watch 2011: Coyote in Queens
was published at the end of January 2011, when a coyote had been seen – and photographed – in Calvary Cemetery, Queens. Queens and the Bronx seem to be the coyote’s current boroughs of choice with a breeding population in the Bronx and on-going sightings in several Queens neighborhoods. Long Island has fallen to the adaptable predator. Today, Queens. Tomorrow, the Hamptons.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, drum roll, please. The Number One Story on Out Walking the Dog during 2011 is …

Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got its Spikes. Written in 2010, Mastodons in Manhattan has consistently been my most-read post. Go figure. It tells the story of how the Honey locust tree, which may be seen in abundance in NYC parks, adapted to predation by North American megafauna by developing long, fierce spikes that are tough enough to pierce mastodon tongues (and automobile tires).

And that’s it for 2011, folks. We hope you’ll continue to follow our urban nature explorations in 2012.

Most Popular Urban Nature Stories of 2011: Numbers 10 – 6

December 30, 2011

Today and tomorrow, we’re celebrating another year of watching New York City’s urban wildlife by looking back at Out Walking the Dog’s Top Stories of 2011.  The articles include mastodons, chihuahua-carrying hawks, whales, coyotes, rodents, burdock, peacocks and the secret garden of St. John the Divine. Today I’ll count down from Number Ten through Number Six. Tomorrow I’ll cover Numbers Five through One.

Ladies and gentlemen, let the countdown begin:

Number 10:
In the Number Ten spot, we have a tie between two very different stories.

NYC Coyote Existential: Where Do They Come From and Where are They Going? explores recent scientific research behind the origins of the coyotes that are populating the Northeast and have begun turning up in NYC. Prompted by my own sightings of a young female coyote in Central Park, the story features several of D. Bruce Yolton’s marvelous night photos that capture the odd, dream-like quality of seeing a coyote in our urban world.

Seed Pods and Eyeballs offers a brief exploration of the marvelous Sweetgum tree with its ubiquitous (in Riverside Park, anyway) spiky seedpods, known as monkey balls, porcupine eggs and space balls, among other colorful names. I was inspired to write the post by a reader’s query about the starry eyes of a snowman in a photo from an earlier post.

Number 9:
Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls To His Friends
looks at the problems of over-population, habituation to humans, and disease that may be caused by feeding urban wildlife. But the story also observes the profound pleasure and connection to nature that many people derive from the activity.  Does the pleasure balance the harm?

Number 8:
The Burry Man, The Burry Dog and Burdock
is a personal favorite. After an unpleasant encounter with burrs in Riverside Park (the dog was covered in them), I researched burdock, and found the bizarre annual British ritual of the burry man. Check out the story for more than you ever wanted to know about burrs along with photos of a burr-encrusted dog and the marvelous real-life burry man.

Number Seven:
Saint John the Divine: A Secret Garden in Morningside Heights
is a photo essay of one of my favorite neighborhood spots in the glory of spring bloom. Free-roaming peacocks, bronze animals and more: read the story and plan a visit.

Number Six:
Whales in New York City
details the thrilling return of whales to the waters of New York, including the presence of a group of 30 to 50 fin whales just past the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

Check back on January 31st – tomorrow!  – for the top five stories of the year.

Co-existing with Urban Coyotes – even in NYC

December 18, 2011

Hal, a young coyote trapped in Central Park in 2006, died before he could be relocated. Photograph by Daniel Avila, courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation

Coyote Sightings in Queens: Is the Situation Dangerous?

Residents of Jamaica, Queens have reported sightings of coyotes near the Locust Manor LIRR station. According to the usual media hype, they are being “terrorized” by dangerous predators. It’s impossible to tell from the reporting whether there is one coyote, spotted many times, or several. It’s also difficult to ascertain whether the coyote(s) have shown behavior that is worrisome or potentially dangerous. Often people, especially city dwellers, panic at the very idea of a wild animal among us. Simply seeing a coyote, even in a residential or commercial area, is not in itself cause for alarm. Most coyotes are naturally fearful and wary of humans, and try to keep their distance.

Wary California coyote peers into backyard. Photo by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Removal or Relocation

If the situation in Locust Manor is determined to be dangerous, the city or USDA will respond accordingly. Usually, if an individual animal has shown itself to be aggressive, it will be trapped and killed. If it is considered a nuisance rather than a threat, authorities may attempt to trap and relocate it.  In 2010, a 30-pound female coyote took up residence for a month in Central Park’s Hallett Sanctuary. She began venturing out of the park at night, and was eventually trapped in Tribeca and relocated to an undisclosed location within city limits.

Coyote in Central Park 2010. Photo by D. Bruce Yolton of Urbanhawks.com (click photo to visit)

How well relocation works, either for the coyote or the neighborhood, is an open question. Leaving aside Manhattan Island, research in other communities indicates that many relocated coyotes try to return to their original area (and often don’t make it, hit by cars as they attempt to cross busy roads). The public likes to think of relocation as more humane than killing, a happy compromise for all, but the truth is, as so often in nature, more complex. Most areas that are suitable for relocation of a wild animal already have a resident population of the species that will not welcome an interloper.

Removal is also unlikely to be a permanent solution to a neighborhood’s problem. The qualities that drew a coyote to settle in a particular area (available food, water and shelter) will, in all likelihood, eventually attract new animals into the void created by the removal.

It’s Our Turn To Adapt

Once confined to the Great Plains, coyotes are in the process of colonizing the entire country, a process that began about a hundred years ago. They have evinced a remarkable ability to adapt to the dramatic environmental changes we humans have created, including the loss of traditional habitat. Sooner or later, we must accept their presence in our communities, and learn to co-exist with them. Like it or not, it’s our turn to adapt.

Still, we humans need to adjust our behavior to accommodate the new reality of coyotes in our midst.  Below are basic guidelines, compiled from wildlife biologists, on living with urban and suburban coyotes.

I’m not a coyote expert. I’m an amateur naturalist who is intrigued by urban nature and the changing interplay between humans and wild animals. In a future post, I’ll provide links to a variety of websites from New York and around the country that offer fascinating information on coyote behavior and how to live with these remarkable creatures.

LIVING WITH COYOTES

Keep cats inside. Cats, astonishingly effective little killers of birds and rodents, are often killed in turn by coyotes. If you love them, keep them inside.

Supervise and leash your dogs. Keep smaller dogs under close supervision, even in a fenced yard. Don’t leave pets out at night. Never leave a pet tied up outside without close supervision.

Supervise small children when they play outside, even in a fenced yard.

Don’t feed the animals. Pet food, garbage, and your cat or small dog are all food to a wild animal.  Secure your garbage, and don’t feed your pets outside.

Enjoy watching coyotes from a distance, and never try to lure them closer with food. If you like coyotes, do not try to “make friends” with them.  A common saying among coyote experts is, “A fed coyote is a dead coyote.” Feeding leads the animal to become habituated to humans, which may lead to aggressive demands for food, or to perceived aggression when a coyote approaches too closely.

If you see a coyote, make yourself appear large and potentially threatening by waving your arms and shouting. Let the coyote know that encounters with humans are thoroughly unpleasant and should be avoided. Blow a loud whistle or horn, or bang pots and pans. Don’t run. Running may trigger the coyote’s instinct to chase.

A coyote that is aggressive towards people needs to be removed, which generally means killed.

Report aggressive animals immediately. But remember: just spotting an animal does not mean it is a threat. Seeing a wild animal may be, in fact, an opportunity.

Keep wildlife wild.

Young coyote startled by the sound of a camera. Photo by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Queens Coyotes Expand NYC Range

December 16, 2011

Coyotes have taken up residence in another New York City borough.  They’ve long been living in the wilds of the Bronx.  Now continued coyote sightings and encounters confirm that at least one animal, and possibly several, are living near the Locust Manor Long Island Railroad station in Jamaica, Queens. The local media is playing up the situation (‘Coyotes Terrorizing Residents Near LIRR Station’) as if a pack of fire-breathing, man-eating dragons had moved into the patch of woods by the train tracks.

Residents of the Locust Manor neighborhood are scared, which is certainly understandable, particularly given the lack of reliable information about urban coyotes.  One woman tells a reporter that she turned around and “it was on me,” a statement the reporter does nothing to clarify. Does the woman mean that the coyote attacked her or that it simply and suddenly appeared? Clearly not the former, or the reporter would have had an even bigger field day.

I started to wonder about the ongoing presence of coyotes in Queens when a post I wrote last January, NYC Coyote Watch 2011: Coyote in Queens, suddenly began receiving a large number of hits from people seeking information on coyotes in Queens.  In February, a reader wrote in to say that a friend of his had spotted a coyote in Flushing Cemetery. In April, another reader wrote worriedly of a disturbing encounter in Jamaica, near the LIRR tracks. Frank Vincent of  The Wild Dog Foundation wrote back, offering to speak to the community about the issue. And yesterday, a reader wrote about her family’s encounters with the Locust Manor coyote.

In the wake of the news report, the city sent a park ranger to investigate the situation.  My hope is that the city and the community will take an active role in educating residents about co-existing with wildlife. Many communities in New York and around the country are bringing in wildlife experts to talk to their citizens, defuse hysteria, answer questions, and offer suggestions and perspective. Informative websites are Project Coyote, based in California, and Chicago’s Urban Coyote Research Project.

The Locust Manor coyotes are certainly not the first wild coyotes in Queens. The animals appear to be spreading throughout the borough. Almost a year ago, a beautiful reddish coyote was spotted in Calvary Cemetery in Queens, not far from Long Island City. Calvary Cemetery is in Zone Two in the NYC map below, while Locust Manor, Jamaica, is in Zone Twelve, and Flushing is in Zone Seven. I think they’ve got the borough covered.

New York neighborhoods

When coyotes are spotted in such disparate areas, odds are pretty good that they’re living unnoticed, or unreported, in other areas as well.

This is big wildlife news for New York City, as well as for Long Island. For years, New York State wildlife experts have maintained that coyotes are resident throughout the state with the exception of Long Island. But Queens is on Long Island, so that statement clearly needs a little updating.

Today, Queens. Tomorrow, the Hamptons.  Oh, and Brooklynites, you’d better keep your eyes open.

Urban Animal Species Mix and Mingle

November 13, 2011

Equus caballus shares a meal with Columba livia.

Homo sapiens is the dominant species on Central Park South, aka West 59th Street. But we are not alone. Right here on the busy corner of Sixth Avenue and 59th is a peculiarly urban mix of wild, feral and domesticated animals.

The large mammals visible in the photo below are Homo sapiens (subspecies, New Yorker), and two species that originated in North America: Equus caballus (subspecies, suffering carriage horse) and Canis lupus familiaris (subspecies, city hotdog).

Also present on the street are Columba livia (Rock dove, aka city pigeon), Sturnus vulgaris (European starlingand Passer domesticus (House sparrow), as well as unidentified flies, bird mites and other insects enjoying the still-mild weather. Not one of these species – with the possible exception of humans – is considered native.

But I have a question: How long does a species need to be in residence before it is considered native? A few hundred years? A thousand?  Five thousand?

Around 15,000 years ago, give or take a couple of millennia, Homo sapiens crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia, accompanied by Canis lupus familiaris, the domesticated dog. Do we consider those paleolithic humans, our ancestors, to be a wild natural species? Or do we see ourselves as existing, even then, somehow outside nature, at the start, perhaps, of the dichotomy we of man-made versus natural?

Interestingly, around the time that humans were migrating westward, wild horses were disappearing from the continent, along with other large animals, including saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and wooly mammoths. Why did the horses disappear?  Climate change was certainly a factor. But did over-hunting by the newly arrived humans contribute to the extinction of the horse, as it did to the mastodon?  Whatever caused its extinction, the horse was not seen again in North America until the 1500s, when Spanish explorers brought the animals across the water, and unknowingly transformed the culture of indigenous North American peoples.

Plains Indian family with travois and horses, near Calgary, c. 1925 Photo: H. Pollard, McCord Museum

Millions of years before their North American extinction and re-introduction, horses had moved westward across the Bering land bridge, and fanned out across Asia and Europe. They were hunted for food and, eventually, tamed, trained and bred.

Horse cave painting in Lascaux, France

 By 2,000 B.C., horses were serving as transportation. They also served as beasts of burden, carrying goods. As war animals, they changed the nature of battle.

One hundred years ago, New York was still a city of horses. Today, the only horses left in Manhattan are police horses and Central Park carriage horses. I love to see horses in the city, but I pity them.

While the horses wait for their next fare, they share spilled grain with pigeons.  Sometimes, the two species even appear to interest each other.

Passersby rarely notice the little inter-species gatherings that go on all up and down the street.

 Directly behind the patient horses is an unassuming spot in Central Park that marks for me one of my heart-lurching sightings of  a wild native dog, Canis latrans, the Central Park coyote.

Canines originated in North America, spreading, like the horse, westward into the rest of the world, where they were domesticated at many times in many places. Domestication eventually led to breeds like the little dachshund, or badger dog (seen in the second photo), created by German farmers and breeders to control ground-denning wildlife.

But the coyote is a wild thing, found only in North America.  A highly adaptable omnivore, Canis latrans continues to evolve before our eyes, having expanded its range eastward into parts of the continent where it has never been seen. In southeastern Canada, coyotes hybridized with wolves before moving south into New England and New York state.  (The extent of the hybridization is still under debate, with some researchers maintaining the animals should be referred to as coywolves while others maintain they remain coyotes with a soupçon of wolf.)

Coyotes now inhabit the Bronx mainland, and have been been reported in Queens. They are irregular visitors to Manhattan, sometimes taking up temporary residence in Central Park. The March 2010 coyote, the one I was lucky enough to watch on several occasions, lived in the city for a month, before being trapped in Tribeca.

Winter is the time when juvenile coyotes often head out in search of new territory.  It’s been a year and eight months since we last had a coyote in Manhattan – or since we knew we had a coyote in Manhattan. But as another autumn rolls toward winter, I’m ready and waiting, convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the next coyote ventures onto our island.

Let me know if you see or hear anything.

NYC Walk/Study (with coyote)

March 7, 2011

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering…

… in Wildness is the preservation of the world …

Henry David Thoreau, Walking

Click poster to go to Walk Study web site

New Yorkers are walkers. Whether by preference or by necessity, you pretty much have to walk to get anywhere in this city.  But some New Yorkers are walkers of a whole other order, who have, as Thoreau said, “a genius for sauntering.”  One of these is Dillon de Give

Dillon de Give, walker extraordinaire

Dillon leads an annual three-day trek north into Westchester to trace in reverse the pilgrimage of Hal, a young coyote who wandered into Central Park in 2006, and died after being captured by city officials.

Coyote walk by Dillon de Give

The coyote walk, held in early spring around the time of Hal’s death, is called laH: returning the spirit of Hal to the wilderness. Last year, I met Dillon and a small cheerful band of fellow walkers near Hallett Sanctuary and accompanied them north through the park.

On their way

I left them at 110th Street

Crossing into Harlem

and the troupe continued on their 45-mile journey.

A rest stop somewhere north of Manhattan

This spring – starting next Sunday, in fact – Dillon and his colleague Blake Morris are leading the Walk Study Training Course, “a series of meetings of walking about reading and reading about walking.”  Participants will meet for six Sundays from 3-6 to walk in the city and discuss writings by Thoreau (of course), Mary Overlie’s The Six Viewpoints, Michael de Certo, Honore de Balzac, Richard Schnechner, Bruce Chatwin and Frederic Law Olmsted, and others.  If you’re interested (and how can you not be?), please visit The Public School, New York to see the reading list and register.  The class is free.

Oh, and while not part of the class, participants are invited to join the 2011 three-day coyote walk.

NYC Coyote Watch 2011: Coyote in Queens

January 24, 2011

I’ve been meaning to sit down and write about how it’s just about time for New Yorkers to go back on coyote watch.

Well, the coyotes beat me to the punch.

Queens coyote by Marcelo Barrera, NY Post

While I’ve been dawdling, the animals have been on the move.  The first New York City coyote of the season was spotted this past weekend in Queens. Yes, Queens.

It’s around this time each year, in the heart of winter, that parent coyotes kick out the pups that were born the previous spring.

Lounging coyote pups by Ecobirder (click photo to visit site with more wonderful photos)

While the parents get ready to provide for the next litter, the almost-yearlings go out in search of new territory.  With coyote populations expanding and natural habitat shrinking, the wild dogs are increasingly making their home in suburbs and cities.  Last winter, several coyotes were spotted in Manhattan with one animal taking up residence for weeks in Central Park’s Hallett Nature Sanctuary before being captured downtown in Tribeca.

Coyote in Central Park by D. Bruce Yolton, urbanhawks.com

The New York Post reported yesterday that a coyote has been seen in Cavalry Cemetery in Woodside, Queens.  Cemeteries and golf courses offer good habitat for a coyote’s natural prey, including rabbits, squirrels, mice and other rodents.  Many experts have said that Long Island, is the only large land mass in New York State that is not home to coyotes.  No longer. Whether New Yorkers realize it or not, Queens is on Long Island.

But how did the coyote get to Queens?  A large breeding population exists in Westchester with a small population in the Bronx.  Last winter’s Manhattan coyotes may have crossed from the Bronx to Manhattan via the railroad bridge,  or they may have swum across. No one knows for sure.

One possible route for the Queens coyote would be to cross from Mott Haven and Port Harris in the Bronx to Randall’s and Ward’s Islands and from Ward’s to Queens.

The coyote was spotted in a graveyard in Woodside.

Reader, what do you think? If you have a better idea about How the Coyote Came to Queens, please leave a comment.

Last winter, I had the good fortune to watch the Hallett coyote on several occasions, as it made its way out of the sanctuary after dark to hunt for food.  Watching a coyote go about its business in the middle of a bustling city is a strange and magical event, as you can see in Bruce Yolton’s photos and videos of the Central Park coyote.

Central Park Coyote. Photo by D. Bruce Yolton, urbanhawks.com

Coyotes now live in cities throughout the U.S., including downtown Chicago as this video attests.  An enlightened supervisor for Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control said of the coyote running through city streets at night, “He’s not a threat….His job is to deal with all of the nuisance problems, like mice, rats and rabbits.”

Rats by Blek le Rat

Coyotes are naturally wary of humans. Problems with wildlife generally occur when the animals lose their distrust and come to see humans as a food source.  No, I don’t mean we ourselves are food, but that we provide food, whether directly (“Here, pretty doggy, have a treat”) or indirectly, by leaving garbage – or small pets  – unsecured.

Tasty morsels belong indoors.

As natural habitats shrink, we will increasingly be sharing space with wild animals.  Coyotes are successfully adapting to our presence. We had better start figuring out how to adapt to theirs.

Meanwhile, don’t feed the animals.

Sign in a park in Vancouver, B.C.

Out Walking the Dog’s Top Ten Posts of 2010

December 30, 2010

Readers prefer mastodons.

I’ve always avoided top ten lists. In fact, I’ve disparaged the whole concept as basically, well, idiotic. But I recently discovered that the statistics tracker on my blog, which counts each time someone visits, can also tell me how many times each blog post has been viewed over the past year.

A post about feeding wild animals is a favorite.

The very existence of this useless information exerts a mysterious allure, as if it contained some important hidden meaning just waiting to be revealed.  It doesn’t, of course.  But I can’t resist the pull. So, for whatever amusement or revelation may be found, I here present … (drum roll, please) …

Out Walking the Dog’s Top Ten (Most Viewed) Posts of 2010.

1. Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got Its Spikes

2. Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends

3. NYC Wildlife: The Pigeons Outside My Window

4. NYC Coyote Existential: Where do they come from and where are they going?

5. Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels (and Rats)?

6. Seed Pods and Eyeballs

7. Saint John the Divine: A Secret Garden in Morningside Heights

8. Victor Casiano’s Rooftop Pigeons

9. Sex and the City Bird

10. Falada in New York: 59th Street Carriage Horses

So there you have it.  The frightening outbreak of rabies in Manhattan and the almost equally frightening event of duck sex make it into the top ten. So do last winter’s coyote visitations and a meeting with the last of our neighborhood’s rooftop pigeon flyers.  Other urban animals that are featured include squirrels, horses, raccoons, peacocks, rats, and mastodons.

Yeah, mastodons. The most popular post, by far, is a light-hearted discussion of the co-evolution of honey locust trees and mastodons. Why?  I’d like to think it’s because the study of evolution is booming, but maybe people just like mastodons or the idea of giant mammals roaming Manhattan.

The world is a mysterious place. Why should the internet be any different?

Esau, scourge of street rats, contemplates the mysteries of reader preferences.

Again with the Central Park Rabies Advisory

October 4, 2010

Strolling in Central Park with Esau yesterday morning, I was surprised to encounter dramatic new “Rabies Advisory” signs on lamp posts along the western edge of the park.

The new signs scream “Rabies” in multiple languages (La Rage! Rabbia! Tollwut!) and feature a realistic line drawing of a hulking raccoon that could probably hold its own as a National Football League center.

Last winter, when it had become clear that Manhattan was in the midst of a raccoon rabies epidemic, bright green signs appeared on park lamp posts, urging visitors to “Leave Wildlife Alone.”

Note the cute little cartoon-like drawing of a raccoon head and the small lettering for the words “rabies advisory.”

The new signs are striking, easy to read and, well, kind of scary. But why scare us now?  The epidemic appears to be mostly over, thanks to USDA’s humane and labor-intensive program to individually trap, vaccinate and release Manhattan’s healthy raccoons.  Over 130 already-infected raccoons have died off  since summer 2009, while the remaining, much-decreased, vaccinated population should serve as a barrier that prevents the disease from reaching epidemic proportions.

After a monthly high of 38 reported rabies cases in March 2010, the numbers began to decline.  June and July saw three rabies cases each, and August became Manhattan’s first rabies-free month since November 2009.

So I repeat, why the scary new signs?  Well, it ain’t over till it’s over and with rabies these days, it may never be completely over.  In early September, a single rabid raccoon was found in Central Park in the West 70s, reminding us just how difficult it is to eradicate a disease with a long incubation period.  And to maintain effectiveness, we’ll probably need an annual vaccination program to ensure that new babies are trapped and immunized.

But even if we were to succeed in immunizing the entire resident raccoon population, raccoon rabies is now endemic across the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Raccoons and other wild animals, including skunks and coyotes, regularly find their way from the mainland to Manhattan, as juveniles seek new territory.  They cross the railroad bridge from the Bronx or swim a narrow channel. If in their travels, they have been in contact with a rabid animal, they will again bring rabies to our island paradise.

So heed the scary signs, and leave wildlife alone.  Enjoy the raccoons, but don’t feed them or try to lure them closer so you can get a better photo.

And while we’re at it, it’s probably better not to feed any of our urban wildlife, except maybe small migrating songbirds.

Grazing geese take over the outfield in Morningside Park

Feeding by humans encourages animals to overpopulate, which makes us consider them pests that need to be eradicated, as in this summer’s killing of geese in Prospect Park.  Unnaturally dense populations allow disease to flourish and spread.  So if you have a soft spot for  geese, raccoons, pigeons, squirrels and other urban wildlife, do the animals a favor and stop feeding them.

Red-eared sliders, expecting crumbs, mass beneath the Turtle Pond overlook

If you don’t have a soft spot for animals, count yourself lucky that we don’t yet have a need for these signs in Manhattan:

Sign in Vancouver, Canada proclaims: Warning! Coyotes in the Area

Then again, coyotes love goose eggs, so maybe you goose-haters want to roll out the coyote welcome mat. After all, as the sign says, coyotes are “smart, fast, and will take what they can get.”

Welcome or not, coyotes will be back in Manhattan. If not this winter, then next.  They may be here already, slipping through the old growth of Inwood Park and the tangles of Highbridge.

Esau contemplates ducks as a possible food source.

Toward a Polemic on Urban Wildlife (Inspired by the Geese of Prospect Park)

July 15, 2010

Morningside Goose Family in Early May

The Morningside Park goose family seems to have vanished into thin air.  As far as I can tell, no one has seen the geese for at least 10 days. I assumed they had wandered across Frederick Douglass Plaza to one of Central Park’s lovely bodies of water. But on a visit last weekend to the Meer, I saw no Canada geese at all.

Geese molt at this time of year, losing and regrowing their feathers. Until the new feathers grow in, they cannot fly, making even the short distance from Morningside Park to Central Park a dangerous trek through the streets of New York.  Still, the geese may well have waddled their way  into the Big Park.

Morningside geese in June

I asked Sergeant Sunny Corrao of the Urban Park Rangers whether she has seen our goose family, which is easily distinguishable by the four goslings, two with a deformity called angel wing. She has not.

The disappearance of our little goose family would be no more than a locally intriguing mystery were it not for the news that last Thursday, according to The New York Times, the United States Department of Agriculture captured and killed 400 Canada geese in Prospect Park. Brooklyn park-goers are sad and angry.

Canada geese mitigation measures,” to use the somewhat Orwellian official term, went into high gear after US Airways Flight 1549 collided with a flock of migrating geese in January 2009, and was forced to land in the Hudson River off Manhattan’s west side.

In 2009, over 1,200 city geese were captured and killed within a five-mile radius of JFK and LaGuardia Airports. In June 2010, the radius was extended to seven miles, which places new parks within the kill, or mitigation, zone, including Prospect, Morningside and Central Parks.

It seems extraordinary that animals that were long celebrated as symbols of wildness and freedom are now widely considered a pest species, reviled for striking airplanes, damaging crops and fouling (pun half-intended) golf courses and parks. When I was a child visiting the country, I ran outside at the wild sound of honking to watch the geese flying overhead on their strange journey to far-off lands. But times have changed; many flocks no longer migrate and populations have exploded.

Clearly, the safety of human air travelers must take precedence over the geese. But was the killing of so many resident animals necessary?  What non-lethal measures can be used to control NYC’s Canada geese?  Were such measures tried before the decision to kill Prospect Park’s flocks?  I don’t know the answers, because there has been little effective communication from city, state and federal agencies and the media seems mostly interested in the public’s outrage and sorrow.

I’ve scheduled an interview with a biologist from USDA’s Wildlife Services to try to answer some of these questions.  I understand the public outcry. I feel an attachment to the Morningside geese, and hope to find out whether they, too, were rounded up as air hazards.

But really, the underlying issue is bigger than Canada geese, even 400 of them.

Across the country, conflict between wildlife and humans is on the rise, and NYC is no exception.

Riverside Park Raccoon

Central Park coyote: Bruce Yolton/www.urbanhawks.com

To date in 2010, a rabies epidemic, now almost extinguished by a labor-intensive vaccination program, raced through the Central Park raccoon population, putting park-goers at risk, while coyotes roamed the island from its northern tip to Tribeca. Meanwhile, just across the river in New Jersey, an increase in black bears has led to an ill-advised campaign to reinstate bear hunting.

We need an informed public debate about the changing relationship between wildlife and humans in an increasingly developed world. The term, “wildlife management,” should no longer call up only images of bison, caribou and wolves in the national parks of the west.  Our densely populated cities and suburbs are the new epicenter of human-wildlife conflict and so, like it or not, of wildlife management.

Feeding of animals by humans, whether intentional or inadvertent, is a key problem. Feeding draws animals closer and provides people with pleasure, companionship and a feeling of connection to nature, despite its often negative effects on the wildlife. Many animal populations expand or contract based on availability of food, and the association of humans with food is the primary cause of problems, including injury.

Riverside Park squirrel on the prowl

In Morningside Park, people love to feed the ducks, geese and pigeons. Riverside Park has several regular feeders of squirrels.  In Prospect Park, ironically, some of the same people who care for and mourn the geese may have contributed to the problem by regularly feeding the birds, thereby increasing their numbers.

But the desire to connect to animals is profound.  Posting signs telling people not to feed the animals is not enough.

Rabies Alert: Do not feed wildlife

Any campaign to discourage feeding will have to acknowledge this desire and provide people with alternative ways to connect to nature. Groups like the Urban Park Rangers already provide free programs that introduce both children and adults to the birds and other animals that live in our parks. Programs can engage educators, artists, wildlife biologists and naturalists to impart, with passion but without sentimentality, the excitement and pleasure of observing wild creatures from a distance without interfering or trying to lure them into a relationship that gratifies us yet places the animals at risk.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver (This is an excerpt – read the whole poem)

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


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