Archive for the ‘Rodents (other than squirrels)’ category

White-Throated Sparrow Digs Up Central Park

April 25, 2014

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Rustle rustle rustle.

Who’s that walkin’ around here?
Sounds like baby patter.
Baby elephant patter, that’s what I calls it.
– Fats Waller, Your Feet’s Too Big

Ah, it’s a White-throated Sparrow, digging through the leaves for tasty morsels hidden below.

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Beautifully camouflaged in the ground litter, the sparrow nonetheless called attention to itself by kicking up an absolute ruckus. If you’ve never seen a little bird dig, it’s quite an impressive flurry of activity with wings, feet and beak all in motion at once.

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White-throated Sparrows have two color morphs, the striking white-striped bird above, and a subtler tan-striped variation.

Here’s what Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website has to say about the color morphs:

The two forms are genetically determined, and they persist because individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and white-striped females may be able to outcompete their tan-striped sisters for tan-striped males.

Okay, got that?

Here, take a quick look at The Sordid Lives of the White-Throated Sparrow, Kelly Rypkema’s one-minute video:

After mating with whichever-striped chosen consort, White-throated Sparrows build their nests on or near the ground, which makes the eggs and nestlings easy prey for that most adorable of vicious predators, the Eastern chipmunk.

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Eastern chipmunk in Central Park.

Yes, these cute little rodents don’t confine themselves to nuts and seeds. In fact, they are notorious nest-raiders of ground-nesting birds, helping themselves to a quick blast of protein in the form of eggs and babies. Interestingly, a 2011 study indicates that some species of ground-nesting birds, notably oven-birds and veeries, pay attention to chipmunk calls and avoid nesting in chipmunk-rich areas.

I don’t know if the White-throated Sparrow eavesdrops on chipmunks. But watching them dig up the leaves, I’d think they could put up quite a defense with those wings and feet. And speaking of feet (hey, sometimes a good segue is elusive, okay?), here is Fats Waller singing “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

Listen up.

Central Park Chipmunk

April 23, 2014

 

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Chipmunk in Central Park. Photo: Melissa Cooper

A rustle in the leaves reveals a fat-cheeked, lovely chipmunk on a hillside near Central Park’s North Woods. Check out the large nut stowed on the side.

The Eastern chipmunk lives in many of the city’s larger forested parks, but until recently, Central Park was a chipmunk-free zone.

According to the Central Park Conservancy, the return of chipmunks can be traced to a decision in 2009 to remove trash cans from the Park’s woodland areas. The trash had served as a prime food source for the Park’s many rats. When the trash cans were removed, the trash diminished, and the rats left the Park in search of easier pickings. (Sadly, NYC’s system of leaving mountains of trash bags out on the sidewalk overnight means that pretty much any city street on trash night provides a self-service rat buffet.) Apparently, the rat exodus has created favorable conditions for chipmunks to move in and thrive. Whether the rats out-competed the chipmunks for food, preyed on them, or just generated general forest anxiety among smaller creatures, I don’t know. Anyone?

On Sunday, I was thrilled with my first sighting of a Central Park chipmunk.  Now that the little rodents have awakened from hibernation with the warming spring temperatures, I hope to see them more often.

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Eastern chipmunk gives me the hairy eyeball.

This little fellow ducked repeatedly in and out of its hiding place beneath the rock. Eventually, though, it rushed off, giving me a good look at its gorgeous back stripes and ruddy rear end before it disappeared into the leaves.

Eastern chipmunk, Central Park, NYC. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Eastern chipmunk, Central Park, NYC. Photo: Melissa Cooper

Walking My Way From Wasps to Rats

December 7, 2013

On a recent walk in Riverside Park, the dog stopped to investigate a fallen wasp’s nest.

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The dog investigates.

What a beautiful little structure. Let’s take a closer look.

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Look, one little creature seems to have died in the process of crawling out of a hole. How strange.

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But who precisely built this nest? What kind of wasp? A hornet? A yellow jacket?

It’s been my experience that naturalists, both professional and amateur, are eager to share, expand and refine their knowledge about the world we live in, and interestingly, the technology of social media provides a swift and effective way to share knowledge. I sent out a query on Twitter, asking “Whose fallen nest is this in Riverside Park?”

Matthew of Backyard and Beyond quickly replied, “Paper wasp, probably Bald-face Hornet.”  Andrew of Urban Ecology and Science Research soon responded with a photo of a much larger, enclosed nest hanging from a tree at Storm King Art Center, saying he was seeing these hives all over.

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Wasp nest at Storm King Art Center. Photo: Andrew Collins

Chris of Flatbush Gardener believes Andrew’s hive to belong to Bald-faced Hornets, adding: “More visible without leaves,” which I take to mean that the nests seem to be suddenly everywhere only because they are more visible now that the trees are growing bare.

And it’s true: one sees things differently when trees are bare. One also sees, quite literally, different things, including, perhaps, hornet’s nests. There may be fewer birds around in winter now that most of the migrants have moved on, but the ones that stay, from Northern cardinals to Red-tailed hawks, are easier to spot when they perch on leafless branches.

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Red-tail hawk overlooks Riverside Park.

Squirrels, too, have fewer places to hide. And if I may act for a moment as a squirrel real estate agent, I’d like to recommend a couple of deep and lovely tree holes as fine living quarters.

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Roomy studio apartments with unobstructed river views.

Non-living natural things – what ecologists call abiota – also emerge from obscurity in winter. The structure of the land, its slopes and cliffs, all hidden in summer by leafy trees, bushes and undergrowth, reveals itself.  And the Hudson River, seen in leaf-edged glimpses through much of the year, reclaims its place as a central feature of the far west side of the island.

Pointing the way to the Grant's Tomb National Parks Service Visitor's Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

Pointing the way to the Grant’s Tomb National Parks Service Visitor’s Center in Riverside Park around 123rd Street.

After the leaves have fallen, plants too reveal surprises. In summer, the two bushy plants below appear to be a single solid and impenetrable mass of green, the shoots drooping like willow branches all the way to the ground. But in late fall and winter, a beautiful hiding place is revealed at their heart where an animal like a fox, if only Riverside Park were lucky enough to host a fox, might curl up undetected.

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The dog investigates.

The fallen leaves now cover the ground, obscuring its features and camouflaging small creatures. This seemingly empty patch of leaves was actually hopping with life, as junkos, house sparrows and squirrels scratched, dug and pecked for nuts and seeds.

Hidden animals.

Hidden animals.

Look. There goes one now.

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Deep leaves often bury natural structures, like exposed tree roots or rat holes. Or dogs.

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Leaves half-bury the dog.

Here the dog investigates a rat hole at the base of a tree. Who’s there?

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The dog investigates.

The other day, a naturalist friend, Kelly of Nature in a New York Minute, knowing my interest in rats, kindly brought me a NYC booklet with the elegant title, Preventing Rats on Your Property. I’ll write more about it some other time, but the fundamental message  is simple: “To control rats, you have to remove everything they need to survive: food, water, shelter and ways to get around.” My own block has seen a bit of a decrease in rat activity since a few once-slovenly neighbor buildings started better securing their trash and closing up burrows at the base of street trees. But even so, rats still run rampant in the area. On a brief late night walk a few days ago, the dog and I saw three rats within two blocks.

And remember, the rats you see are just the tip of the ratty iceberg; beneath the surface of the street live scores – or hundreds – of others.

But wait, how is it I am talking about rats? I was talking about leaves, wasn’t I, and how they veil and reveal natural structures. Or was I talking about changing seasons? Or ways of seeing? Or, no, it was about naturalists sharing information. Oh, I remember now, I was talking about a wasp’s nest. Yes, a wasp’s nest. And here we are at a rat’s nest.

Well, that’s the way it is when you go out on a ramble. Even when every walk starts and ends at the same place, as so many of mine do, you never know where the path will take you along the way.

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.

Win a Prize in our Urban Nature Contest

December 7, 2012

Out Walking the Dog announces our first URBAN NATURE CONTEST!

Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York

THE PRIZE

Still the Same Hawk: Reflections on Nature and New York
edited by John Waldman, Fordham University Press

This newly published collection on a subject close to my heart features essays and articles that explore the relationship between nature and New York City. Writers include Robert Sullivan, Betsy McCully, Christopher Meier, Tony Hiss, Kelly McMasters, Dara Ross, William Kornblum, Phillip Lopate, David Rosane, Anne Matthews, Devin Zuber, and Frederick Buell.

Out Walking the Dog is proud to have a personal connection to the book through this painting by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Painting by Charlotte Hildebrand

Painting by Charlotte Hildebrand.

Out Walking the Dog originally commissioned the painting to illustrate Urban Hawk Snatches Chihuahua?  In that post, we pondered the line humans like to draw between meat animals and pet animals, and the reactions of city dwellers when one of our more revered wild animals, a red-tailed hawk, ignores our distinction. The illustration was spotted on Out Walking the Dog by the editors of Still the Same Hawk, and appears (in black-and-white, but still looking fine) as an illustration to Robert Sullivan’s essay, My Time Spent in the Nature that People Would Rather Not Think About.

THE RULES: HOW TO ENTER

Send me a description of an encounter you’ve had with urban wildlife. This may be as simple or elaborate as you like. You may write a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a poem, a dialogue, a haiku, whatever strikes your fancy.  Be sure to include your name and mailing address, so that, should you be the lucky winner, I can mail you your prize without delay. Send via email to: Outwalkingthedognyc@gmail.com.

THE SELECTION

One winning entry will be selected at random.  All entries will be read with interest, but interest will have no bearing on your chances.

THE DEADLINE

Entries must be received by Tuesday, December 18th at 7 PM.

The drawing will take place later that night or the following morning. The prize will be mailed via Priority Mail on December 19th. This means that, if the United States Post Office does its part and if you reside in North America, you’ll probably receive the book in time for Christmas.  (I will send the book anywhere in the world, but no guarantees of when it will arrive.)

AN EXHORTATION

December 18th is around the corner, folks. So get those entries in, and please help me spread the word.

Good luck!

(Did you know you can follow Out Walking the Dog on Twitter and Facebook?)

Gimme Shelter

December 6, 2012

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A branch-and-leaf structure recently appeared in Riverside Park.

What is it?

What is it?

A closer look reveals a solid low doorway from which the proprietor – or a shaggy interloper – can keep an eye on the grounds.

My house is a very very very fine house.

My house is a very very very fine house.

Built with fallen branches and leaves by an unknown architect, the above ground tunnel looks something like a sleeping animal covered with leaves.

A sleeping animal covered with leaves.

Long, low and leafy.

Tall branches leaning against a tree make for a taller space.

At the other end.

At the other end.

The walls are tightly woven, like the brambles of the 100-year forest that sealed Sleeping Beauty from the world.

Dog inside.

Dog inside.

And leaves are thickly strewn.

Walking the tunnel.

Walking the tunnel.

The structure both hides and reveals.

The view from within.

The view from within.

And speaking of tunnels as well as of hiding and revealing, my friend Charlotte of The Rat’s Nest blog recently observed a gopher near her house in Los Angeles. She videotaped the little rodent with her iPhone as it repeatedly popped its head out of its hole, looking rather like a large thumb, then disappeared. Charlotte reports that she could actually hear the gopher tunneling in the earth.

The rodent holes I see in and around Riverside Park are not gopher tunnels. These, my friends, are rat holes, and as swiftly as the Parks Department fills them in, the rats dig them out.

Entrance to rat tunnel.

Entrance to rat tunnel.

This particular spot, most recently filled in after Hurricane Sandy, sometimes becomes a huge gaping sinkhole leading in and out of the mysterious tunnels where rats live much of their lives, sheltered from predators. Intriguing, but…

I think I’ll stay above ground.

Above ground action.

Above ground action.

For more on man-made structures in Riverside Park:

Riverside Park Weekend: The Tepee Builders

Journey North: Beyond Manhattan’s Easter Island

Beauty and the Tepee: Central Park and Riverside Park Go To the Mat

The Trash of Two Cities: How our trash kills our hawks

March 17, 2012

I recently spent 24 hours in Philadelphia, and I want to talk trash. Trash as in garbage, refuse, litter, rubbish. Why do I want to talk trash? Because of NYC’s wild winged predators, of course, specifically our large population of red-tailed hawks.

Let me connect the dots that lead from refuse

to red-tails.

Simply put: Humans make garbage. Garbage feeds rats. Well-fed rats thrive, breed and raise healthy young. The growing rat population causes problems for humans. Humans use poison to eliminate rats. Red-tailed hawks eat poisoned rats and die.

Rats, like all animals, need three essentials in order to thrive: food, water and shelter. NYC provides all three in abundance. Most city rats take shelter in a vast underground empire that exists below the city streets, amid tunnels and pipelines and storm drains. They come up into the streets to feed. What do they feed on?  Mostly garbage, which New York City provides to its rodents free of charge, 24 hours a day.

Open trash cans,

Open trash cans offer easy access to rats, as do bread crumbs spread for pigeons

food dropped on the street,

Starlings fight over pizza

mountains of bagged trash awaiting pick-up by the sanitation department,

It takes no time at all for a rat to gnaw through a plastic bag to feed on the rotting scraps inside.

and unsecured garbage can lids

Rats slip easily inside an open lid.

these are the gateways to health, happiness and profuse breeding in our urban rodent population.

The recent deaths of several red-tailed hawks in Manhattan has led to speculation that the birds suffered secondary poisoning after eating street rats laden with rodenticide.  The bodies are being tested to find out why these apparently uninjured hawks died.  In previous years, rodenticides have been identified as the cause of death for several NYC hawks, both adult and juvenile. Clearly, poisoning prey animals causes problems for NYC’s wild predators.

Riverside Park red-tail eats a rat.

I’m certainly not advocating that we protect the hawks at the expense of our quality of life. Rats have over-run my neighborhood in Morningside Heights, and I want them gone. But poisons, while sometimes necessary to control a specific infestation, will not solve the underlying problem.

I know this from experience. Here on my block is a rat burrow in the dirt around a street tree. You can see that the burrow has been covered with mesh, and that the mesh has been gnawed right through.

Rat burrow.

This has happened more times than I can count. Poison is regularly dumped down into the hole, to no avail.

Layers of signs warning of rat poison.

On Thursday, this was the scene at the rat burrow.

Are these poison packets? Right out in the open, where children or dogs could pick them up? Panning out a little, you can seen how the poison is counteracted by … trash.

As long as we feed our rats (and give them take-out coffee), we will continue to have a problem.

Okay, enough ranting. Let’s go to Philly.

Solar-powered trash compactor and recycling bin.

The area of Philly I stayed in was full of heavy-duty, double-bodied refuse containers. Small openings in the left side are for cans, bottles and paper. But the right side, the trash side, is completely enclosed.  Rats can’t get in. Philly started using these trash cans a couple of years ago. They’re computerized, high-tech, solar-powered, laser-operated machines that, by compacting the trash, can hold many times as much garbage as a regular can. When they’re full, they send signals to the sanitation department to alert them.

The cans need to be emptied much less often, allowing the city to expand its recycling program. Philly insists it has cut no workers from the payrolls, but is using them to work in other areas. It also claims the pricey new cans have easily recouped their cost and are now saving the city money.

The city has also commissioned students and artists to decorate the cans as toothed and hungry creatures.

Toothy trash can.

Here’s a garbage-eating shark.

Feed me.

Apparently New York is trying a few of these out in Chinatown, Park Slope and other neighborhoods around the city. There are a few minor obstacles.  You have to be willing to touch a potentially germ-covered handle to deposit your trash. And while virtually all the cans I saw in Philly looked clean and slick, the one at the bus stop in front of the train station, where passengers line up for the Bolt bus and Mega bus, had a wobbly handle.

Still, these seem like our best hope, along with a major education campaign, for controlling our rats.

And now, to reward you for having stayed with me through my trash talk, here’s a glimpse of non-trashy Philly.

Flowering trees

pretty bike racks

dogs in windows

murals and garden plots

tiled murals

and – the reason I went to Philly in the first place – a terrific production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, directed by my husband, at the wonderful Wilma Theater.

If you live in or near Philly, do go see it. It runs through April 8th.

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.

New York Rats and Garbage

November 30, 2011

Here is a terrific little video by Assignment Earth on New York rats. It features State Senator Bill Perkins, Rodent Expert Stephen Frantz, and a lively cast of street rats. Frantz clearly and knowledgeably makes the point that NYC’s rat problem is caused by humans and can be solved by humans. The message is simple: cut the rats’ food supply, and the population will plummet.  This means changing the way we manage our garbage.

The latest in rat control is a practice known as Integrated Pest Management, an environmentally sound approach to pest control. The goal is to eliminate rats and other undesirables by controlling environmental factors (available food, water and shelter) that lead the animals to enter and thrive in habitats where they are not wanted –  like homes, playgrounds and subway stations.

The 96th Street and Broadway station offers particularly fine rat viewing.

And why not? There’a a perpetual source of food, water and shelter.

Why, there’s one of the little fellows now.

I’m surprised he doesn’t take his meal over to the lunch room.

Lunch Room

Meanwhile, over on Riverside Drive and 112th Street, Rat Palace continues to provide the perfect habitat for countless rodents. In the dark and grainy video below, rats slither in and out of the stones of Rat Palace, a pile of cobblestones on NYC’s Riverside Drive. If you think you saw something move…you did. The rats were everywhere. The strange sounds come from Esau the dog, who was eager to grab and kill.

Rat Palace at Night is best watched full screen (try double clicking on image to go to full screen, then click escape to return).

Enjoy.

For more on how our garbage creates our pests, see articles from Out Walking the Dog’s archives:

Dirty Harry Dog Cleans Up NYC Streets
Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to His Friends
Of Rats, Red-tails and Rodenticides
How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway?
If You Build It, Rats Will Come

The Hills Are Alive … with Rats

Thanks to Charlotte of The Rat’s Nest for sharing the Assignment Earth video in her response to one of my previous post on rats.

The Hills Are Alive … with Rats (Video)

October 18, 2011

On Sunday, I returned in daylight to the twin peaks of Rat Palace with dog and camera.  Since the fast-moving inhabitants have eluded my primitive skills as a photographer, I decided to try video instead, and … voila: Rattus norvegicus, one of New York City’s most common wildlife species, going about its business under the noses of mostly oblivious New Yorkers, their dogs and children.

The squeaking sound is the swing set in the playground behind me, not giant rats, and the whining sound in both videos is the poor dog, longing for a little rat-catching action.

There was far more rat activity on the mounds than I was able to catch on the video below, but I think you’ll get the idea.

While rats and humans cavort, the sun goes down over Riverside Park.

Goodnight, sun. Goodnight, park. Goodnight, rats.

If You Build It, Rats Will Come

October 16, 2011

(more…)

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.)

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.

Little Bit Funky Broadway

November 23, 2010

Broadway at night retains a little funk along with some old-school (although not always old) neon. Together, neon and funk bite back against the relentless March of the Chains.

Lenny's Hot Bagels

Andrade’s Shoe Repair has a mini-empire (a chain?) with shoe repair stores on the east and west sides of Broadway. One gorgeous neon shoe heads south

While-U-Wait

while its companion on the other side of the avenue strolls north

Going my way?

Most blocks have at least one bodega-style shop, selling soda, magazines and lottery tickets

Caribbean colors

Hold on a second. Let’s take a closer look at that duck, shall we? After all, this is supposed to be a nature blog.

Really? You don't look sorry.

Diabolical.

And just yards away, an insane rodent presides over the east side of Broadway

They're coming to take me away ha ha ho ho

I’m grateful for the city’s remaining pockets of funkiness, even if today’s Broadway doesn’t measure up to Wicked Wilson Pickett’s funky, funky street of days gone by.

 

Return to Riverside: Rats and Red-tails

November 9, 2010

With the return of autumn, Esau and I have returned to Riverside Park.

Riverside Drive Promenade

We indulged for months in a thrilling spring-into-summer fling with Morningside Park.

Lush Life: Early Summer in Morningside Park

New goose

Ma, I can fly!

All summer, Morningside’s little pond teemed with animal action. Goslings and ducklings hatched and grew. Bullfrogs, turtles and herons abounded.

Great white hunter

But lately I am again craving the sight of the Hudson River as it laps the long, green finger of Riverside Park.  Subject to powerful ocean tides, the Hudson sometimes runs south to the harbor and the ocean beyond as a river should, and other times it flows north past the George Washington Bridge, carrying its flotsam and jetsam up past the Bronx and the suburbs into the deep interior of the continent.

The river in a peaceful moment

Dazzle-me green

In summer, unless you descend to the lower paths, the park’s dense foliage blocks the river from view. But now that the leaves are thinning, the river calls to us even when we’re walking high above on Riverside Drive.

Yesterday morning, although I appeared to be walking briskly along the parkside of the Drive, I was actually light years away, tracking in my mind’s eye the actions of a young man – well, a fictional character, actually, in a project I’m working on.  A huge hawk, suddenly and silently soaring low past my shoulder, jolted me back into the miraculous common world.

The hawk put out its landing gear and seemed about to touch down on the retaining wall, but changed its mind, landing instead in a tree that grows from twenty feet below in the park.

Hawk in profile

After a minute or two, the bird – I believe it was a juvenile red-tail – moved to a new perch, a few yards south. A single feather poked up above its tail, like an admonishing finger

Signaling

It looked around for a while, then again unfolded its big wings and dropped off its perch.

Through the leaves

It continued to head south from branch to branch, eventually dropping fully into the park to find a spot in the trees below, where we lost sight of it.

I haven’t seen a hawk in this part of Riverside for weeks.  What I have seen in dismaying numbers are rats.  Until this fall, I rarely saw rats along the park side of Riverside Drive. Now I see them every night, running shadows that snatch bits of food from unlined trash cans, pop in and out of holes in the walkway, trot along the top of the retaining wall, and zip through the sandboxes of the children’s playgrounds that dot the Drive.

Rats make a fine meal for a red-blooded red-tail.

Redtail Eating Rat by D. Bruce Yolton: http://www.Urbanhawks.com

May the hawks dine in peace and plenty.

(I am not the only blogging park-lover to stray from a main squeeze.  In Brooklyn, a nature blogger abandons the charms of Prospect Park for a dalliance with lovely Green-wood Cemetery where red-tails, kestrels and merlins haunt and hunt among the graves.)

Note:  This post is part of I and the Bird #138, a regular birding blog carnival.


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