Posted tagged ‘Central Park raccoons’

Raccoons, Marshmallows and the U.S. Government

November 5, 2010

Last weekend, Esau and I discovered a gray box snuggled up against the retaining wall in Riverside Park.

Mystery box

A round hole at either end led to a small chute and a dark interior.

Flowers at the front door

High in the wall, just south of the box, is a raccoon den. I know it’s a raccoon den because, for the past year, I’ve been regularly watching raccoons as they emerge from this hole to watch the world go by before venturing out on evening raids into the park.  I have on occasion seen as many as five or six raccoons pour out of the hole like bulky little clowns out of a clown car.

Are you looking at me?

“Aha!” I thought gleefully, and my heart danced. “I am at long last seeing, with my own eyes, the traps used by the USDA to catch raccoons.”  Need I remind you of my fascination with NYC’s dramatic outbreak of raccoon rabies as well as the USDA’s patient and effective program to vaccinate virtually every raccoon residing in Manhattan?

The vaccination program began last spring in Central Park, the epidemic’s epicenter, and branched out into Morningside Park and Riverside Park. (Click to read about the program and about Lee Humberg, the biologist in charge.)  By April, over 230 raccoons had already been vaccinated and tagged for future identification.

The current round of trapping allows the USDA to vaccinate any raccoons that may have been missed as well as juveniles that were too young or vagrants that have wandered into the area. If a trapped animal appears unwell, it will be euthanized and tested for rabies. This humane and labor-intensive approach has led to a steep drop-off in the number of raccoon rabies cases with only three confirmed reports in the past three months. Compare that to March 2010 with a monthly high of 38 confirmed cases.

But this trap was targeting my raccoons, and I wanted to know more about it.

I longed for a closer look at the gray box, but was deterred by fencing put up by the Riverside Park Fund to protect their lovely plantings.

So Esau and I walked south on the path near the wall, keeping our four eyeballs peeled.

Sure enough, about four blocks south we found a second gray box,  identical to the first, but on an unfenced slope. We drew near and read this intimidating warning

on the hinged and securely padlocked lid

In other words: Mind your own beeswax.

Undeterred but cautious, we peered inside and saw that each round hole led to a separate (empty) wire mesh “Have-a-Heart” trap, baited with … marshmallows

Start the fire and find a stick.

The traps were gone within a couple of days. Whether any raccoons were caught – or were spotted roasting marshmallows and making s’mores – remains just another small NYC mystery.

Riverside Park Spring Walk: Raccoons, Retaining Walls and the USDA

March 25, 2010

USDA truck holds answers to many questions.

Find out why yesterday’s sighting of a USDA truck is cause for rejoicing.

But first, strange markings appeared last week on the retaining wall and nearby path.

Target close-up

What does it mean?

With my wildlife-obsessed outlook, I speculate that the circled numbers and targets have something to do with the raccoon vaccination program. But what? Do the markings indicate that trapping and vaccinating has begun in Riverside Park? Do they show where raccoons are likely to be found?

The park is cool, bright and windy.

Here and there the pervasive brown of winter yields to color.

Storm-created ponds remain.

Hay bales enisled in spring pond

Sparrows huddle in forsythia bushes, puffed up like little balloons against the wind.

Magnolia buds prepare to pop.

Suddenly, up ahead on a pathway, we see … a USDA truck.

Be still, my heart.

You have to understand. USDA is handling the Trap-Vaccinate-Release program for the city. If anyone can answer my many questions, USDA can. Earth-shattering questions, like: How is the program going? Any estimates on the Central Park raccoon population? How long will it take to know if the program is succeeding? Any new theories on why the disease took such vehement hold this year?

Esau and I run after the truck. But it gets away.

Saddened, we trudge toward home. Then, half a mile north, it suddenly reappears. We run. We wave our arms. The truck stops. The window rolls down. Success! We speak briefly with the driver through the window.

A USDA biologist, he confirms that the Riverside Park phase of the raccoon vaccination program began on Tuesday.  The markings on the wall have nothing to do with the raccoons. He seems to need to get back to work and offers his card for a follow-up conversation.

We sing as we head north, happy to have even a little more information.

At 108th Street, we discover the Man Behind the Marks. 

He’s keeping park-goers safe by surveying the retaining wall for structural weaknesses in hopes of preventing problems, like the collapse of the retaining wall that closed the West Side Highway for three days in 2005. The marks and targets help him line up his equipment for accurate readings. The targets are always there, he says.  He recently freshened up the paint, which is why we suddenly noticed them.

“So how’s it look?” I ask. “The wall.”

“It’s an old wall,” he says. “But it looks pretty good.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Snow-covered retaining wall from just a few weeks ago. Beautiful.

Central Park Coyote Dream: worlds within worlds

March 12, 2010

Worlds within worlds

Some people dream of bicycles and when they wake, they dust off their bikes and ride to the river. There they discover they can no longer tell an egret from a plastic bag nor a hawk from a hand saw. Other people dream of petty grievances and wake with hurt feelings, nursing grudges against unknowing friends.

I dream of coyotes.

In my dream, the animals move east from their ancestral home range in the Great Plains into the Great Lakes and beyond. Some enter Ohio and Pennsylvania, while others cross north into Ontario before resuming their eastward journey. In Canada, they mix with remnants of a wolf population that roamed the east before being decimated by European settlers.

In my dream, it is the 1930s and coyotes are slipping south across the international border that no animal recognizes to enter New York state. Over the next three or four decades, they reach Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. By the 1990s, coyotes are thriving throughout Westchester and the Bronx, and in the last year of the last century, a young male crosses the waters that separate Manhattan Island from the mainland. Captured in Central Park, the coyote is banished to the Queens Zoo, where he still lives today.

Otis, the outrider, still lives in the Queens Zoo.

Otis, as he comes to be called, turns out to be a harbinger of a population on the move. In 2006, another young coyote turns up in Central Park, and within the first two months of 2010, coyotes are spotted in Chelsea, Central Park, Harlem, Morningside Heights and Highbridge Park. No one knows how many have come into Manhattan; it may be as many as four or five or, more likely, just one or two moving through city streets and parks. By early March, the animals seem to have melted into the city streets and left no trace behind.

Except for one. Sleeping by day in Hallett Nature Sanctuary at the southeast corner of Central Park, a solitary coyote emerges each night when the park grows quiet.

In my dream, I am staring into the dark forested slope of the Sanctuary, looking for movement. A slim, lithe, dog-like shadow slips across the little land bridge on the west side, bounds over the low fence that borders the walkway, and trots up the path. Repeatedly disturbed by oblivious walkers and once by Parks crew in golf carts with flashlights, the coyote swiftly leaps back, undetected, to the safety of the Sanctuary and disappears.

I wait in the gathering dark for a reappearance. Time passes. Raccoons haul their burly bodies out of hollow trees, groom themselves awake, then lumber to the ground and trundle off into the Sanctuary on mysterious rounds.

Central Park Raccoon, Bruce Yolton, Urbanhawks.com

Cold now and tired from a week of early rising, I call it quits. I pass through Artists Gate and, still searching the park for movement, head west on 59th Street toward the subway.

And suddenly, the coyote is there, standing in a clearing next to a huge dark outcropping, directly across from Essex House. Its gaze is intelligent, alert and sharp, as if it’s trying to make an informed decision about which way to go.

I stop in my tracks. Behind me, carriage horses stand patiently with lowered heads, while their gossiping drivers wait for fares. Pedestrians hurry past. Inside the park wall, just a few yards away, the coyote occupies an untamed world that nests within the civilized world of the city like a Russian doll. My city holds so many worlds, perhaps an infinite number of worlds, worlds natural and unnatural, familiar and strange beyond imagining. In some few of these worlds, coyotes roam free.

Eyes meet across many borders, and hold.

Then the coyote turns and trots north out of sight.

I keep dreaming and do not wake up.

D. Bruce Yolton; Urbanhawks.com

This post is part of the Carnival of Evolution #24, hosted by 360 Degree Skeptic. Visit the carnival and enjoy the rides.

Scientia Pro Publica, or Science for the People

February 16, 2010

Out walking the dog’s December post, The Drey Report, is included in the latest edition of Scientia Pro Publica 21: Darwin’s 201st Birthday Edition.It’s hosted by GrrlScientist at her blog, Living the Scientific Life (Scientist Interrupted).

Hard to believe the great man was born over 200 years ago.

Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-monthly blog carnival devoted to publishing science, nature and medical writing that communicates to the interested public.  Wide-ranging categories include Neurobiology, Evolution, Science and Society, Medicine, Invertebrates, Mammals, and more. So check it out, all you scientists, science lovers and just plain curious people.

On another front, I am hoping soon to have hard facts about the trap-vaccinate-release program planned (or maybe already underway in Central Park) for Manhattan’s raccoons.

Last Friday, I called the NYC Department of Health in search of someone who could answer my many questions. I did not get beyond the publicity department. But I learned that a press release is being issued this week, and I am on the list for interviews.

It’s wild in the streets, people. Keep your eyes peeled for rabid raccoons and hungry coyotes.


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