Posted tagged ‘NYC wildlife’

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

NYC Wildlife After Hours

March 23, 2014

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Two nights ago, around nine o’clock, I leaned over the retaining wall at Riverside Park to look for raccoons, and found a raccoon looking right back at me. It was perched, as it were, on the broad stone ledge outside its den. We stared at each other, each apparently curious what the other might do. Neither one of us did much of anything.

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Just looking.

This raccoon and its family members have an ideal den spot with a broad ledge outside that makes it easy for them to loll and relax at the mouth of the hole.

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I’m looking at you.

When a man and two off-leash dogs came into view on the path below, the raccoon turned its attention away from me to watch the newcomers.

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The man was talking on his cell phone and kicking a ball for his rambunctious long-legged black mutt to chase, while a slow, imperturbable pug brought up the rear.  Neither man nor dogs noticed the raccoon high above their heads, watching their every move. Nor did they notice this human, even higher above their heads, also watching every move.

As it watched, the raccoon curled partway into its hole.

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We left it there, the dog and I, and continued our walk along the Riverside Drive promenade. On our way back, I again leaned over the wall.

But the raccoon was gone.

It had probably ducked back into its den. In my admittedly limited and unscientific observations, the Riverside raccoons are slow to actually leave the den for their evening forays into the park. They tend to hang out on the ledge for quite some time, singly or in twos, threes or even fours. They look around and sniff the air, occasionally ducking back into the den as if suddenly remembering they’d left the stove on.  Sometimes, when the weather is pleasant, a raccoon will groom itself or a mother will groom a kit, although I haven’t seen any grooming behaviors yet this season.  I can’t even say how many raccoons are living in the den this year. Eventually, though, one or another of the raccoons will leave the ledge and start making its way north along the wall. Only rarely do I see one heading south from the den, probably because the grand stone staircase quickly breaks up the wall, so that the raccoon would have to come down to the ground right at a spot that is well traveled by humans and dogs.

Here is the view from just above the den of Riverside Park, the Hudson River and New Jersey.

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Not bad. You might linger at the mouth of your den, too, if you had this view to look at.

Raccoon Bonanza in Riverside Park (w video)

June 23, 2013

Last night at dusk, the great retaining wall of Riverside Park was crawling with raccoons.

Four raccoons on the retaining wall in NYC's Riverside Park.

A mother raccoon (right) and her babies on the retaining wall in NYC’s Riverside Park.

This is the same den I’ve been watching for years now. In 2009 or 2010, before the raccoon rabies epidemic hit, I once saw six raccoons emerge from this den, like clowns from a clown car. Last night, seven racoons climbed the wall.  Seven! Back in early April, I watched a mother raccoon carry a baby along the wall, clearly looking to move it into a new den. My guess would be that this is the same mother with her litter now old enough to be exploring the world under her supervision.

A small crowd had gathered to watch and photograph the raccoons.

"Excuse me, what kind of animals are those?"

“Excuse me, what kind of animals are those?”

Usually, the raccoons on the wall go unnoticed. But the sheer number of animals moving on the wall attracted attention. As they made their way along the stones, they popped in and out of various hidey-holes. Personality differences among the raccoons seemed evident. One, in particular, seemed reluctant to leave the safety of the den, peeping out and retreating several times even as the others had already moved out along the wall.

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Some observers reported that in addition to the mother and babies, there was a “medium-sized” raccoon. They wondered if they were looking at a mother and father with a litter. This is highly unlikely, as male racoons don’t stay around after mating to help raise the young. In fact, adult males will often harm young raccoons. It’s more likely that the medium-sized raccoon is a juvenile from last year’s litter that is still living with the mother. I’ve watched a mother care for, and wash, her slightly older babies here in August 2011.

Wall walker.

Wall walker.

If this is indeed the case, then there may be five babies, which fits the average raccoon litter size of 2-5 kits.

The little kittenish fellow in the picture below is following after its mother, but still uncertain of its footing on the wall.  Apologies for the blurry, grainy photos, but it was quite dark. I’ve enhanced most of these photos to make the images clearer.

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Baby raccoon trails mother back to den.

Below, two babies greet their mother as she returns to the den.

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Here a raccoon peeps out of a hole a little north of the main den. Could this be the same hole where I heard growling that night in April when the mother ducked inside with the baby in her mouth? Or is this another baby? Or another juvenile? Size is difficult to estimate from a distance, so … hard to say. In any event, this individual stayed put while the others were on the move.

IMG_2456Here is a video of the mother waiting with two babies while a third makes its way along the wall to join them.

 For much more on the raccoons of NYC, visit Out Walking the Dog’s Raccoon Archives.

Disappearing Animals: 50 Shades of Brown

December 2, 2012

A thick fog enveloped Manhattan this morning, rolling over Broadway and wrapping the water towers in a ghostly shroud.

Water tower in the mist.

Water towers in the mist.

By late morning, when the dog and I descended the steps into Riverside Park, the fog had lifted.

Brown was the color of the day. Or rather 50 shades of brown.

50 shades of brown.

50 shades of brown.

The park was full of beautifully camouflaged small animals. These trees, for example, were full of unseen birds. I know, because I heard them.

Invisible birds fill the air with song.

Invisible birds fill the air with song.

And this tree, too, received a sudden gust of sparrows that disappeared swiftly into its branches.

Sparrows disappear into the branches.

Sparrows disappear into the branches.

Here is one, now.

Sparrow like a flying leaf.

Sparrow like a chirping leaf.

Squirrels, too, disappear amid dead leaves, bare branches, and gray retaining wall.

The white of the tail gives this squirrel away.

The white of the tail gives this squirrel away.

From a small ledge high on the mossy retaining wall, a squirrel looks out over Riverside Park.

From a distance, he disappears.

From a distance, he almost disappears.

Zooming in, he looks like a tiny fat potentate surveying his kingdom.

Rodentine potentate.

Rodentine potentate.

Perhaps he is gazing out at the river. As I discover anew each fall, bare branches make for fine river views.

Sunset over the Hudson

Sunset over the Hudson

NYC Wildlife Before the Storm

August 27, 2011

Saturday morning bird watch on West 108th Street

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

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

First, a bit of wall-walking …

Then, a balancing act …

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

Now …

… you don’t!

And … hoopla! I’m back!

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

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.

Spring Fling in Morningside Park: Be Still, My Heart

April 24, 2010

I love Riverside Park. If you’ve been here before, you probably already know that.  I even wrote an ode to Riverside Park.

I love its Great Retaining Wall, full of raccoons and squirrels.

Riverside's retaining wall holds raccoons, squirrels and the occasional human.

I depend for my peace of mind on its sweeping views of the Hudson,

I love its – but this post is not about Riverside Park.

This post is about, well, there’s just no easy way to say this:

I’ve found a new love, and its name … is Morningside.

Maybe it’s just a springtime infatuation, fueled by the sight of nesting birds and soaring hawks, and the need to conduct a brief field study for my Ornithology class. Only time will tell if my love will endure.

But the fact is, I’ve tumbled hard for Morningside Park

I love the little pond where geese and ducks pal around with turtles and bullfrogs.

Goose and turtle

Big Daddy is easily eight inches long and very calm.

On one visit, I counted 40 basking turtles.

Heading for a drink

Grazing

Pigeons stroll along the path or forage on the grass with the geese.

Red-winged blackbirds perch on tall reeds in front of the little island, flashing their epaulets and calling like electrical wiring gone bad.

Egrets roost in the treetops

and hunt at the water’s edge

Morningside even has a magnificent Olmstead retaining walland mysterious old structures

It has beauty

It has danger

and it has mystery

O woe! Our feet have run away and left us.

Oh, I still love Riverside and in the evenings, I still watch the raccoons

(Yes, they’re fine, thank you for asking, and sporting silvery ear tags like pirate earrings that prove they’ve received their rabies vaccinations)

Riverside Baby Raccoon by Jae Bin Anh

But as long as the geese and blackbirds are nesting, these fresh April mornings belong …

to Morningside.

Harlem Hawk Walk (with inevitable coyote update)

March 4, 2010

(New York City coyote and raccoon news (see earlier posts) has been developing with such rapidity that I have been delaying other stories, including the one below. But the news just keeps on coming: The coyote visited Chelsea at around 3:30 AM on March 3rd, prompting a call to 911 and a response by police. The animal narrowly eluded capture, and ran north along the West Side Highway where the last report placed it around 57th Street. Did it head east from the river to return to Central Park’s Hallett Nature Sanctuary at 59th Street? We don’t know. I hung out at Hallett yesterday evening, but saw no coyote.)

Harlem Hawk Walk

On February 14th, I headed north to join James, Harlem hawk watcher par excellence, for his annual Harlem Hawk Walk. We had many red-tailed hawk sightings in many different locations, watched a peregrine attack a red-tail, admired a lovely male Canvasback in the Hudson and saw turkey vultures gliding low near upper Broadway.

James and the youngest member of our group head towards the Hudson

Another member of the group, an experienced hawk watcher and photographer, has written a fine description of our day, complete with lovely hawk photos. Read it at Bloomingdale Village.

I’m sorry to report that I was one of the group who did not return to James’s roof at the end of the day, and so missed the Cooper’s Hawk circling overhead. On the other hand, I’m quite sure I saw two turkey vultures cruising Hamilton Heights.

To those of you reading this from outside Manhattan: hard as it may be to believe, turkey vultures are actually rare here in the city. In Texas, I saw them everywhere, although usually circling high above. But here it’s wonderfully strange to see a vulture over city streets.

James's ice floe- unlike mine - has EAGLES! Go see his photos.

Be sure to visit James at The Origin of Species and take a look at his photos of bald eagles fishing off ice floes in the Hudson River. He has hawk photos as well, and will eventually post wonderful pictures of our hawk walk.

Looking north over Hawk Island (aka Manhattan) from 123rd Street rooftop

I See the Central Park Coyote: Joy!

March 2, 2010

Yesterday I managed to get down just after sunset to the Pond at the southeastern end of Central Park to watch for the coyote. Photographer Bruce Yolton was already on the bridge with his big camera set up.  He said the coyote had been out on the ice about ten minutes before, but had left. We waited.

I walked a slow loop around the Hallett Nature Center and the pond, staring into the dusk, hoping to see the coyote on the other side. No luck. I rejoined Bruce on the bridge, and we waited some more in the gathering dark.

Two pitch-black shapes flew past us, low and swift. “Ducks,” Bruce said. They joined their tribe in the water under the bridge.

And then I caught a slim shape moving along the little spit of land that juts out onto the ice. The coyote!

Photo by D. Bruce Yolton/UrbanHawks.com

It disappeared around the far side, so we moved around the path after it. We were able to watch it for quite a while. It came out onto the ice many times, trotting and occasionally breaking into a lope. Its trot is remarkably quick and its movements efficient. Once it made a grand, pouncing leap from the bank back to the ice.

Wary and shy, it slipped back into the sanctuary at the sound of loud voices. It seemed to be trying to find a quiet space through which it could move on out of its Hallett-Pond territory, but was constantly deterred by people walking their dogs, loud ice skating music on the nearby rink and other evening park activity.

How different it must be in the wee hours of the night, when the park is empty of humans and dogs, and the coyote has free run. I’d like to see that.

See more photos and a short video of last night’s coyote sighting at Urban Hawks.

Coyote Update: Central Park, Columbia University, Highbridge Park

February 24, 2010

The Central Park coyote is still here.

No further word on the three Columbia University animals. They seem to have melted into their city surroundings. They may have made their way to a park. On February 13th, a coyote was spotted at Highbridge Park up at the northern end of Manhattan. Is it one of the three Columbia coyotes or is it yet another visitor? No one knows. But it’s clear we have at least four coyotes on the island.

Gapstow Bridge over the Pond

The Central Park coyote has been seen most often on the frozen Pond at the south end of the park, near the Hallett Nature Sanctuary.

Hallett is a four-acre wooded area that is closed to the public to protect wildlife.

The coyote has also been seen at numerous locations in the park, including the Great Hill and the Pool up at the northern end.

Northern end of Central Park

I imagine that in the quiet of the night and early pre-dawn hours, our coyote can cover the entire park with ease.

Bruce Yolton of Urban Hawks shot new video of the coyote on the frozen Pond earlier this week. There’s something strange and poignant about seeing it play all alone with a discarded plastic bottle as lights from a passing emergency vehicle reflect on the ice. Bruce maintains that the nearby Nature Sanctuary “would be a perfect place for the Coyote to sleep during the day and was the favorite spot of the 2006 Coyote, Hal.”

Visit Urban Hawks to watch the video and see new photos.

Central Park Coyote, Bruce Yolton/urbanhawks.com

Then check back at “Out walking the dog” to read the start of a series on urban coyotes that will eventually include a little history on the Eastern Coyote, speculation on why they’re moving into these mean streets and what the future holds for city dwellers, both human and wild canid.

Meanwhile, remember: LEAVE THE WILDLIFE ALONE!  Don’t approach or feed our coyotes or raccoons. Most problems – forget the rabies for a minute – stem from humans providing food for wild animals. Animals then lose their natural fear of us, look on us as a food source and become bold and demanding.

But hey, even Esau gets that way when people give him too many treats.

Forever Wild Esau

Squirrel Update: The Drey Report

December 8, 2009

Special Note: This post is now part of Scientia Pro Publica 21: Darwin’s 201st Birthday Edition. Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-monthly blog carnival dedicated to science writing that communicates to the public. Check it out! And now…The Drey Report:

Bare branches reveal dreys in Riverside Park. We counted five dreys in the Forever Wild stretch that runs between 119th Street and 116th, and six between 116th and 108th.

“That’s great,” you say. “But what’s a drey?”

See those brown blobs way up in the trees? Those are dreys. Squirrel nests.

“Huh. They don’t look like much.”

Maybe not, from the ground. But inside, inside, it’s a whole other story. At least, that’s what I hear. Lined with moss, lichen, fur and feathers, dreys are soft, inviting baskets for squirrels to spend cold winter days and nights. Some dreys even have separate compartments. At least, that’s what the Urban Park Rangers, Sunny and Sheridan, told me. I’m not sure exactly what it means, but I’m guessing it’s something like a Manhattan studio apartment.

500 Square Feet of NYC Bliss

Anyway, summer dreys are loose collections of leaves and twigs, not built to last. But winter dreys, tucked securely into a fork in a tree, will withstand wind and weather.They’re high enough to be safe from ground predators, but not all the way at the top where a marauding hawk could swoop down.

Savvy squirrels maintain more than one home. That way, they can move when a nest gets wet or infested with parasites like ticks, fleas or mites. All the research says squirrels prefer tree hollows, especially in winter, but I have yet to see any tree hollow action.

The retaining wall, on the other hand, is like an animal apartment building.

No vacancy

Squirrel with entries to right and left.

Raccoon peeks out of hole at night.

Raccoons take the big apartments and squirrels squeeze into the studios.

The squirrels come and go all day, zipping in and out of holes, up and down the wall.

And at night, when the squirrels have finally gone to sleep, the raccoons emerge slowly, like jazz musicians, to start their day in the dark.


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