Archive for March 2010

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

March 29, 2010

Walking south in Riverside Park, somewhere around 91st Street, the ground is littered with long brown  seed pods, some with visible bumps inside, like giant pea pods.

The tree trunks sport spikes, sharp and menacing.

“Aha,” I think, reaching for a nugget of knowledge given to me many years ago by my 5th grade best friend, Janet. “Carob trees. People make fake chocolate with the pods.”

Back at home with my trusty tree guide, I discover the tree is actually a honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos), a relative of the carob.  Both are members of the legume family, and the pods are indeed giant pea pods. The honey locust derives the “honey” in its name from the sweet taste of a gummy edible paste that surrounds the protein-packed peas inside the pods.  The pods are eaten by livestock, including horses, cattle and pigs, as well as squirrels, rabbits, deer and birds.

Now about those stegosaurus-like spikes. The spikes are an arboreal defense mechanism to keep herbivorous predators from browsing the tasty trees.

Fascinating to realize that herbivores, prey for carnivorous predators, are themselves  predators of plants. Since trees can’t run away or attack with tooth and claw, their defenses are stationary, usually involving tough bark, leathery leaves, a variety of sharp thorns and spikes, and even bad smells. Some acacia trees have evolved a symbiotic relationship with fierce stinging ants. The trees provide special food and shelter for the ants, which bite any animal that tries to browse the leaves and shoots.

Which way to the honey locusts?

The honey locust co-evolved with giant herbivores, its impressive spikes serving to protect it from the browsing mastodons and woolly mammoths that roamed North America, including  Manhattan, until somewhere between 6,000 and 11,000 years ago. The tree has not yet lost the adaptation, still sprouting spikes sharp and tough enough to puncture a truck tire. Or a mastodon tongue. They’ve been used as nails and blowgun darts, and Civil War soldiers used them to pin together torn garments.

The honey locust withstands pollution, drought and poor soil. According to New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area, the honey locust is the most common street tree in Manhattan. The trees in full leaf are said to provide a lovely dappled shade. I look forward to walking beneath one in midsummer.

For more on plants and evolution at Out Walking the Dog, read The Burry Man, The Burry Dog and Burdock. For a monthly round-up of up-to-the-minute evolutionary science blogs, check out The Carnival of Evolution.

Tribeca Coyote and Central Park Coyote: One and the Same?

March 26, 2010

Tribeca coyote outside the Holland Tunnel

(For more photos of the chase and capture, visit the UK’s Daily Mail.)

The coyote is now at Animal Care & Control of NYC on East 110th Street, where discussions are underway about her future.

Below is the Central Park coyote several weeks ago, free.  Compare with the coyote above.  Is the Central Park coyote the same animal as the captured Tribeca coyote?

Or does the Central Park coyote still roam free?

Photo by Bruce Yolton at

What do you think?

For more NYC coyote articles by Out walking the dog, including sightings in Central Park, visit the archives.

NYC Coyote News: Trapped in Tribeca

March 25, 2010

The wildlife news just keeps on coming.

A coyote was caught in Tribeca this morning, where she has apparently been eluding capture, since first being sighted in the area yesterday. Police shot her with a tranquilizer dart, placed her in a large animal carrier and took her away. Yes, her. The adventurous coyote is a girl.

Are the Tribeca coyote and the Central Park coyote one and the same?  Are there other coyotes in Manhattan? For the moment, these are open questions, pending further sightings. reports that the coyote may be quarantined for ten days to be sure it has not contracted rabies from our resident mad raccoons, after which it may be released into the Bronx. Coyotes are well established in the Bronx. Note “may be quarantined” and “may be released”; nothing is yet confirmed.

For video of the coyote in Tribeca, click here and here.  To read about the capture, visit the New York Times City Room.

We wish the coyote the best. May she be healthy and rabies-free, and may the Bronx coyotes accept her into their territory. The Central Park coyote has been living with us for almost two months. If the captured coyote is the Central Park coyote, what a run she’s had!

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.

A Visit to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Sapsucker Woods and My First Pileated Woodpecker

March 22, 2010

Thursday night, a crescent moon glittered over New Jersey.

Splash of moon with your Hudson?

Up in Ithaca on Friday night, a child looked at the “tiny sliver slipper of a moon” hanging in the sky, and said triumphantly to his father, “See? I told you it would be a half-moon.”

“And what’s it going to be tomorrow?”

“I don’t know,” said the child in the tone of a great expert, trying to take seriously an undergraduate’s question.  “Probably full.”

I stopped by the legendary Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The great Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A friendly resident Canada goose seemed to be the chief greeter.

Lab of O. greeter

He marched right up to the glass doors, and stared inside.

Hey, let me in.

Mallards and a single common merganser swam about the pond. A great blue heron spent much of the afternoon standing on his huge twiggy nest atop a dead tree. Red-tailed hawks circled low time and again. Deep in Sapsucker Woods, nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers and a brown creeper hunted on tree trunks.

The woods looked like a Northeastern version of an East Texas mangrove swamp

Someone had unrolled a plush green carpet of moss in front of a perfect little doorway.

Elf home

Someone else had built a cairn or shrine, reminding me of Easter Island on the Hudson.

Balancing act

And a dream came true when a great dinosaur of a bird, a Pileated woodpecker, swooped over my head and landed on a tree trunk to hunt and drum.

Pileated woodpecker by New Jersey Birds

The Lab and its woods are extraordinary places, full of birds, open and welcoming to all. They’ll even lend you binoculars, no questions asked.

I’m home in my beautiful city again, watching the drizzle and listening to pigeons lowing like cows. Thanks for having me, Sapsucker Woods.

Central Park Coyote News: Trust me, he’s not who you think he is

March 20, 2010

Please visit the Unknown Urban Hipster for a surprising, illustrated interview with the Central Park coyote.  The wild dog turns out to be one cool cat, and older than he looks.

The Hipster also provides some terrific links, including to a short film about German artist Joseph Beuys and his 1974 NYC performance piece, I Like America and America Likes Me, that featured Beuys and a (supposedly) wild coyote together in an art gallery for eight hours a day over three days.

I have been trying to find out where the Beuys coyote came from and what happened to him or her after the performance, but have come up empty-handed. The Central Park coyote speaks briefly to the Unknown Hipster about the performance, and claims the Beuys coyote was “an asshole.”

Thank you, Unknown Hipster, for the illuminating interview.

Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends

March 18, 2010

Sparrows swarm white bread sandwich

I’m currently rethinking the whole concept of feeding wild animals. Even birds.

In many species, feeding – whether intentional at the bird feeder, or unintentional at the trash bag –  contributes to unnaturally large populations. Unnaturally large populations lead to animals being viewed as pests, which in turn leads us to kill the animals in order to manage their populations. Maybe better to let the populations stay small and hungry, no?

Pretty pigeon

Pigeons are regular visitors to the Riverside Park bird feeders where they eat the seeds that fall beneath the songbird feeder. I like pigeons. But I recently watched a poisoned pigeon flopping about helplessly in the throes of a long, painful death. So by a lousy chain reaction, when I feed the pretty little songbird guys, I may also be contributing to a pigeon boom and so sending pigeons to be poisoned. I think I’d rather not.

Then there’s the disease angle. The scale of the current Manhattan rabies outbreak (more than 80 rabid raccoons from December 2009 until March 12, 2010) is surely tied to an unnaturally dense raccoon population in urban parks, especially Central Park.

Blurry iPhone photo of three raccoons on Riverside Park retaining wall - I know, I know, I really must get a real camera...

And the unnatural density is probably created by the extraordinary availability of food, much of it human-generated, easily accessible garbage.

Rabies is a well-studied disease. We know it’s lethal, highly contagious and zoonotic, meaning it can move from animals to people. Zoonotic diseases are on the rise, and include emerging infectious diseases like West Nile virus.  So if feeding by humans encourages unnaturally dense, disease-susceptible animal populations among (unnaturally) dense urban human populations, maybe it’s not such a good idea.

But what actually are the benefits and problems caused by feeding birds and squirrels? Clearly, many humans receive a powerful emotional, even spiritual, uplift from the activity.

I recently spent a lovely quarter of an hour in Riverside Park with this gentleman.

“They don’t allow no pets where I live,” he says. “So I come here and visit my friends.”

Two or three times a week, more often if he has received “donations,” he buys peanuts and feeds the squirrels along the upper path inside the park.

“Hello. Hello,” he calls, waving as if to an acquaintance.

Sure enough, the squirrels stop what they’re doing to listen up.

And one by one, they move in to get their peanuts.

“They all know me,” the man says.It seems to be true.

We talk about the mange that ravaged Riverside’s squirrels about a year and a half ago.

“I was afraid they was all going to die off. Lot of them did die. But they came back. Yes, they came back.”They certainly did.

Sparrows approach, looking for hand-outs and a crow draws near the edge of the path

Maybe it’s the same crow I saw a few days earlier. It wasn’t freeloading then, but working hard for a morsel of acorn. It held the nut in its beak and slammed it repeatedly against the stone brick on which it was standing. Eventually the acorn broke open and the crow ate. Seemed to me to be a tremendous amount of effort for very small gain, but hey, a lot of people think lobster’s worth the effort.

The man and I part ways, and I wonder: does the pleasure we derive from feeding the animals outweigh the potential harm? How real are the benefits to the individual animal and to the general population? And how real is the potential for harm? Really, I’m just asking.

Across the country, human conflict with wild animals is on the rise. Coyotes, bears and even mountain lions are making their homes in cities and suburbs, causing alarm to some and yielding inspiration to others. Wildlife managers agree that the few individual animals that become aggressive are usually those that have become habituated to people through the presence of food.

I’m not saying bird-feeding New Yorkers need to start worrying about chipping sparrow attacks or being stalked by goldfinches. But pigeon poisonings, disease outbreaks and coyote visitations are prompting me to reassess some of my assumptions about our relationship to wildlife, including the consequences of providing open buffets.

I’d like to gather both opinions and research. So, dear reader, what do you think? Know of any interesting articles? Had an enlightening experience with feeding the animals? Feel free to share.

Meanwhile, Esau reflects on the wonders of life near a puddle left after the storm.

Recent Storm Decimates NYC Umbrella Population

March 16, 2010

Saturday’s storm appears to have caused severe declines in the population of New York umbrellas. A Sunday morning stroll through a ravaged upper Broadway revealed bones, skin and entire carcasses strewn about the streets.

Stripped clean

Umbrella skin

Callous New Yorker walks past umbrella in distress

Red umbrella seeks solace with bicycles

Trail of tears

Easy for you to laugh, Elmo

Together to the bitter end

Umbrella bones

The dustbin of umbrella history

Red flag surrenders

Despite the obvious dangers of the New York streets, new umbrellas arrive every day, seeking the excitement of big city life.

Young umbrellas await an unknown future

We wish them luck.

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,

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;

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

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

March 11, 2010

The temperature hit 62 degrees yesterday afternoon. 62 degrees! I know, I know. It’s gray today, and cooler. Winter’s probably crouched behind a parked car or a park bush, just waiting for us to shed a few layers so it can jump out and sock us with a cold sucker punch.

Still, 62 degrees! I mean, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, I’m going to call it spring.

This pair of New Yorkers was enthralled by a pair of mallards bobbing in the Hudson.

Crazy nesting behavior abounds. Squirrels run up and down the retaining wall, their mouths stuffed with leaves to use as nest material.

At the feeders, the ever-present, ever-hungry Downy woodpecker was, as usual, gorging on a suet cake, and a shy tufted titmouse with a huge sweet voice called, “Peter, Peter, Peter” over and over, but kept its distance.

We walked south along the Greenway, detoured into the park and came back out to the river below 81st Street. The Riverside Red-tailed hawks built a new nest after winter winds sent last year’s nest tumbling to the ground.  I thought I found the new nest high in a honeylocust tree.

Is this the new nest of the Riverside Red-tailed hawks?

Now I’m not so sure. Might be just another squirrel drey. See, Urban Hawks has posted photos of the female red-tail sitting on the new nest, and the tree doesn’t look anything like my tree. Guess I’ll have to go back with binoculars.

(For neophyte autodidactic naturalists like me, making an accurate identification is like navigating a dangerous strait; on either side of accuracy lies the humiliating wreckage of false identifications.)

Heading home, we admired the locked entrance to the train tracks. Looks like something out of Shutter Island.

Train House

When I was a teenager roaming in Riverside Park, we found our way inside some kind of train house. I remember a vast cavern with giant machinery. Anyone know what I’m talking about?

Peering inside the gate, we catch a glimpse of the graffiti said to cover much of Freedom Tunnel.

Freedom Tunnel

On the walkway above the tunnel, a brave little sparrow tried valiantly to untangle a huge ball of string and fluff from one of the train tunnel gratings. While I wished it success in its Herculean efforts, I worried about the string, which can wind around a bird’s leg, choking off circulation.

Back on the street, we see an unmistakable sign of spring. A black crusty blob of snow (yes, really, that is snow)  has been threatening to become a permanent resident of 108th Street, but the warm weather appears to be thwarting its evil plan.

Not a meteorite, just New York City snow.

Black snow blob in happier days

Help me, I'm melting...

And finally, Mister Softee, an early spring migrant, was singing his cheerful if repetitive song from his usual warm-weather perch on 109th and Broadway.

Much remains unknown about Mr. Softee. Researchers have yet to discover where he spends the winter months, where he breeds or – and this is of particular interest to me – the identity and whereabouts of Mrs. Softee. Nonetheless, Mr. Softee remains a welcome sign of spring in New York City, right up there with the arrival of warblers in Central Park.

Welcome back, Mr. Softee. Goodbye, Black Crusty Snow.

Raccoon Journal (Provincetown, 1984) by Stanley Kunitz (two excerpts)

March 6, 2010

from Raccoon Journal by Stanley Kunitz

To be like Orpheus, who could talk

with animals in their own language –

in sleep I had that art …


Raccoons! I can hear them

confabulating on the porch,

half churring, half growling,

bubbling to a manic hoot

that curdles the night air.

Something out there appalls.

On the back-door screen

a heavy piece of fur hangs,

spread-eagled, breathing hard,

hooked by prehensile fingers,

with its pointed snout pressing in,

and the dark agates of its bandit eyes

furiously blazing. Behind,

where shadows deepen, burly forms

lumber from side to side

like diminished bears

on a flat-footed shuffle.

They watch me, unafraid.

I know they’ll never leave;

they’ve come to take possession.

–Stanley Kunitz, Raccoon Journal (Provincetown, 1984);
The New Yorker, July 22, 1985 and Next-to-Last Things

The poem was published in a wonderful volume called Next-to-Last Things, which seems to be out of print. Perhaps you can find it in your local library. If not, I suggest you read anything available by Kunitz.

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/

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.

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