Archive for May 2010

Banding Birds in the Bronx

May 31, 2010

Eric Slayton with Baltimore Orioles, ready for release

One morning in early May, I joined Eric Slayton, ornithologist, Wildlife Conservation Society researcher and artist/designer, as he banded birds on undeveloped woodlands owned by the Bronx Zoo. It was the final session of the Ornithology class Eric teaches at Columbia University’s Center for Ecological Research and Conservation (CERC).

Eric is completing a multi-year study assessing the quality of NYC parks as habitat for migrating birds. New York is an important stopover for many species as they make the long annual trek to and from their northern breeding territories.  The birds arrive in a state of near-starvation, having flown hundreds, even thousands of miles, burning up their fat reserves. What do they actually find when they land in our urban parks? Do they find enough healthy food in Central Park, Prospect Park, Inwood Park, or other urban parks to replenish their fat supplies so that they can reach their breeding grounds with enough energy to successfully nest, mate and raise babies?

We arrived at the study site on a gray, rain-threatened morning just after 7 AM.  For many of us, this would be our first opportunity to observe bird banding.  Warning us that he would be moving quickly, Eric clambered easily down a hillside to unfurl a mist net that reached from the muddy ground to height of about seven feet. Attached to vertical poles, a mist net is made of fine mesh fabric, designed to trap birds without harming them.

Eric checks the mist net

The nets are almost invisible when unfurled and are as soft as, well, Irish mist. Birds fly unknowingly straight into the net and quickly entangle themselves in the delicate threads, where they must wait for a researcher to release them.

While Eric was setting up a second net on higher ground,

Eric and a student unfurl mist net

our first captives were already awaiting release in the first net.

Catbird caught in mist net

Workstation in the woods

Eric quickly set up his work station, a rectangular folding table hidden in the bushes. Unpacking his toolbox, he arrayed the tools of the trade: a log book filled with cryptic abbreviations and columns, tiny marked leg bands in different circumferences, pliers, a scale and graduated PVC tubes.

Tubes, Pliers, scale, bands

Log book

As soon as he finished setting up, Eric freed the first unhappy captives, delicately untangling the tiny feet and beaks.

No longer netted; not yet free

Eric would spend the morning moving swiftly between the two nets and the table, with us students following after him like ungainly goslings, willing but mostly clueless. Now we trooped back up the slope to the workstation, where Eric selected the right size band,

Chains of bands

slipped it onto the bird’s leg

and used pliers to close the circle.

Waterthrush gets banded

Next he adeptly slipped the bird headfirst into a plastic tube so that it could not struggle or flap its wings, and placed the bird-in-tube head-down on the scale for weighing.

Ignominious catbird weigh-in

After recording the weight in the logbook, he released the bird from the tube. He blew on the feathers beneath the tail to examine the bird’s cloaca, then blew on its breast to part the feathers around the clavicle. He ascertained the bird’s subcutaneous fat deposits, simply by looking and rating the bird’s interclavicular area on a scale of zero to four, as follows: 0. no visible fat, 1. some visible fat, 2. nearly filled with fat, or 3. completely filled with bulging fat pad.  Blowing on the feathers may also reveal a female bird’s brood patch, which is an area where the feathers have dropped off in order to allow the bird to directly transmit her body heat to eggs and nestlings.

Blowing feathers apart

Pointing out oriole's feathers with a pencil

Red-winged blackbird wing

For many birds, plumage revealed whether it was in its first year (HY or Hatch Year), or older (AHY or After Hatch Year).

Spreading the beautiful wings, Eric showed us how to count wing feathers.

He showed us the exposed vein under the wings where researchers draw blood (although he was not doing blood work today).

Surface vein on catbird

He showed us how to hold the birds safely and how to release them. We could feel the birds’ little hearts beating fast in our gently cupped hands and then the scratch of their almost weightless feet on our open palms, in the moments before they spread their wings and flew off to freedom – or, in the case of one unfortunate catbird, directly back into the mist net.

Everything is recorded,

Recording data

but first, everything is admired.

Beautiful Baltimore Boys

Within a couple of hours, we had observed the banding of four catbirds, one waterthrush, two Baltimore orioles and two red-winged blackbirds. In addition, five previously-banded birds were caught, assessed and released.

Furling the nets

As we headed home, the rain began in earnest.

Faces of Morningside Heights

May 26, 2010

Jumping beans

Beautiful kids.

Sweet face

Baby tiger and her big sister

Pigeon release

Serious bigs…

Learn to Play Dominoes

Cut-throat dominoes

The Taino live!!

Sex and the City Bird

May 24, 2010
Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.
– Cole Porter

Birds certainly do “do it.” Everywhere I go over the past month, birds are going at it. I’ve already written about the sex life of the pigeon pair that turned my air conditioner into a trysting place. They’re now raising babies on a hidden ledge between my building and the one next door.  I can’t see the babies, though I can hear their hungry peeping and the low, gentle cooing of the parents.

For paired, bonded pigeons like these, sex is the swift, fairly frequent culmination of ongoing, consensual activity that includes nest-building, companionship, and special courtship rituals. When the male wants to mate, he struts around the female with his chest puffed up, making low cooing noises, like Jim Morrison singing, “Come on, baby, light my fire.” If the female is in the mood, she places her beak inside his beak and the two birds bob their heads up and down in unison.

from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project PigeonWatch (click image to visit website)

I don’t know if he is actually feeding her, as a parent pigeon feeds a baby, or if something else is going on. Maybe it’s her way of finding out just what kind of provider Mr. Sexy Voice/Big Chest is going to be.

In my limited observations, the beak ritual seems to be the penultimate stage in pigeon foreplay, after which the female bends low so that her back is flat and parallel to the ground. The male delicately, lightly, hops aboard and stands on her back for a second.  Then she tilts up her tail, and he, with a flapping of wings, brings his cloaca (the bird’s reproductive, excretory and urinary organ) into contact with hers for a second or two for “the cloacal kiss,” during which sperm passes from his body into hers.

Mating; Cornell Lab of Ornithology Project PigeonWatch (click to visit)

And that’s it. The brief copulation appears to a human onlooker purely mechanistic, while the ritual that precedes it seems to strengthen the pair bond through mutual pleasure.  According to the books, the male flies off for a ritual wing-clapping display. And life goes on.

Watching the pigeon flock in Morningside Park offers a somewhat different view. It’s a little like watching the action at a singles bar.  An apparently unattached male picks out a female, and moves in with pick-up lines and seductions: the strut, the puffed-out chest, the low coos: “Aw, baby, baby.” If pigeon guys wore clothes, you just know their shirts would be open to the waist, exposing hairy chests and gold chains.

"Hey, baby, Let me see those beautiful red eyes."

The males will actually “drive” the female, spreading their tail feathers and moving so close that she has no choice but to move or be bumped by him.

"Aw, baby, don't be like that."

The females generally seem uninterested, which makes me wonder if there are more unattached males in the flock than females. Like many a girl at a bar, the uninterested female keeps her head down, avoids eye contact, and tries to move away.  Once the guy finally takes the hint, he simply turns his charms on the next unattended female. You can almost see some of these girls stifling yawns and giggles.

The unattached males seem pretty desperate for a hook-up. I’ve seen them repeatedly interrupt a bonded pair that are right in the middle of intimate beak foreplay or even when the male is standing on the female’s back. The single guy just butts right in and tries to lure away the female.

Still, despite the pushiness of courting males, pigeon sex seems completely consensual and mutually enjoyable.

Not so sweet is mallard sex.  Ducks like it rough. The male approaches the female and bobs his head, down to the water, then up. If she’s interested, she’ll do a little head-bobbing of her own,

The approach

which progresses to synchronized head-bobbing.

Then suddenly, the male is on top of the female, pushing her head underwater with his beak.

She struggles, but is completely submerged. It looks like he’s trying to drown her. (Oh, and just to complete the picture, male ducks have some kind of strange corkscrew-like penis instead of the cloaca most birds have.)

A few seconds, and it’s over. He releases her and, rising part-way out of the water, flaps his wings in a power display. Then, while she shakes out her feathers, he zooms around her, enclosing her in a circle of rippled water.

Then they swim off. Separately.

Whew. Sometimes this nature-watching thing takes you strange places. You know?

Victor Casiano’s Rooftop Pigeons

May 20, 2010

Victor Casiano is the last survivor of a once-mighty tribe: the rooftop pigeon fliers of Morningside Heights. According to Victor, pigeon coops used to grace virtually every rooftop.

Now there’s only Victor and his beloved flock of flights and tumblers, magpies and fantails.

I met Victor last weekeend during Manhattan Valley Family Days, a community event that was part of the NYC Department of Transportation Weekend Walks Program.

He sat at a table with a cage full of birds, a small selection of his rooftop flock.

An effective ambassador to a passing world, Victor proudly showed off his birds, all the while chatting with friends and neighbors.

He explained the differences between his birds, easily flipping open wings to display the markings.

Gorgeous red and white markings

He taught children how to hold and release the birds

and placed a hand-raised baby pigeon on their shoulders

He patiently answered endless questions from this writer

and promised to take me up to his rooftop coop on Amsterdam Avenue.

For more on Victor and his birds, see “Up on Victor’s Roof,” and visit my monthly column in the Westside Independent to read about my first visit to Victor’s rooftop coop.

Oh, how I love New York.

Update: I just ran into Victor on the street and he told me Family Days is running for two Sundays. Come by Amsterdam Avenue between 106th and 110th on Sunday May 23rd from 11 AM until 5 PM. Victor and his birds will be doing demonstrations as will Hiraldo’s Karate School, El Taller Latino, Mugi Pottery, and many others. Victor will be set up between 108th and 109th.

Thank You, NYC Park Workers

May 15, 2010

On the occasion of “It’s My Park Day,” we thank everyone who contributes to the health and beauty of our parks, from city workers to volunteers to researchers on urban wildlife habitat.

Thank you, Riverside workers

Tagging trees to create a tree trail

Hosing down the steps at Riverside & 108th

Shoveling a path during one of 2010's Big Storms

Checking the health of Riverside's retaining wall

Thank you, volunteer workers, including sixth graders from the Fieldston School who spent hours planting beneath the retaining wall and cleaning along the Greenway.


Carrying in the river trash

One morning's river clean-up

Esau with composer Thomas Cabaniss, organizer of the clean-up (click on the image to visit Tom's website)

Thank you, Morningside Park workers

Clearing the way for native plantings

Replanting around the southwest steps

Hard hot work

Thank you, NYC researchers who evaluate the viability of urban habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife

Baltimore orioles ready for release after banding

Thank you, workers all, sung and unsung, willing and unwilling, paid and unpaid.

May the gods and demons of city budget cuts keep their itchy hands away from our essential, free, democratic institutions, places that are truly open to all – our parks, libraries, schools, and all culture houses that offer free, cheap or pay-what-you-can admission.

What would our city be, what would we be, without them?

Bird Neck Appreciation Day

May 10, 2010

"Sure is One Peculiar Way to Run a Ballgame" by (the great) Kenneth Patchen (Click the image for more of Patchen's picture poems)

[Bird Neck Appreciation Day is part of Scientia Pro Publica #30, a weekly magazine of on-line science writing, and I and the Bird #125, a bi-weekly magazine of blog posts about birds.]

Birds, my friends, are strange beings. No stranger than humans, of course. But then that’s not saying much, is it?

For one thing, birds are natural-born contortionists.

Sure, humans can be contortionists, but it takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

And we still can’t bend our necks like this goose can.

In the carny world of old, natural freaks – limbless wonders, pinheads, midgets and bearded ladies – held top status, followed by made freaks, like tattooed people and thin men. At the bottom were the working freaks – human blockheads, sword swallowers and so on. Human contortionists would fall into the working freak category.

Not so, birds. They’re natural freaks.

It’s their extra cervical vertebrae that give birds their neck-twisting super powers.

Birds have between 13 and 25 cervical vertebrae. That’s a lot of neck bones. Humans, like all mammals, have only seven.

Even giraffes achieve their extraordinary neck flexibility with only seven vertebrae. (But what vertebrae! Giraffe neck vertebrae can be 10 inches long, massive heavy hunks of bone joined together by ball-and-socket joints similar to human shoulders and hips.)

While the mammalian seven may seem paltry compared to the double digits of bird necks, it sure beats amphibians. With only one cervical vertebra – one!– does this bullfrog even have a neck?

Bird vertebrae rise higher and higher, each more delicate than the last, to create necks that are engineering marvels of lightweight flexibility.

Try this in the sideshow.

Don’t forget this move

And for the finale:

Yes, bird bodies are pretty much one unbending chunk. But we’re not talking about bird bodies today. Today is neck appreciation day.

Beat those.

Make Way for Goslings in Morningside Park

May 7, 2010
(This post is part of Watery Wednesday, a weekly  nature blog compilation.)

The goslings are here!

For weeks, the mother goose in Morningside Park has been spending her days hunkered down on a hidden nest on the little island in the pond, while the father patrolled the area, fearlessly chasing away big dogs and warning humans to keep their distance.

Tables are turned on Papa Goose

Canada geese mate for life, and return each year to nest in the same area. Assuming, that is, they ever leave the area. Geese are increasingly staying through the winter in northern regions that once were used as breeding grounds or migration stop-overs.

After an absence of four days, I returned to the park on Wednesday, but couldn’t find the geese. I feared the worst: something had destroyed the eggs.  And then, from around the far side of the island, the entire family appeared: mother, father, and four fuzzy-headed, yellow goslings.

That fuzzy line is four fuzzy babies.

The mother seemed to be bursting with energy, and desperate for a good bath. While Dad stayed close to the babies, she repeatedly submerged beneath the surface, leaving only choppy white water to mark her presence.

Where's Mom?

She’d emerge in a great spray of droplets with an exuberant flapping of wings. She rolled around and even somersaulted in the water.

Finally, after swimming vigorously in circles, she shook herself out like a dog and rejoined the family with much wiggling of her tail feathers.

She spent several minutes preening.

Meanwhile, the babies practiced their diving skills. Buoyant little fluffballs, they bobbed up to the surface after each dive like tiny boogie boards held forcibly under water and then released.

Today, two days later, the babies already look bigger, stronger and more adept, and the parents, while always alert, appear almost serene.

A gaggle of talented pre-school artist-naturalists sketched and painted the landscape and animals,

Artist at work

while the goose family hustled across the path

to graze on the lush grass

Geese are precocial birds; unlike altricial songbirds, which hatch naked and helpless, goose babies hatch fully feathered and ready to rumble. They walk almost immediately; within a day, they’re swimming, diving and feeding themselves.

Since the babies are immediately mobile, it’s important that all eggs hatch at almost the same time. Most birds, including geese, lay one egg each day until the clutch is complete. The eggs of altricial birds hatch in the order they were laid, so the first baby to hatch may be several days older than the youngest. This gives the first-hatched bird a tremendous advantage in competing for food and a higher survival rate. But geese wait for the entire clutch to be complete, or nearly complete, before they begin incubating the eggs; the babies hatch on the same day and develop at the same rate.

Goose kids stay with their parents for about a year before striking out on their own. Even then, they’re not ready to settle down, but spend another year or two learning the ropes of adulthood and, like young humans, experimenting with relationships. Some geese pair up as yearlings but these relationships rarely last. Most pairs don’t settle down to breed successfully until the age of three or four, by which time they have both eaten and sowed a few wild oats.

Morningside’s goslings have a long way to go.

Time to head home for goslings …

and children

Eden on the Hudson

May 4, 2010

Yesterday, New York pulled summer heat and humidity out of seasonal storage, and transformed itself, as it does every summer, into a tropical city.

Upper Broadway sizzled.

Hot sounds

Hot colors.

Hot painted ponies.

Scorching hot ATM at Juanito's Barber Shop

In Riverside Park, workers plant new trees to cool the paths and hillsides.

Sweaty struggle with recalcitrant root ball

“Looks like a big job,” I say.

“Nah,” says the man. “Only fifteen trees.”

Oh, only fifteen.

Big baby tree throws itself to the ground

Back on Broadway, I find further proof, if proof were needed, that my city is a tropical paradise.

The Garden of Eden is in New York.

I may not live in the garden – they say Eden is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword – but I can shop there.

Later, a pigeon takes a break from parental duties at its nearby nest, and surveys the schoolyard,

where the blazing hot walls scream: “Save the animals” in bright blue paint.

Save the Animals

After sunset, a hawk flies home to its nest high on Saint John the Divine to tuck its three fuzzy babies in for the night.

Home for the night

(This post is part of My World Tuesday, a weekly blog compilation from around the world.)

Falada in New York: 59th Street Carriage Horses

May 1, 2010
The Goose Girl Looks up at a Horse’s Head Hanging on the Wall; illustration by Willy Planck

wo days ago I left Hallett Nature Sanctuary in Central Park – my first visit since the coyote departed a month ago – and walked west on 59th Street.  Carriage horses waited patiently along the curb.

Gazing at their beautiful heads, I thought of Falada.

In Grimm’s fairy tale, The Goose Girl, Falada is a horse given by an aging queen to her beloved daughter as the girl embarks on a long journey to meet the prince she is to marry.  Falada has the power of speech, as animals often did in the old days. And because he is witness to a crime against the princess, Falada’s head is cut off to prevent him from speaking the truth.  When the unhappy princess, forced to work as a goose girl, learns of Falada’s fate, she begs the knacker to nail his head to a dark gate in the town so she might see him morning and night, when she passes beneath with her geese.

The Goose Girl and Falada; illustration by Ford from The Blue Fairy Book, ed. Andrew Lang

And each time she passes under the gate, she looks up and says:

Ah, Falada, that you hang there.

And each time, instead of lamenting his own terrible fate, Falada replies:

Ah, Princess, that you pass there
If your mother only knew
Her heart would surely break in two.

Things turn out fine for the princess in that fairy-tale way where the story ends just as a new life is about to begin. The truth is revealed, and, in a typical Grimmsian flourish, the criminal deceiver is tricked into proclaiming her own merciless punishment: “I would have such a person stripped naked, stuck in a barrel studded with nails and pulled through the town by two white horses until she is dead.”


The restored princess, goose girl no longer, marries the prince, “and both reign over the kingdom in peace and happiness.”

And what about the faithful Falada?  Or at least, the faithful Falada’s beautiful talking head?

Unless you’re Don Corleone who knew exactly  to do with the head of poor Khartoum, what do you do with a horse’s head, even the head of such a horse as Falada? Does the princess have the head brought to the palace? Does Falada continue to offer the princess steadfast animal sympathy as she negotiates the difficult passages of a new life in a strange land?

I wonder.

I wonder, too, what the 59th Street carriage horses would tell us, if they, like Falada, could speak.

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