Archive for June 2010

Mysteries of the City Bird: Wing Deformities and…Midnight Rites?

June 27, 2010

The goslings in Morningside Park are growing up. When they were babies, all four looked very much the same.

But as their adult feathers began to grow, it became increasingly clear that two of the goslings suffer from a deformity of the wing feathers.

The wing feathers jut out at an uncomfortable-looking angle, making it impossible for the goslings to fold their wings against their bodies, as other geese can. As the weeks have passed, the handicap has become increasingly evident.

The useless wings are not yet a disadvantage, as none of the goslings is old enough to fly and all are protected by vigilant  parents.  “Hyper-vigilant” might more accurately describe the father.

But it’s pretty clear these geese will never fly.

Over the past weeks, I’ve discussed the goslings with several Morningside Park regulars who have watched generations of goslings grow up in the pond.  All confirm that a few goslings in each brood suffer from the same wing deformity.  But when it comes to theories about the cause of the deformity, theories diverge.

Some observers blame dietary deficiencies, maintaining that too much white bread, fed by park visitors, prevents the feathers from forming properly. One man insists that the feathers break when the birds make their way through dense reeds that have now been cut down. Others, including Tom, a herpetologist/zoologist with the Bronx Botanical Garden, believe it is a congenital deformity.


Tom grew up near the park, used to work in it, and knows more about its flora and fauna than anyone I’ve talked to.  I asked Tom what would happen to the deformed goslings. In past years, he said, the Urban Park Rangers have taken them to a sanctuary upstate where they can live out their days waddling about and swimming in safety.

In the wild, geese with such a handicap would not survive. Here in the park, they are doing fine.

Which is more than than can be said for … someone.

Piles of white downy feathers

Deep piles of white down lined the stone staircase at the south end of the pond.  For a brief moment, as I climbed the steps, I thought perhaps a hawk or falcon had, for some strange reason, chosen to pluck their victim on the stairs rather than in the safety of a high spot.

But last I heard, the local raptors don’t cook.

Burn circle with feathers

What went on here?  Sacrificial ritual?  Santeria?

There’s plenty of weekend barbecuing in Morningside, but it takes place in grills along the eastern edge and doesn’t leave behind piles of fresh feathers.

I welcome your thoughts as to what happened here. If you have any ideas, please leave a comment.

Esau ponders feathers

Play Me, I’m Yours: Street Pianos in NYC

June 22, 2010

Esau at the piano

Yesterday morning, sixty pianos miraculously appeared on streets and plazas throughout NYC’s five boroughs.

I had just returned from a trip to Texas (about which more soon) to find that the summer solstice had arrived, bringing with it the launching of “Play Me, I’m Yours,” a brilliant street art initiative.  Esau and I strolled over to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in search of a street piano.

And there, tucked behind the scary sculpture,

in a lovely spot overlooking the gardens, was a brightly painted piano with the invitation (or is it an injunction?):

Play Me, I’m Yours.

And play people did, including Raphaela, pictured below, knocking out a rousing rendition of “Merrily We Roll Along.”

The little painted stool is tethered by a locked chain to the piano, which is, in turn, tethered to two heavy cinder blocks.

At the end of each day, the piano’s keyboard is locked by a “piano buddy,” who unlocks it each morning. Piano buddies are also responsible for protecting the piano from rain by unfurling the roll of plastic attached to the back.

In my neck of the woods, you can find pianos at 70th Street and the Hudson River, Lincoln Center, Dana Discovery Center at 110 Street in Central Park, Saint Nicholas Park, Riverbank State Park, Harlem Art Park and Saint John’s.

To find a piano near you, volunteer to be a “piano buddy,” or just find out more about the installation, visit Play Me, I’m Yours: NYC 2010.

The pianos are up for two weeks, so make music, New York!

Dirty Harry Dog Cleans Up NYC Streets

June 17, 2010

I’ll get to Dirty Harry, but my story starts with my recent trip to scenic Burlington, Vermont. I walked along the lake and rested in the beautifully designed swinging benches.

A duck waddled ashore to preen,

and blue mountains emerged as the clouds lifted from the far shore.

Lake Champlain with clearing sky

Back in Manhattan at evening, we tossed our bags inside the door, and headed back outside, strolling through lush, overgrown Riverside Park to the shores of the Hudson.

The Hudson River on a mid-June evening

In the late-lingering light of June, the banks of the river are quite as lovely as the shores of Lake Champlain, and despite the endless rush of the West Side Highway, the spot is peaceful and the heart expands.

After having lived far away from NYC for almost 20 years, I am still delighted, after every trip, to return home to Eden on the Hudson. Oh, I know Eden isn’t all roses (though roses are in bloom right now behind the benches in the Broadway islands). In fact, what captivates me is NYC’s juxtaposition of lives and cultures. Divergent desires and aspirations collide (who was that well-fed, wide-eyed, middle-aged Hasidic man in full regalia who said “hello” to me on a Soho Street, and, overjoyed by my polite response, proceeded to try to pick me up?).  Surprising alliances, and seemingly impossible existences, are everywhere, like the huge white egrets, as light and white as a blank sheet of paper, that perch in the delicate topmost tree branches in Morningside Park as fiercely intense basketball games rage in the concrete court below.

No, it’s not all roses. Just last week, I mourned the disappearance of a classically beautiful neon sign advertising a fortune-teller, who plied her trade from a second-floor apartment over an Irish bar.

No more fortune-teller: so, tell me, what's going to happen?

In warm weather, she set up at a small table in front of Sleepy’s mattress store. Where is the neighborhood seer now?

Victor, long-time owner of a rooftop pigeon coop, lives uptown now, though his pigeons live south of 110th Street.  In the 1960s, Victor’s family was the first Puerto Rican family to move into a largely Irish neighborhood.  Over the next decades, Amsterdam and Columbus in the 100s became almost entirely Hispanic with a thriving Dominican population.

109th Street Little League Baseball sign

Victor tells me many of the old-time pigeon fliers were junkies, passing idle drugged-out days watching their birds circle above the rooftops.  “Pigeon coops are only in poor neighborhoods,” Victor says, “Places where people don’t have much, and nobody cares what you do up on the roof.”

Victor's flock circles

All around, especially nearer to Broadway, the rising neighborhood group is the gentry, for whom economics – money, plain and simple – trumps racial, religious and ethnic signifiers. Gentrification is a mighty force. It moves masses of people in and out of an area, improves schools, fights halfway houses, pushes out homeless people, destroys bodegas, brings in fresh vegetables, and hoses down the sidewalks. But it can’t stop the kings of the night.

A king of NYC, probably by Banksy (click image for more info)

On garbage night, rats rule the side streets, well-fed kings of trash, their sway undiminished by the transformation of rent-controlled apartments into doorman-attended co-ops.  In fact, all that building, digging, repairing and renovating of buildings, sidewalks and streets just roils up the rats.  It disturbs their secret subterranean world. It stirs up their conclaves, breaks up their nests, and sends them scurrying up into our realm of light and fresh air.

Look! There goes one now, slipping ghost-like through a crack in the sidewalk.

Not everyone sees rats. But to walk the side streets at night with a dog like Esau is to apprentice yourself to a master hunter. My eye is trained by Esau. I know where the rats are, even when I can’t see them. There’s one, crouching in the darkness behind the front wheel of a parked car. There’s another, beneath that grate in the gutter.

And on garbage night, it’s party-hearty time for neighborhood rodents.  The rats squeeze unnoticed underneath the great curb-side mounds of trash bags, and, safely out of sight of pedestrians, tear open the black plastic, and feast. Esau, scruffy little 30-pound mutt, likes to catch them while they eat, when, as Hamlet says of Claudius, the rats are “full of bread,/With all [their] crimes broad blown”.

Three times, Esau has caught a street rat while out for a civilized, leashed walk, darting his nose under a trash bag and emerging with the creature – huge, writhing – held firmly in his jaws. The first time it happened, I shrieked and impulsively jerked hard on the leash, which jerked the poor dog’s head so that his mouth opened and the rat flew in an airborne trajectory, up, up, up across the sidewalk and down the stairs to land by the basement door of some unsuspecting super’s apartment.

Clint Eastwood's got nothing on Esau.

Esau’s performance thoroughly impressed a group of tough young men hanging out on a nearby stoop. They ruffled his ears and called him “Killer.” “What kind of dog is that?” they asked admiringly. “Where’d you get that killer dog?”

By the third time, Esau had learned to waste no time in dispatching his victim. As I turned my attention away to greet a neighbor, he swiftly grabbed a rat from under a trash bag and gave a quick, sharp shake of his head. Before I knew what was happening, he had deposited the lifeless, bloodless body on the sidewalk, and was looking proudly and serenely up at me as the neighbor, eyes round with panic and skin chalk-white, moved quickly away.

Portrait of a killer

Nowadays, on garbage nights, I keep the leash taut and my attention focused, as we pass the massive pyramids of garbage.  Esau’s days as a vigilante are over, and though his street cred is intact, he can only dream of somehow, someday, running free once again to fulfill his terrifying, Dirty Harry-like potential to purify the streets of New York.

Up on Victor’s Roof

June 9, 2010

I met Victor a few weeks ago at a community fair on Amsterdam Avenue. He was holding court at a folding table on the street,  a hand-raised baby bird named Sunday on his shoulder, and a cage full of handsome rooftop pigeons. I hung around, watching Victor handle the birds and peppering him with questions. I said I’d like to see the pigeon coop one of these days.

A few days later, as I was on my way to Morningside Park to check on the goslings, I ran into Victor, carrying a bag of birdseed.

But the dog

“Come on up,” he said.

“But the dog –” I said.

“Bring him up.”

So Esau and I followed Victor into a building and up the narrow stairs to the roof.

It’s hard to explain the magic of a NYC roof.  On the roof, you are in two worlds at once.  You’re in the city, and also, magically, outside it.

Victor no longer lives in the building where his pigeons live. He visits them every other day to give them fresh food and water, and to watch them fly. They live in a coop he fashioned out of an existing structure on the roof.

Victor's pigeons on top of their coop

The coop has a door and a window for the birds to fly in and out of.  Or just stand in.

Victor removed the screens that partially blocked off the door and window, called to the birds and scattered seed on the roof.

Victor feeds the birds.

We were joined by a young pigeon-loving neighbor and his mother.

Who's in there?

A few pigeons were reluctant to leave.

What's going on out there?

But most came out to eat, to hang out on the roof of the coop,

and to fly

Victor’s birds are called flights, and they fly together in great circles over the rooftop. Victor says they never land in the street, only on rooftops, preferably their own rooftop. He calls street birds “clinkers,” and tells me you can easily see the difference between a street bird and birds like his. Street birds have red eyes and black claws, while most of his birds have clear eyes and clear claws.

And, damn, if it isn’t true.

Look deeply into my eyes like glass.

While the birds circled above, Victor regaled me with facts about pigeons and stories of the glory days of pigeon-flying in Morningside Heights, when every rooftop had its coop. Each owner banded his birds with ankle rings in different colors, so everyone knew which birds belonged to which coop. Victor told me of losing birds to red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons and tough fellow pigeon fliers, who practiced “Catch and kill,” where they kill any stray bird that ends up in their flock.

“Why, Victor?” I asked. “Why would they do that?”

“Just to be mean,” he said. “And a lot of guys don’t want a bird that won’t come back to its own roof. If you told them you had one of their birds, they’d say, “Kill it.'”

After a while, Victor scattered more seed and called the birds in.

They ate and hung out.

Then Victor closed them back into their coop and swept up the leftover seed.

Time to descend the stairs and re-enter the world of the street. Which has its own magic.

Fresh Ducklings and Growing Goslings in Morningside Park

June 3, 2010

On the move

Nine fresh-hatched ducklings, the adorable consequences of April’s disturbing displays of duck sexuality, are eagerly exploring the little pond  in Morningside Park.

Turtles, too, are out in force in today’s heat, basking and swimming.

Soaking up the sun

Lolling in the water

These are red-eared sliders, a non-native species that used to be sold for a dime or a quarter in Woolworth’s.  Who knew, in those benighted days, that the adorable inch-long hatchlings could live up to 35 years and grow to more than a foot in length?

So what happened when they outgrew the ubiquitous little plastic bowls with the miniature palm tree in the middle? Well, many were dumped in park ponds all over the city, where their descendants are thriving.

Morningside Pond is home to several turtle species, including flesh-eating snapping turtles. Here’s hoping the snappers steer clear of the succulent little morsels that make up the duckling flotilla.

The duck babies are truly tiny.  Compare this little fellow to a floating pigeon feather:

or these siblings to blades of grass:

But they’ll grow swiftly. Just a few weeks ago, the gosling quartet looked very much like the duckling nonet:

First day goslings

Then they grew just a little

until they started losing their yellow baby markings

With wings like flippers, she's going nowhere fast

and became today’s ungainly prehistoric beasties

Gawky pre-teen

They appear to be starting to molt, losing their downy fluff in preparation for actual feathers. I was surprised to see the neon-bright, sky-blue patch on their still-ineffectual wings. You can just make it out in the photos.

The awkward age

The goslings’ necks are starting to lengthen, too. Maybe one day, they’ll be worthy of Bird Neck Appreciation Day, just like their parents.

No gosling strays far from this beady eye

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