The Trash of Two Cities: How our trash kills our hawks

I recently spent 24 hours in Philadelphia, and I want to talk trash. Trash as in garbage, refuse, litter, rubbish. Why do I want to talk trash? Because of NYC’s wild winged predators, of course, specifically our large population of red-tailed hawks.

Let me connect the dots that lead from refuse

to red-tails.

Simply put: Humans make garbage. Garbage feeds rats. Well-fed rats thrive, breed and raise healthy young. The growing rat population causes problems for humans. Humans use poison to eliminate rats. Red-tailed hawks eat poisoned rats and die.

Rats, like all animals, need three essentials in order to thrive: food, water and shelter. NYC provides all three in abundance. Most city rats take shelter in a vast underground empire that exists below the city streets, amid tunnels and pipelines and storm drains. They come up into the streets to feed. What do they feed on?  Mostly garbage, which New York City provides to its rodents free of charge, 24 hours a day.

Open trash cans,

Open trash cans offer easy access to rats, as do bread crumbs spread for pigeons

food dropped on the street,

Starlings fight over pizza

mountains of bagged trash awaiting pick-up by the sanitation department,

It takes no time at all for a rat to gnaw through a plastic bag to feed on the rotting scraps inside.

and unsecured garbage can lids

Rats slip easily inside an open lid.

these are the gateways to health, happiness and profuse breeding in our urban rodent population.

The recent deaths of several red-tailed hawks in Manhattan has led to speculation that the birds suffered secondary poisoning after eating street rats laden with rodenticide.  The bodies are being tested to find out why these apparently uninjured hawks died.  In previous years, rodenticides have been identified as the cause of death for several NYC hawks, both adult and juvenile. Clearly, poisoning prey animals causes problems for NYC’s wild predators.

Riverside Park red-tail eats a rat.

I’m certainly not advocating that we protect the hawks at the expense of our quality of life. Rats have over-run my neighborhood in Morningside Heights, and I want them gone. But poisons, while sometimes necessary to control a specific infestation, will not solve the underlying problem.

I know this from experience. Here on my block is a rat burrow in the dirt around a street tree. You can see that the burrow has been covered with mesh, and that the mesh has been gnawed right through.

Rat burrow.

This has happened more times than I can count. Poison is regularly dumped down into the hole, to no avail.

Layers of signs warning of rat poison.

On Thursday, this was the scene at the rat burrow.

Are these poison packets? Right out in the open, where children or dogs could pick them up? Panning out a little, you can seen how the poison is counteracted by … trash.

As long as we feed our rats (and give them take-out coffee), we will continue to have a problem.

Okay, enough ranting. Let’s go to Philly.

Solar-powered trash compactor and recycling bin.

The area of Philly I stayed in was full of heavy-duty, double-bodied refuse containers. Small openings in the left side are for cans, bottles and paper. But the right side, the trash side, is completely enclosed.  Rats can’t get in. Philly started using these trash cans a couple of years ago. They’re computerized, high-tech, solar-powered, laser-operated machines that, by compacting the trash, can hold many times as much garbage as a regular can. When they’re full, they send signals to the sanitation department to alert them.

The cans need to be emptied much less often, allowing the city to expand its recycling program. Philly insists it has cut no workers from the payrolls, but is using them to work in other areas. It also claims the pricey new cans have easily recouped their cost and are now saving the city money.

The city has also commissioned students and artists to decorate the cans as toothed and hungry creatures.

Toothy trash can.

Here’s a garbage-eating shark.

Feed me.

Apparently New York is trying a few of these out in Chinatown, Park Slope and other neighborhoods around the city. There are a few minor obstacles.  You have to be willing to touch a potentially germ-covered handle to deposit your trash. And while virtually all the cans I saw in Philly looked clean and slick, the one at the bus stop in front of the train station, where passengers line up for the Bolt bus and Mega bus, had a wobbly handle.

Still, these seem like our best hope, along with a major education campaign, for controlling our rats.

And now, to reward you for having stayed with me through my trash talk, here’s a glimpse of non-trashy Philly.

Flowering trees

pretty bike racks

dogs in windows

murals and garden plots

tiled murals

and – the reason I went to Philly in the first place – a terrific production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, directed by my husband, at the wonderful Wilma Theater.

If you live in or near Philly, do go see it. It runs through April 8th.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2012, Birds, Hawks, In the City, NYC Parks, Riverside Park, Rodents (other than squirrels), Wildlife/Natural History

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22 Comments on “The Trash of Two Cities: How our trash kills our hawks”


  1. Sadly, in the end its all part of inevitable process that is carried out by nature. And it all started with humans introduction to technology, and breaking out of the natural loop.

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.


  2. [...] The Trash of Two Cities: How Our Trash Kills Our Hawks is a favorite post of mine. In it, I trace the 2012 deaths of NYC raptors to NYC’s [...]


  3. [...] The Trash of Two Cities: How our trash kills our hawks (outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com) Share:FacebookTumblrMoreEmailPrintRedditStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Movies, Other and tagged animated films, animation, lab rats, mice, mouse, movies, New York City, New York City Metro, Rat, rodents, subway by The Taxi Dog. Bookmark the permalink. [...]


  4. Love all your posts, especially this one. Don’t know if you know of the plastic bag incident in the WSP hawks nest. A plastic bag endangered an eyass for almost a week. I created a poster from the images i captured. I will include a link here: http://bit.ly/ILYk4I


  5. I do like how you explain about rats. I never thought about it in this way. Nice blog. It helps educate people, shows what happening in our cities and highlights the problem.

  6. Ag Says:

    I wonder if feral cats – raccoons and the owls (mainly great horned) are also affected by the rat poison. Great Horned owls are bigger than red-tailed hawks but I would think it may still be a problem for them. Since Great Horns mostly breed in the very large parks in the Bronx (NY Botanical Gardend – Van Cortlandt – Pelham Bay) I guess they encounter poison less often…. but then again they do visit Inwood Hill…

  7. Ag Says:

    It’s good Philly is doing that… I’m not sure if it’s everywhere (I haven’t been there in a few years) – but the parts I know were very filthy…. reminded me of Harlem or the South Bronx of the 80′s. I guess it all depends on the are a person is in.

    As far as the rats… we’ll never eradicate them… as long as there are humans there will be rats. Yes though there are many different ways to manage the garbage… but it will take time and money… and knowledge. The sad thing is that it shouldn’t even take hawks being killed by poison. If people only realized how bad rats (and mice) are for our health – it should be enough… it’s sad!

  8. p hoey Says:

    A marvelous essay in that it deals with a scary city-wide problem with a (different) city-wide solution. I love those Philly trash-cans–op and pop.

  9. Deb Reitman Says:

    Melissa, I think trash is about layers. I first think levels. Then, I go from the Geology book to the Biology book. Possibly controlled bonfire works… working!


    • I haven’t researched enough to know much more than that our current system DOESN’T work. It just seems that everything has its issues – including fire, which releases stuff into the air, doesn’t it? I’d be interested to know more.

  10. Barbara Says:

    Terrific post – wonderful combination of rant, public education and a true window on a problem that has a solution (or two) – well done. Hope NYC is successful with its containers and spreads the word and saves money. I was so sad to learn of the hawks.

    Again – fabulous post.

  11. mthew Says:

    You draw the connections perfectly. Thanks.

    BTW, isn’t Philly a great public art town?


  12. Well done on covering this topic and raising two points which highlight the issues we face around the world – the role of educating people to become aware and responsible in managing waste to minimise the impact on the environment and wildlife; as well as the strides in innovative technology in combating an ever
    increasing output, Philadelphia’s ‘smart’ bins look quite revolutionary! Praise to the authorities for delivering new solutions, the other part of the equation is the populace’s compliance.


    • Thank you, Nature on the Edge! Neither rats nor refuse are particularly attractive topics for readers. But I hope that by showing how rats & refuse affect some of NYC’s more beloved wildlife, people will start to care, change their own behavior, if necessary, and begin to advocate for broader changes. Philly’s trash cans show a real-world possible solution, when coupled with education (and penalties) to achieve compliance.

  13. maryfollowsthelamb Says:

    Feed the rats with birth control laced food.

  14. Charlotte Says:

    Great post, and yes, very thought provoking. At least someone’s connecting the dots! Appalled at the rat poison left out to the public. On other hand, nice to see how Philly has cleaned up its act.


  15. Very thought-provoking post!


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