Archive for the ‘raccoons’ category

Out Walking the Dog’s Top Ten Posts of 2010

December 30, 2010

Readers prefer mastodons.

I’ve always avoided top ten lists. In fact, I’ve disparaged the whole concept as basically, well, idiotic. But I recently discovered that the statistics tracker on my blog, which counts each time someone visits, can also tell me how many times each blog post has been viewed over the past year.

A post about feeding wild animals is a favorite.

The very existence of this useless information exerts a mysterious allure, as if it contained some important hidden meaning just waiting to be revealed.  It doesn’t, of course.  But I can’t resist the pull. So, for whatever amusement or revelation may be found, I here present … (drum roll, please) …

Out Walking the Dog’s Top Ten (Most Viewed) Posts of 2010.

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

2. Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends

3. NYC Wildlife: The Pigeons Outside My Window

4. NYC Coyote Existential: Where do they come from and where are they going?

5. Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels (and Rats)?

6. Seed Pods and Eyeballs

7. Saint John the Divine: A Secret Garden in Morningside Heights

8. Victor Casiano’s Rooftop Pigeons

9. Sex and the City Bird

10. Falada in New York: 59th Street Carriage Horses

So there you have it.  The frightening outbreak of rabies in Manhattan and the almost equally frightening event of duck sex make it into the top ten. So do last winter’s coyote visitations and a meeting with the last of our neighborhood’s rooftop pigeon flyers.  Other urban animals that are featured include squirrels, horses, raccoons, peacocks, rats, and mastodons.

Yeah, mastodons. The most popular post, by far, is a light-hearted discussion of the co-evolution of honey locust trees and mastodons. Why?  I’d like to think it’s because the study of evolution is booming, but maybe people just like mastodons or the idea of giant mammals roaming Manhattan.

The world is a mysterious place. Why should the internet be any different?

Esau, scourge of street rats, contemplates the mysteries of reader preferences.

Raccoons, Marshmallows and the U.S. Government

November 5, 2010

Last weekend, Esau and I discovered a gray box snuggled up against the retaining wall in Riverside Park.

Mystery box

A round hole at either end led to a small chute and a dark interior.

Flowers at the front door

High in the wall, just south of the box, is a raccoon den. I know it’s a raccoon den because, for the past year, I’ve been regularly watching raccoons as they emerge from this hole to watch the world go by before venturing out on evening raids into the park.  I have on occasion seen as many as five or six raccoons pour out of the hole like bulky little clowns out of a clown car.

Are you looking at me?

“Aha!” I thought gleefully, and my heart danced. “I am at long last seeing, with my own eyes, the traps used by the USDA to catch raccoons.”  Need I remind you of my fascination with NYC’s dramatic outbreak of raccoon rabies as well as the USDA’s patient and effective program to vaccinate virtually every raccoon residing in Manhattan?

The vaccination program began last spring in Central Park, the epidemic’s epicenter, and branched out into Morningside Park and Riverside Park. (Click to read about the program and about Lee Humberg, the biologist in charge.)  By April, over 230 raccoons had already been vaccinated and tagged for future identification.

The current round of trapping allows the USDA to vaccinate any raccoons that may have been missed as well as juveniles that were too young or vagrants that have wandered into the area. If a trapped animal appears unwell, it will be euthanized and tested for rabies. This humane and labor-intensive approach has led to a steep drop-off in the number of raccoon rabies cases with only three confirmed reports in the past three months. Compare that to March 2010 with a monthly high of 38 confirmed cases.

But this trap was targeting my raccoons, and I wanted to know more about it.

I longed for a closer look at the gray box, but was deterred by fencing put up by the Riverside Park Fund to protect their lovely plantings.

So Esau and I walked south on the path near the wall, keeping our four eyeballs peeled.

Sure enough, about four blocks south we found a second gray box,  identical to the first, but on an unfenced slope. We drew near and read this intimidating warning

on the hinged and securely padlocked lid

In other words: Mind your own beeswax.

Undeterred but cautious, we peered inside and saw that each round hole led to a separate (empty) wire mesh “Have-a-Heart” trap, baited with … marshmallows

Start the fire and find a stick.

The traps were gone within a couple of days. Whether any raccoons were caught – or were spotted roasting marshmallows and making s’mores – remains just another small NYC mystery.

Again with the Central Park Rabies Advisory

October 4, 2010

Strolling in Central Park with Esau yesterday morning, I was surprised to encounter dramatic new “Rabies Advisory” signs on lamp posts along the western edge of the park.

The new signs scream “Rabies” in multiple languages (La Rage! Rabbia! Tollwut!) and feature a realistic line drawing of a hulking raccoon that could probably hold its own as a National Football League center.

Last winter, when it had become clear that Manhattan was in the midst of a raccoon rabies epidemic, bright green signs appeared on park lamp posts, urging visitors to “Leave Wildlife Alone.”

Note the cute little cartoon-like drawing of a raccoon head and the small lettering for the words “rabies advisory.”

The new signs are striking, easy to read and, well, kind of scary. But why scare us now?  The epidemic appears to be mostly over, thanks to USDA’s humane and labor-intensive program to individually trap, vaccinate and release Manhattan’s healthy raccoons.  Over 130 already-infected raccoons have died off  since summer 2009, while the remaining, much-decreased, vaccinated population should serve as a barrier that prevents the disease from reaching epidemic proportions.

After a monthly high of 38 reported rabies cases in March 2010, the numbers began to decline.  June and July saw three rabies cases each, and August became Manhattan’s first rabies-free month since November 2009.

So I repeat, why the scary new signs?  Well, it ain’t over till it’s over and with rabies these days, it may never be completely over.  In early September, a single rabid raccoon was found in Central Park in the West 70s, reminding us just how difficult it is to eradicate a disease with a long incubation period.  And to maintain effectiveness, we’ll probably need an annual vaccination program to ensure that new babies are trapped and immunized.

But even if we were to succeed in immunizing the entire resident raccoon population, raccoon rabies is now endemic across the eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine. Raccoons and other wild animals, including skunks and coyotes, regularly find their way from the mainland to Manhattan, as juveniles seek new territory.  They cross the railroad bridge from the Bronx or swim a narrow channel. If in their travels, they have been in contact with a rabid animal, they will again bring rabies to our island paradise.

So heed the scary signs, and leave wildlife alone.  Enjoy the raccoons, but don’t feed them or try to lure them closer so you can get a better photo.

And while we’re at it, it’s probably better not to feed any of our urban wildlife, except maybe small migrating songbirds.

Grazing geese take over the outfield in Morningside Park

Feeding by humans encourages animals to overpopulate, which makes us consider them pests that need to be eradicated, as in this summer’s killing of geese in Prospect Park.  Unnaturally dense populations allow disease to flourish and spread.  So if you have a soft spot for  geese, raccoons, pigeons, squirrels and other urban wildlife, do the animals a favor and stop feeding them.

Red-eared sliders, expecting crumbs, mass beneath the Turtle Pond overlook

If you don’t have a soft spot for animals, count yourself lucky that we don’t yet have a need for these signs in Manhattan:

Sign in Vancouver, Canada proclaims: Warning! Coyotes in the Area

Then again, coyotes love goose eggs, so maybe you goose-haters want to roll out the coyote welcome mat. After all, as the sign says, coyotes are “smart, fast, and will take what they can get.”

Welcome or not, coyotes will be back in Manhattan. If not this winter, then next.  They may be here already, slipping through the old growth of Inwood Park and the tangles of Highbridge.

Esau contemplates ducks as a possible food source.

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.

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.

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.

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, Urbanhawks.com

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; Urbanhawks.com

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

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.

NYC Snow Day Brings News of Central Park Raccoons and Coyotes

February 27, 2010

The Parks Department declares Saturday an official Snow Day, and is providing free sleds and hot cocoa at several parks, including Riverside at 103rd.

Snow Day!

Esay trees a squirrel

Esau and I went by to check it out.

We ran into Sunny and Sheriden, our Urban Park Ranger friends, who were supervising the happy sledders from the bottom of the hill.

As always, I was delighted to see them and, of course, pumped them for the latest on Central Park’s rabid raccoons and visiting coyotes.

Raccoon Update

In a little over a week, USDA biologists have already trapped, vaccinated, tagged and released around seventy raccoons in Central Park. Seventy!  Add in the sixty rabid raccoons collected since December 2009, and it’s pretty clear that the total Central Park raccoon population must be well into the hundreds. This extraordinary population density has undoubtedly contributed to the rapidity with which the disease has spread.

One raccoon, already tagged and vaccinated, found its way into a trap for a second time. Since it was injured (not related to the trapping, as far as I know), researchers euthanized it. Tests revealed that it was rabid. This doesn’t mean the inoculation failed, but rather that the raccoon had been infected prior to being vaccinated. Since rabies shows no symptoms until it reaches the brain (at which point the raccoon has only a few days to live), a number of infected but still apparently healthy animals are likely to be trapped, vaccinated and released. The disease will kill them, but meanwhile they may continue to infect healthy, as-yet-unvaccinated raccoons.

Still, I’m impressed with the city’s response and the cooperative effort of state and local agencies. I remain hopeful that the virus will be contained and our raccoon population, dramatically culled by disease, will again be healthy.

Sheriden also said that since the snowstorm, some of Central Park’s raccoons are finding their usual secretive pathways too deep in snow for comfort, and are taking to the main walkways of the park. She’s guessing they’ll be getting more calls than usual over the next couple of days as healthy raccoons that just don’t want to get their feet wet waddle down the same paths as rabies-conscious New Yorkers who are trying to steer clear of the wildlife.

Coyote Update

The Central Park coyote (or coyotes, since no one is quite sure how many there are) continues to run free. It is reported to be quite shy of people. Sunny saw it once down at the south end of the park, playing with the snow. She said no one is trying to catch it, at the moment; they’re concentrating on the raccoons. And both she and Sheriden seemed to be hoping that it might be allowed to stay. I have to assume, though, that officials are considering the unfortunate possibility that the coyote may contract rabies from the raccoons.

Whatever the eventual fate of 2010’s coyotes, evidence is mounting that coyotes are adapting to east coast city life. Ball’s in our court. We city dwellers had better start figuring out how we can adapt to them.

Keep checking back for the upcoming series on coyotes in the east.

NYC Vaccinating Raccoons To Stop Rabies Epidemic

February 18, 2010

I spoke Tuesday with Dr. Sally Slavinski of the NYC Health Department to get the latest on the city’s response to the swiftly spreading rabies situation. I will write a more detailed post as soon as I can find time, but here is the news in a nutshell, with few details, few photos and little discussion.

As of February 10, 39 rabid raccoons have been found in Manhattan in 2010, most of them in or around Central Park. Add in 2009’s rabid raccoons, and the number is a staggering 49. (A number that makes us wonder just how large is the Central Park raccoon population – but that’s for a later post.)

Central Park raccoon by dscape/Flickr.com

One person and one dog have been bitten, and received post-exposure treatment. Another person received treatment after attempting to care for a sick raccoon. (In another post, I’ll fill you in on the latest from conspiracy theorists, who believe the city intentionally introduced rabies to justify eradicating a healthy raccoon population. Or something like that.)

So what is the city doing? On February 16th, in a multi-agency collaboration with the USDA, the Parks Department and the Central Park Conservancy, the Department of Health began a trap-vaccinate-release program to vaccinate raccoons in Central Park against rabies.

For the next four to eight weeks, raccoons will be caught in live traps that are strategically placed in less accessible areas of the park. The animals will be vaccinated on the spot by USDA workers, given ear tags for identification, and released back into their home environment. Raccoons that appear sick will be euthanized and tested for rabies.  The program will expand to include Morningside Park (two reported cases) and Riverside Park (no reported cases).

In summer 2010, a second phase of trap-vaccinate-release will be launched to vaccinate baby raccoons born this spring.

Raccoons that are already infected will die within days of showing symptoms. If we can stop the cycle of transmission through inoculation, we can, theoretically, eradicate the virus. At least, for now. And when the next rabid raccoon follows the Amtrak corridor into Manhattan, our local raccoons will already be immunized.

Snowed-in Raccoon Den in Riverside Park

I checked to be sure the Department of Health had plans to immunize the five raccoons I watch in Riverside, and am happy to report that a location has already been selected for a trap.

Much more to come. But meanwhile, if you come upon a trap in the park, leave it alone. Call 311 if the trap holds a raccoon. Also call 311 if you see a raccoon that appears sick or is behaving strangely. But leave the wildlife alone.

Esau imagines himself as King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon's lead sled dog

And be sure your dog’s rabies vaccination is up to date.

Scientia Pro Publica, or Science for the People

February 16, 2010

Out walking the dog’s December post, The Drey Report, is included in the latest edition of Scientia Pro Publica 21: Darwin’s 201st Birthday Edition.It’s hosted by GrrlScientist at her blog, Living the Scientific Life (Scientist Interrupted).

Hard to believe the great man was born over 200 years ago.

Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-monthly blog carnival devoted to publishing science, nature and medical writing that communicates to the interested public.  Wide-ranging categories include Neurobiology, Evolution, Science and Society, Medicine, Invertebrates, Mammals, and more. So check it out, all you scientists, science lovers and just plain curious people.

On another front, I am hoping soon to have hard facts about the trap-vaccinate-release program planned (or maybe already underway in Central Park) for Manhattan’s raccoons.

Last Friday, I called the NYC Department of Health in search of someone who could answer my many questions. I did not get beyond the publicity department. But I learned that a press release is being issued this week, and I am on the list for interviews.

It’s wild in the streets, people. Keep your eyes peeled for rabid raccoons and hungry coyotes.

Update on Wildlife After the Storm and Friday Ark Blog Carnival

February 12, 2010

Raccoons seem to be sleeping through the Big Snow. As of this morning, several inches of snow piled on the ledge outside their retaining wall den appeared undisturbed by any entrances or exits.

A few squirrels, on the other hand, are out and about as are sparrows, many junkos, the omnipresent Riverside Downy woodpecker, a cardinal, two mourning doves and rock doves.

Friday news: Out walking the dog is participating in the Friday Ark, a weekly blog carnival about animals of all kinds, including mammals, birds, reptiles, invertebrates and anything else you can think of.  Stop by the Ark on Fridays to visit the animals. Our submission is a post from last week in which Esau encounters an elephant.

Galumphing Dogs and Wary Raccoons

January 28, 2010

Esau and I went raccoon spotting the night before last, around 7:30 PM. The evening before, we had seen the usual trio. The mother and one baby were up on the wall near their den entrance, and the other baby was down on the ground, messing around with some unidentified object. It was too dark for me to see what he was up to, but after a short time, he suddenly became aware of our presence and ran up a nearby tree.

photo: Velo Steve/Flickr.com

Last night, we saw no raccoons at first, probably because several big, goofy dogs were galumphing about, off leash, near the wall. The raccoons’ good judgment in staying hidden I take, in these viral days, as an indicator of continued rabies-free health.

After the goofy galumphers and their oblivious cell-phone yakking owners went on their way, one raccoon (the mother?) emerged to hang out at the entrance and sniff the air, nose held high.

Lime Leaf Restaurant, highly recommended. Photo courtesy of Mary Sargent

We didn’t wait to see if the others would follow Big Mama, as our take-out food was getting cold over at Lime Leaf, the lovely Thai restaurant at 108th and Broadway.

Wishing the raccoons a quiet evening, we left, heading east to Broadway.

(The photo above is by Mary Sargent who has made it her mission to photograph every street in Manhattan. Check out her delightful photo blog: Manhattan Street Project. When we were looking long-distance for an apartment, I browsed her blog to get a feel for different neighborhoods.)

New York City Raccoons Go About Their Business in Riverside Park

January 24, 2010

Raccoons on Retaining Wall

I’ve been so interested in Manhattan’s raccoon rabies epidemic that I’ve been neglecting to write about the raccoons themselves.

I continue to watch my local raccoons almost every evening, and get powerful pleasure from seeing them go about their business.

Five of them live in one den, a rectangular hole in the stone retaining wall. A mother and two babies are the trio I see most often, making their way along the wall, usually heading north. Sometimes they stop and just sit in one spot for five minutes or more. Other times they seem almost to defy gravity as they move across the vertical stones, fifteen feet in the air.

Riverside raccoon in big home den

The two babies are darker in color, and their markings, particularly the rings on the tails, are less distinct. The little ones often duck into tiny holes on the wall, holes that seem way too small to admit them. But they pour themselves in, haul their tails in, and then whip around so their little pointy faces are peeping out. I’m guessing a lot of their seeming bulk is actually fur that compresses to allow them to squeeze into small spaces.

The remaining two raccoons are more mysterious. They seem to let the family trio leave first, then one spends a long time peeping out of the den before deciding to head out.  I think both are adults, but am not sure. I’ve rarely seen all five out at once – only twice in the many times I’ve watched.  And I’ve learned that it is surprisingly difficult to get a good read on size, unless the animals are in close proximity to each other.

I occasionally hear the raccoons chuckling and chattering at each other. Once there was a veritable “cat fight” going on inside the den. All we could see was the big rear end of one raccoon filling up the entry way. But it certainly sounded as if someone was reading the riot act inside.

Most of the time, though, they are silent, and their coloring blends right into the rock at night.  People, and even dogs, stroll by, and never know the strange ring-tailed creatures are there, moving quietly along the wall fifteen feet above their heads.


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