Archive for the ‘raccoons’ category

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

January 20, 2010

Katrinka of the frozen north solved the mystery of the hay bales: “to protect the trees and rock outcroppings from the attack of sliding little children on toboggans and sleds.”  I’m not sure about toboggans in Riverside Park, but we do have a range of sliding objects, including Flexible Flyers, plastic garbage can lids and cardboard boxes. And, sure enough, the hay bales are at the base of two prime sledding hills. So, thank you, Katrinka!

With one mystery solved, a new one presents. Rabies is raging through Manhattan’s raccoon population. Should we worry about our squirrels?

Bagel Brunch for New York Squirrel

I mean, what if a rabid raccoon bites a squirrel? Do squirrels get rabies? Can they transmit it?

NYC Rat by laverrue /Flickr.com

Worse, and please forgive me for putting the image in your heads, what about rabid rats?

Well, dear reader, knowing these questions have been keeping you up at night, I’ve scoured the web for answers.

All mammals can get rabies. The disease is almost always transmitted by a bite or scratch, but any way you can figure out to make contact between your blood stream or mucous membranes and a rabid animal’s infected saliva or brain tissue will generally do the trick.  Squirrels, rats and other small mammals can, and do, get rabies. Yet rabid rodents and lagomorphs (rabbits and hares) are very rare. Why?

Well, there seems to be no definitive answer.  The best explanation comes from Dr. Jean S. Smith at Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control.

Encounter with a Carnivore (Randy Son of Robert/Flickr.com)

In 2001, Dr. Smith told the New York Times that “rats probably would not survive an encounter with an infected carnivore. They are food for carnivores, and so would not be around to transmit the disease to people.” Ditto for squirrels and bunnies.

Dr. Smith says the shape of a rodent’s mouth, or some unidentified factor, may impede transmission. And she maintains that since rats don’t fight much among themselves (and squirrels even less), their behavior doesn’t lead to the bites that transmit infection within the species.

photo by Valerie Everett/Flickr.com

Well, okay, but unusually aggressive behavior is characteristic of the disease. Once an animal is symptomatic, the pacific nature of its species may no longer be relevant.  There’s at least one documented case of a rabid squirrel that was captured and tested only after an unprovoked bite on a human.

And what about those rare rabid squirrels? Why did they survive the bite? Scientists speculate they may have been infected by bats, which are common carriers of rabies. Since a bat’s tiny teeth would not cause serious damage, those squirrels survived to develop symptoms.

Tiny Bat, Big Teeth by Wilson B /Flickr.com

Next up on the rabies agenda, the question you’ve all been waiting for: what is NYC’s policy on vaccinating its raccoons and conserving the remainder of the population?  I’m planning a visit soon to Central Park to see if the Urban Park Rangers can answer some questions. Stay tuned.

New York City Raccoon Rabies Update

January 15, 2010

Last week, neighborhood associations in Morningside Heights, Upper West Side and Upper East Side received a new alert from the Health Department about rabid raccoons. The final numbers of rabid animals have come in for 2009, and they are not good. In December 2009 alone, ten rabid raccoons were found, eight of them above 100th Street on the west side.

In the first two weeks of 2010, the Health Department website reports another eight rabid raccoons. All but one Lenox Avenue renegade were found in Central Park. That’s 18 raccoons dead of rabies in a month and a half. Not good.

For Riverside Park raccoon lovers, the good news is that no rabid raccoons have turned up in our park. I saw three of my (well, not my, of course) raccoons last night, as they left their hole in the retaining wall. A mother, a baby and a third whose size I couldn’t determine, all looking as fat and beautiful and healthy as ever.

The bad news is that infection is probably only a matter of time.

Saint John the Divine grounds

Raccoons pass easily from  the northern end of Central Park to the southern end of Morningside Park. From there, it’s no problem to make their way west through the grounds of Saint John the Divine to Amsterdam Avenue, cross the avenue to the tiny West 111th Street People’s Garden, and from there it’s only two blocks to Riverside Park and its unsuspecting raccoons.

Once inside, the park’s a long, green highway to carry the disease south.

Early fall Riverside Park

No human or dog has been bitten. Yet. But we live crammed together on this narrow island. Something has to be done, and soon.

Raccoon rabies baited vaccine

Elsewhere in the state, the Department of Health uses an oral rabies vaccine, distributed in small baited packages that smell like fish, to control the spread of raccoon rabies. Baited vaccine was distributed in eastern Queens in 2006. It seems increasingly likely that Manhattan will have to follow suit. Tougher to implement in Manhattan where raccoons share habitat with park-loving humans and off-leash canines. Adults would surely avoid the odoriferous bait, but would children and dogs?

Come back here!

I’ll continue to keep an eye on Riverside raccoons.

And, everyone, here are the Health Department recommendations: avoid contact with wildlife, keep pet vaccinations up to date, and walk your dogs on leash.

Hey, Esau, that means you.

O Riverside Park, O Walks of 2009

December 31, 2009

O Riverside Park

O you long, slim, man-made beauty!

Accept this thank you letter for a year of walks with Esau.

Thank you, Riverside Park, for tepee builders and basket weavers  thank you for sculptors of driftwoodand balancers of stonethank you for cross-country skiers and crazy skateboard boys

Thank you for trees, tree holes and painters of trees

Thank you for fish on stonesfor dogs on hay bales for sports drinks on trees and conspiring red riding hoodsThank you for your long, narrow palm  that holds the living secrets of the Great Retaining Wall on your eastern side and, on the west, the fishy banks of the Hudson Most of all, thank you for holding safe the wild things so they can go about their eternal and mysterious animal business right under our city noses.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

New York Winter Storm: Animals in Winter

December 19, 2009

It’s snowing!

And they say it’s going to be a Big Snow. How will the animals stay warm?

First of all, feathers.

Feathers

Above is my feather collection from walks with Esau over the last year.  Below are my favorites: a blue jay feather and a red-tail hawk feather. Look at the size difference!

The really warm stuff is the downy underlayer. Now that’s cozy.

As for mammals, well, Esau loves the cold. Here he is last winter:

Esau's first Big Snow

I keep warm with help from the birds: a down-filled L.L. Bean coat so toasty I have to unzip it after ten minutes walking.

Squirrels spend the coldest days snuggled into their big, fluffy tails, deep inside a drey or hole, made cozy with leaves, fur and feathers. All they need is a cup of hot cocoa and a couple of board games.  The little guys were very active this morning, chasing each other along the retaining wall and  carrying mouthfuls of leaves and white fluffy stuff – down, maybe – into a hole in the wall. Maybe they can tell when a storm is coming.

Raccoons pack on the pounds in the late fall and early winter. When the cold comes, the whole family piles into the den to live off excess body fat for up to a month. Metabolism slows, but it’s not a true hibernation.

I’m guessing they enter a strange, dozy sleep with slow dreams that go on for days. I wouldn’t mind finding my way into a fat raccoon’s winter dream to wander about for just a little while.

Feather Bouquet

Rabid Raccoons in Central Park

December 16, 2009

After years of being pretty much rabies-free, Manhattan has four confirmed rabies cases in 2009, all in raccoons.  One rabid raccoon was found last summer in Inwood Park; the other three were all found dead in Central Park’s North Woods, two in the week of December 7th.

Oh, my lovely Riverside raccoons, what will happen to you?

photo by mola jen/flickr.com

So how is rabies being transmitted around the island? An infected raccoon must have crossed into Manhattan, probably from the Bronx where rabies is quite common. Maybe it took the bridge or swam across at Spuyten Duyvil. Hey, it’s an island, you gotta cross the water somehow.

Henry Hudson & Spuyten Duyvil Bridges by mysticchildz

Maybe it hitched a ride in the back of a truck hauling garbage. Somehow it made its way to Inwood Park at the northern end of the island.

View west from Inwood Hill Park by Baslow/Flickr.com

Then it, or another infected raccoon, travelled south, maybe passing though Riverside Park (oh, my raccoons!), then through city streets

108th & Manhattan Ave.

until it reached the North Woods. Somewhere between 50 and 100 raccoons live pretty densely packed in Central Park, which means we can expect more rabies in the coming months.

Raccoons do venture into Manhattan streets. About a year ago, we saw them for a few weeks on 108th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway. And last summer,  the New York Times described regular forays by North Woods raccoons across 110th Street to raid the garbage cans.

Raccoon in trash can by jeremy

Raccoons, listen up.  It’s a jungle out there. Don’t share saliva with strange raccoons. Don’t bite or get bitten. Don’t scratch or get scratched. Be safe.

Meet you at the wall tonight.

Who’s Eating What in New York City Parks

December 8, 2009

Birdfeeders in Riverside Park are almost empty again. So who’s eating what?

Besides a hungry Downy woodpecker, the feeders attract mostly mourning doves and sparrows. On the ground below, scrounging whatever seeds fall, are rock doves, aka pigeons, and squirrels.

Nice stash

Birdseed isn’t the only thing the squirrels are munching. They’re eating acorns. Gobs of acorns.

This is the treasure the bushy-tailed guys in gray are so busy burying. They won’t remember where they hide them, but they’ll find them anyway. By smell. Scientists buried nuts squirrel-fashion in an area where squirrels had also buried nuts. Then they watched. The little guys dug up scientist-buried nuts at the same rate as nuts they had buried with their own paws. That pretty much rules out memory.

Smashing pumpkins

Here’s something they don’t have to dig for. Smashed pumpkin. Not sure if someone brought it to feed the animals or heaved it over the Great Wall just to watch it explode. Either way, squirrels probably enjoy a little taste. Raccoons certainly do.

Raccoons eat pretty much anything. I mean, anything. Fruit, nuts, berries, corn, crawfish, snails, frogs, small snakes, eggs, baby birds, lizards, grubs, earthworms, insects. Oh, and garbage. Yum.

Raccoons do so well in the city partly because they have no predators here, other than the occasional rogue dog. Sadly, two Central Park raccoons tested positive for rabies this week, bringing Manhattan’s 2009 rabid raccoon total to four. Since Manhattan usually has no rabies at all, this is disturbing news.

New York squirrels were also predator-free for years, but those days are gone. Red-tail hawks are back, living and breeding all over the city, including in Riverside Park, and what they really like to eat is rodents. Of which there is never a shortage in New York City. So rats and squirrels, watch your backs.

A Riverside Park Red-tail rests a minute.

No one in New York eats red-tails or any of the other big raptors at the top of their food chain. Like the peregrine falcons that thrive on formerly predator-free pigeons, or the Great Horned Owl, a rodenticide-on-wings, that showed up in Central Park in November. I recently dissected an owl pellet and found tiny mouse bones. Astonishing. More on NYC owls in a future post.

Great Horned Owl; photo by Zest-pk

So, from squirrels to nuts, that’s what’s on the menu this week in New York City parks.

Raccoon Babies at Play in the Dark

November 11, 2009

Esau has never understood why I won’t go into the park at night.  But though I’ve been sorely tempted, I’ve been ruled by an ancient taboo forbidding parks after dark, along with cannibalism and incest. But no more.

Last night, lured by the possibility that raccoon babies might be dancing in the night park, we descended the 116th Street steps. The rustling leaves gave me a little frisson, but I had just read the beginning of Marie Winn’s wonderful book, Central Park in the Dark. I mean, she walks in the Ramble at night – the Ramble, for crying out loud. I can handle Riverside Park.

Around 109th Street, we saw low shadowy figures just ahead: the raccoon family. The mother darted up the slope towards the wall, but the two babies bolted down the slope towards the lower promenade. Each ran partway up a tree, froze and waited. After a minute, the babies peeped cautiously around the tree trunks. They must have felt safe, because they climbed back down, and proceeded to chase each other up and down the slope in an exuberance of wheeling and turning. The babies were dancing.

219606006_44d69cc885

A young raccoon enjoys life. Photo courtesy of Michael Scheltgen, creativecommons.org

The taboo is shattered. We’ll be back tomorrow night.

Raccoons!

November 1, 2009

A little after 4:30 this afternoon, inside Riverside Park and just north of the 108th Street entrance, Esau and I spy three little faces all in a row, peeping out at us from a hole in the great wall:  Raccoons!

Image

Raccoons on Riverside Park wall. You can just make out raccoons on the ledge outside their den. Thanks to the nice soccer player for the photo.

They stare. They wrestle. They stare.

Dusk comes down fast and they seem restless. Probably hungry.

They venture out onto a ledge at the mouth of the den – a mother and two babies. A fourth little face appears, but stays behind.

The mother can’t decide what to do. She leads the babies up the wall. Stops. Leads the babies down the wall. Stops. She’s wary of us, and the other dog walkers and soccer players gathered to gawk.

She hustles her babies into a second hole, and waits. It’s almost too dark now to see the raccoons, camouflaged against the gray wall. My fellow gawkers leave the park, except Jay and his little dog, Chase.

Striatic

A different NYC raccoon family. Possibly raccoons from outer space. Photo by Striatic: creativecommons.org. (Sadly, my cell phone camera is pretty useless on wildlife.)

Mom is on the move again. She leads the babies not up, not down, but horizontally across the wall. It’s not easy, especially for the little guys.

Wherever the stone bricks form a ledge, the trio goes on all fours. But in narrower places, they stand straight up on their hind legs, faces to the wall, hold on with their front paws, and edge along sideways, inch by inch, looking like small humans in lumpy fur suits.

The third baby never leaves the den. I wonder if the mother will bring it something to eat.

By 5:30 it’s too dark to stay in the park. I hate the shortening days. I hate the loss of daylight saving time. I hate the approach of winter’s stunted afternoons and endless nights.

But I saw raccoons in the early dusk!  And now I know where they live.


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