Archive for the ‘Rodents (other than squirrels)’ category

Malevolent Mice

October 28, 2010

My recent brush with mouse death in Riverside Park has made me aware that New York City is home to some large, malevolently cheerful, truly terrifying mice. Behold the Mickey Mice, or perhaps I should say, Mickey Mouses of the Upper West Side.

Big Mickey is watching you

I’ve never been scared of mice, but after an encounter with this fifty cent ride-on Mickey, I’m rethinking my position:

Escape from Arkham Asylum

Just in case you think I’m being paranoid or over-sensitive, take a closer look at this chilling portrait of insanity:

Would you trust a small child to that face?

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

A Tale of Two Killers: Esau the Dog and Jerry Lee Lewis

October 24, 2010

Esau, my shaggy gray walking companion, is known on the block and the blog for his swift and merciless skill at killing street rats.

Is this the face of a killer?

I’ve had terriers much of my life, but never one that caught and killed with such extraordinary focused ability.  Esau catches animals while leashed and before I have even noticed their existence.  I now keep the assassin on a short leash when we pass the piled-up trash bags where rodents congregate.

Trash mound creeps across sidewalk

Still I admit to a vicarious pride in Esau’s ability to take down the large, brazen rodents that have over-run my neighborhood.

Yesterday Esau killed a mouse, a tiny, harmless creature that was going about its mousey business along the edge of the Hudson River greenway.  Bikers, walkers, runners passed by, unaware of the small lives being lived just inches from their feet.  I too would never have known of the mouse’s existence, had I not felt an unfamiliar movement at the dog end of the leash and, looking down at Esau, noticed a small tail hanging out of his mouth.

Without even breaking stride, Esau had snatched the creature from its daily rounds and was busy administering the fatal chomps.  I jerked hard on the leash and ordered him to “Drop it.”  The little mouse lay on its side in the grass, its hind leg moving as if it were trying to run away. I thought swiftly about how to put it out of its misery – other than allowing Esau to finish the job – but within seconds, the mouse stopped moving. It was dead.

Esau's Handiwork: End of the Mouse Road

I was saddened by the death, until I noticed a second mouse, its small back curved into a ball, blithely nibbling grasses only a couple of feet away.  It seemed to have no awareness whatsoever of its companion’s death or of the fearsome killer that I was restraining with difficulty. Eventually the mouse spotted us and dived into a small hole in the base of a rock from which it goggled its beady eyes at us, before turning tail and disappearing into the darkness.

Mouse house.

With the leash now short and tight, The Killer and I continued our walk, each of us displaying a new interest in the many animal holes camouflaged among the rocks.

Whose home is this?

Some holes are tiny, others quite large.

And who lives here?

How many animals live along this path? How many species?  I’ve seen rats along these rocks, and my son tells me that further south the grass on the eastern side of the greenway is full of mice.

Mouse markers

North of 100th Street, where we usually walk, you can clamber down the rocks right to the river’s edge. Driftwood sculptures rise against the horizontal flow of the river and a trio of well-placed stones, looking like a small graveyard, seems to be signaling across the water to the tall buildings on the Jersey shore.

Back on the streets, Esau enviously eyed another cold killer as she lunched al fresco.

Employed cat lunches outside her shop

And here is “The Killer” himself, the one and only Jerry Lee Lewis, rampaging through a 1957 performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On”.  For sheer speed, drive and raw joyful ferocity, this Killer rivals even Esau.

The Ends of Days and Small Creatures

August 4, 2010

It surprises me how infrequently we come across dead animals and birds. When we do, the small bodies sometimes have an unsettling beauty.

A juvenile cormorant curls gracefully in a ditch by the side of the road

A tiny velvety mole, possibly a victim of Esau’s vigilante activities, lies on the grass in eastern Long Island

In Central Park, near Frederick Douglass Plaza, a flash of brilliant green and yellow at the base of a tree reveals itself to be, not a discarded plastic toy, as I first thought, but the body of a parakeet.

Days end on Long Island

over the Hudsonand, most strangely and spectacularly, in Dallas, where the divided sky lingers until full dark

Strange Magic: A Wall-walker, Canada Geese and a Water Rat

July 29, 2010

Sometimes strange magic exists alongside basic natural facts.

Yesterday, a spirit strolled the top of the Riverside Park retaining wall,while the desiccated corpse of a rat lay in the middle of the path below.

In Morningside Park, Canada geese, missing for weeks, have returned with a vengeance. A reader of this blog reported seeing four geese last Tuesday.  A day or two later, there were six.  Yesterday morning, I counted fourteen.

Most of the Morningside 14 hung out on the rim of the pond, like small-town teenagers, waiting for something to happen.  Others rested after grazing.

Fourteen geese is a lot of geese for a small area.

Watch your step

If a few more geese join the crowd, the area around the pond may lose its allure for walkers like me.

The goose family that nested on Morningside Pond’s little island does not appear to have returned.  While one Canada goose looks pretty much like any other, the Morningside family was easily recognized by the fact that two of its four juveniles had severe cases of “angel wing,” a wing deformity fairly common among park birds.  My best guess is that the little family simply made its way on foot to the inviting and much larger ponds and fields of Central Park, just a couple of blocks away.  (A supervisory biologist at USDA Wildlife Services has assured me that, despite the recent killing of hundreds of geese in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, no action has been taken, or is planned, for the geese of Central Park.)

If you ignore the mess they make, geese are lovely and amusing creatures.  The Morningside 14 engaged in intense preening, punctuated by bouts of goose yoga in which a leg or wing was held outstretched and motionless for minutes at a time.

First a leg.

Now leg and wing together.

Turtles of all sizes were out in force, as they have been all summer.

And a solitary rat nibbled grass near a solitary duck.

When we approached, the rat slipped silently into the water and vanished, reappearing, sleek and wet, a few feet down the shore.

Unlike the familiar skulking garbage-eaters of the streets, this rat seemed to be enjoying the bucolic life of a wild water-rat.

Ratty takes Mole for a picnic. From The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; illustration by E.H. Shepard

It disappeared again into the water. This time, it didn’t reappear.

I searched among the lilies for a tiny skiff or a picnic basket, but found nothing.

Another time, perhaps.


My Name is Esau and I’m a Thigmophiliac

July 20, 2010

Thigmophilic: used by biologists to describe animals that love to touch things, or be touched

My name is Esau and I'm a thigmophiliac

“Hello. My name is Esau, and I’m a thigmophiliac. Or thigmophile. Whatever.”

Well, hey, you may say, I like to be touched, too. Who doesn’t?  But when scientists call a species “thigmophilic,” or touch-loving, they’re not talking about back rubs, caresses or a scratch behind the ears.  They’re talking about animals that, as Robert Sullivan says in his fascinating, information-packed book, Rats, “prefer to touch things as they travel” or otherwise go about their essential business.  Often, they’re talking about rats.

Rats, specifically Rattus norvegicus, the familiar – some might say, too familiar – city rat, like to keep their bodies in contact with walls as they scurry along on their rodentine missions. Wall-hugging, which protects them from attack on one side, appears to create a kind of kinetic map: it helps the rats learn favorite routes.

Wall hugger

Hedge hugger

Until I read Sullivan’s book, I had no idea a word existed to describe my dog Esau’s love affair with walls.

Most of the time, I don’t let him hug his beloved walls, because, well, NYC walls are filthy, particularly down at Esau’s level. I don’t even want to think too much about what’s on those walls.  But on a recent trip to Morningside Park, I conducted a not very scientific experiment: I let Esau walk where he wanted.

Rail hugger

Retaining wall hugger

The results? No surprise: He hugged the walls.

He hugged buildings, railings and hedges.

Cathedral hugger

Stairwell hugger

He hugged the side of Saint John the Divine, and the stone steps that lead into the park.

If an object could, by any stretch of the definition, be considered a wall, Esau hugged it.

Back inside, he hustled along the interior wall.

Hustling wall hugger

Is this a case of the hunter coming to resemble the hunted? How peculiar that Esau, the mighty rat hunter who snatches street rats from beneath piles of trash, should share with his prey the unusual trait of thigmophilia.

“So I’m a thigmophiliac. What’s it take to get a drink of water around here?”


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.

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 /

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/

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/

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 /

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: