Archive for the ‘seals’ category

Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help

September 15, 2011

Last Saturday night, a reader left a comment on my blog, wondering what to do with the fledgling bird that he had found on a busy midtown Manhattan sidewalk.  He left a message with the Wild Bird Fund, but had not yet heard from them and was looking for someplace to take the bird.  Wild Bird left him a message, suggesting that he drop off the bird but, as my reader later reported, the little bird did not survive long enough to get help.

Making the decision to remove a bird that can’t yet fly or feed itself from a midtown Manhattan street seems like a pretty good call.  But it’s not always so easy to know whether to intervene.  Our hearts go out to a fellow creature in distress or a baby animal that we fear has been abandoned.  But rehabilitators and others who work with wildlife stress that the impulse to help is often misguided.  I know from my own experience that compassion needs to be guided by an understanding of wildlife biology and behavior.

When I found a seal pup alone on a Long Island beach last spring, I was quite sure it was too small to be on its own.  After watching it for a while, I feared that it was in distress, either ill or injured.  Seeing no sign of another seal, I wondered if it had been abandoned by its mother.  Concerned, I alerted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals.  They had already received several calls about the pup but, swamped with calls about stranded seals, they weren’t able to come to evaluate it.  Luckily, it was a cold day, and there were no people or romping dogs nearby.  I waited and watched for a couple of hours, then left the little seal on its own on the empty beach.

When I returned to the city, I called and spoke at some length to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation who assured me that the seal sounded like a healthy, normal Gray seal pup and was probably just resting.  Gray seals are weaned by the time they are two or three weeks old, she said, and the pup I saw was probably at least two months, and completely independent.  Doing nothing – and keeping my distance while I did it – was the right thing to do.

Of course, doing nothing isn’t always the right thing to do.  Late last spring, I spotted a sweet fledgling on my street.

It was in a large planter right outside the doorway of a neighboring building.

Across the sidewalk in a nearby street tree I saw adult birds watching – probably parents, I thought.  The baby bird was not in a particularly safe spot – it was a couple of good hops away from the street, but for the moment, it was off the street, near vegetation for hiding, and out of the way of dogs and pedestrians.  I left it where it was.  Early the next morning, I was shocked to find its little body lying in the center of the sidewalk, neatly decapitated.

Note:  I’m trying hard not to get sidetracked with the intriguing question of what animal killed the bird and made off with its head.  It’s not relevant to the question we’re considering here of when to intervene to help a wild animal.  But I can’t help myself.  It’s just too bizarre.  There are not that many predatory species on our street to put into the murder line-up.  Known neighborhood predators include raptors (kestrels and red-tails), raccoons (but I’ve not seen one outside the park in over two years),  stray or feral cats (but I’ve never spotted one on my street), dogs (many, but usually attached to a human and not known for such tidy bites), humans and, my personal choice, rats, the kings of the night.  Who do you think killed the bird?  Please leave a comment.

So should I have “rescued” the bird, and taken it to a rehabilitator?  Maybe.  I asked Wild Bird Fund that question on their Facebook page, and they answered: “Since the fledgling was not injured and it was in a decently safe place, you did the right thing leaving it there. So many fledglings are kidnapped from their parents by “rescuers.””

The truth is, outcomes for fledglings are often bad, whether you intervene, as my reader did, or do nothing, as I did.  Even under completely natural circumstances, millions of baby birds do not make it to adulthood.  Had I known about the Wild Bird Foundation at the time, I might have decided to take the bird in.  But would that have been the right decision?

Wild bird experts, including the NYC Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology agree with the Wild Bird Fund that, when possible, fledglings should be left alone unless they are in obvious danger or clearly orphaned.  Many bird species leave the nest days before they can fly, or fly well.  During this risky period of development, the parents continue to watch over and feed the young birds who are easy prey for natural predators as well as those most efficient, human-introduced, non-native killing machines known as cats.

So how do you know what to do the next time you find a baby bird?  Here is a terrific flowchart on how to make a decision.  Scroll down for instructions on how to safely transport the bird, if it is in need of help.

View this document on Scribd

Good luck to the late-summer fledglings, and to all the migrating birds already making their way south.

Seals and Silkies: Two Faces of Truth

May 19, 2011

Silkies: Faroe Island stamp

Some readers, I am learning, visit Out Walking the Dog for the bits of natural history behind my glimpses of wildlife in the city, while others prefer to focus on the sense of mystery and joy engendered by those glimpses. For me, it is all water from the same well; both the science and the poetry, far from being mutually exclusive, arise from wonder and feed each other.

In my last post, I talked about spottting seals on NYC and Long Island beaches and piers. I referenced experts, who emphasize giving seals plenty of distance and leaving them alone so as not to stress them.

There is another good reason not to become entangled with a stranded seal: it may be a silkie.

Gray Seal. Click the photo to visit the Irish Seal Sanctuary

Silkies, also called selkies, are seal-people, well-known in the mythology of northern Atlantic cultures including Ireland, Scotland and the Faroe Islands.  Silkies sometimes have love affairs with mortal men or women, and these are often tragic and always sorrowful, as Joan Baez sings in The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a haunting Scottish ballad.

In The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, a silkie transforms into a man to become the lover of a mortal woman.  Later he disappears, and she bears a child.  One day, as she sings to her baby boy, the silkie reappears to tell her who he really is.

I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie on the sea
And when I’m far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry.

The silkie tells the girl that he will come again one day to fetch his little boy “and teach him how to swim the foam.”  He then confides a terrible vision of the future:

And ye shall marry a gunner good,
And a right fine gunner, I’m sure he’ll be
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me.

In another silkie story, a fisherman watches a seal come ashore, take off its seal skin, and become  a beautiful young woman.  He hides the skin, without which she cannot transform back into a seal and must live as a woman. They marry, have children and live together for years. She gradually forgets her past life, although she is drawn to the sea by a powerful yearning.

Drawn to water. Photo by Melissa Cooper

One day, while her husband is out fishing, she comes across the skin in its hiding place and knows again the truth about who she is. Putting on the skin, she is a seal again and swims joyfully away into the waves.

photo by southgeist/

Still she misses her loved ones, and appears forever after in the waters close to shore, hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband and children.

Photo by NatureFramingham; click photo to see more.

Silkie stories riff on the profound connection between humans and animals, on our yearning to know what animals know, see what they see and, finally, on the sadness of our separation from the natural world. Of course, we are animals and part of nature, but we’re often the last to remember.

The Secret of Roan Inish: see it.

John Sayles’s wonderful 1996 movie, The Secret of Roan Inish, is a magical retelling of a silkie story.

And Neil Jordan’s 2010 film, Ondine, tells the story of a contemporary Irish fisherman, played by Colin Farrell, and the mysterious (and rather bizarrely fashion-conscious) seal-woman he brings up in his net.

You never know about seals. You just never know. Their lives and identities remain mysterious.  So keep your eyes open for seals as you walk along the water’s edge or on the beach. But let them be. Yes, let them be.

Encountering Seals in NY: What to Do

May 17, 2011

Gray seal pup on Flying Point Beach in Watermill, NY. Photo by Melissa Cooper.

Since my encounter earlier this spring with a lone gray seal pup on a Long Island beach, seals have been swimming through my thoughts.  Such encounters are on the increase in the New York area.  Over the past few years, seals have turned up all along NYC beaches and piers, including Coney Island and even Brooklyn’s toxic Gowanus Canal (that seal was rescued, rehabilitated and released into Long Island Sound by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, about which more below).

A couple of weeks ago, a gray seal came ashore on a tiny beach in northern Manhattan.  In 2008, a juvenile seal hauled out on a dock in the 79th Street boat basin on the upper west side.

NYC seal, 2008. Photo: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

Last year, a young harbor seal perched atop a Hudson River piling at around 64th Street.  Although New Yorkers may not realize it, the Hudson is tidal. This seal rode the high tide to its perch, and must have had to wait out the hours until the water again rose to meet it.

An unknown photographer sent this to the NY Post in March, 2010

Five species of seal may be spotted in the waters around New York and Long Island: Harp seals, Harbor seals, Gray seals, Hooded seals and, very rarely, Ringed seals.  Harbor seals, once abundant here and currently making a comeback, are the most common., followed by Grays.

Here is a lovely 2009 video from the Wildlife Conservation Society of an annual count of harbor seals in the area beneath the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York Harbor.  New York Aquarium Curator Paul Sieswerda attributes the increase in sightings to the clean-up of the Hudson. “The water has been so much improved,” he says, “that the fish are back, and the seals find plenty of food to live off of.”

If you are lucky enough to spot a seal hauled out on shore, please give the animal plenty of space. Seals come ashore to rest and warm up on sun-warmed sand or rocks.  The presence of humans (and their dogs) can stress and exhaust the animals, making them more vulnerable to disease and predation.  CRESLI, (Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, Inc) recommends keeping a distance of at least 50 yards.

When I saw this little seal with its head down, looking like a hunk of blubber, I worried it was ill or injured.

Shhh. Gray seal pup sleeping. Photo by Melissa Cooper.

In fact, it was simply resting.  This points up an important issue: If you’re not trained in seal behavior, don’t make assumptions and please don’t do anything to “help” the seal. Don’t splash water on it, don’t feed it, and don’t try to help it back into the water. Leave it alone. Most of the time, the animal is fine, and is simply doing what seals do.

Occasionally, an animal may be sick, injured or entangled in a fishing net.  If you have any doubts about the welfare of any marine mammal or sea turtle, please call the 24-hour NYS Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Program (631-369-9829).

That’s what I did when I worried over the baby seal.  Even on a Sunday, the answering service took a description and the location, and relayed the information to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation.

The Riverhead Foundation conducts marine research and, when necessary, rehabilitates sea creatures.  Many ill and injured seals have been successfully rehabilitated and released to the wild. This wonderful and moving video from Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre in British Columbia shows a young seal tentatively leaving its carrying case and then rushing joyfully (anthropomorphic or not, it is the only word) into the waves:

When you call the hotline, be patient. On the day of my seal encounter, I waited on the beach, hoping to be there when the rescuers arrived.  Some time later, I called back, slightly impatient, only to learn that the foundation’s single van must cover all of Long Island, from Brooklyn to Montauk.  There had been several sightings that day, and the van had gone to check out a seal on Coney Island.

Two days later, I called the Foundation and spoke with a very helpful biologist. She said they had received several calls about the Flying Point Beach juvenile, and that the descriptions indicated it was a normal, healthy young seal.  She told me that Gray seals are weaned at the age of two or three weeks and that this seal was probably around two months old and completely independent.

Whatever connection I feel with wildlife, I must acknowledge the limits of my imagination, particularly when it is shaped only by human emotions and experience without the expanding influence of scientific knowledge.  Now, with even a small amount of research under my belt, I may be able to more accurately interpret the behavior of  the next seal pup I encounter, and not assume it is lonely, abandoned and in need of care when it is, in all likelihood, doing just fine.

Check back later this week for a more mysterious reason to leave seals alone.  Just know, they may not be what you think they are.

Spring in Three Cities

May 9, 2011

I spent a good chunk of April out of town, and am happy to be back on my island home, now in full  leaf-out.

Biblical Garden at Saint John the Divine.

Oh, yes, it’s spring, at last.

A peacock blossoms in a garden of Saint John the Divine.

Flowers are popping, and animals, too, are busting the confines of their lives.

In April. a baby pigeon rested in front of a flowering tree.

We’re all border crossers, every one of us animals, our lifetime of crossings prefigured by our natal departure from a watery womb world or hard-shelled egg into the dangerous but seemingly limitless possibilities of earth and air.  It’s never more evident than in springtime.

Baby birds are cracking out of eggs

Morningside Park gosling

Raccoons are emerging from dark holes and hollows

Riverside Park raccoon emerges from retaining wall den.

Turtles are leaving their watery homes to lounge on warm rocks

Morningside Park turtles relax in the sun.

and seals are coming ashore in New York City, including a small beach in northern Manhattan.

Gray seal on beach at Dyckman Street and the Hudson River. Photo by Corey Kilgannon/The New York Times.

(Read about my April encounter with a gray seal pup on Long Island here.)

In April, I worked in two midwestern cities, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Most of the time I spent in that strange, indoor world of theater rehearsals, a world that knows no seasons.  But in each city, I managed one small adventure and found wildlife surprises.

One morning, I played hooky from the Bonderman Symposium at Indiana Repertory Theater to explore the city’s amazing collection of war memorials. (Visit my other blog, The Red Animal Project, to read an ongoing series about how we remember our war dead, including a look at the Indianapolis War Memorial Plaza.)

A robin gazed over the city from atop the head of a majestic lion at the War Memorial Museum and Shrine.

Indy robin and lion.

 Trees clad in bridal gowns lingered along the paths of War Memorial Plaza

and a charmingly awkward American coot slowly revealed itself

Downtown coot

then strolled alone in an expanse of green.

No water here.

In St. Louis in the last days of April, I spied the first bird of the morning just steps from the hotel door.

Oh. So sad.

A gorgeous rose-breasted grosbeak.

Lovely, but dead.

The killer loomed above the tiny victim: a wall of glass.

Bird killer.

In the U.S. alone, collisions with man-made structures, particularly high-rise buildings, kill somewhere between 100 million and a billion birds a year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Solutions to the problem range from decals to dimming lights on high-rises, particularly during fall and spring migrations. If you ever notice a dead bird on the sidewalk, look up. If the bird lies beneath a building, please take the time to contact the building manager about the problem. If you live in a big city, you can volunteer with your local Audubon chapter to monitor collision deaths and advocate for changes in building codes and policies, such as Project Safe Flight.

Other top human-caused killers of birds are poisons and cats. Yes, cats. Pet cats take an enormous toll on wildlife. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but it is clearly in the high hundreds of millions each year, if not well over a billion. Pet owners, please accept this inconvenient fact, and keep your cats indoors.

Indoor cat goes hunting.

Back in St. Louis, I headed toward the Mississippi River, and discovered the city is a hot bed of cardinals. The fact that the hotel is half a block from the baseball stadium might have something to do with the extraordinary number of sightings.

Welcome Cardinal Nation!

Cardinals perched

Two cardinals guard a baseball.

Cardinals dressed up in baseball caps

Cardinals swung bats

and cardinals kept score

The park by the river was a dazzling green, and filled with robins and brilliantly irridescent blackbirds.

Irridescence on parade

Sparrows on the steps to the river took a wildly active dust bath.

Rollin' in the dirt

And then, at last, there was the river

Bursting its banks, covering walkways and ramps, the Mississippi is spectacular, unpredictable and dangerous.

I loved working in other cities, and I love being home in New York, New York.

Trumpeter brings soundtrack to my block.

I Find a Gray Seal Pup

April 12, 2011

Two weeks ago, Esau the dog and I were walking down the road to beautiful Flying Point Beach in Watermill on the south fork of Long Island.

Long Island

On the way, we encounter a flock of mostly headless mute swans on little Mecox Bay.

Mute and headless swans

The beach is empty.  Empty of humans, that is. Shorebirds dart about on toothpick legs while herring, black-backed and other gulls swoop overhead.

Juvenile gull on the prowl

As we walk, I scan the ocean for wildlife.  I always look for seals – or floating bowling balls, which is what seal heads resemble when they peek out of the water.  I used to see seals in Casco Bay when I lived in Portland, Maine and in the waters of Long Nook Beach on Cape Cod.  But in decades of walks on Flying Point Beach, I have never spotted a seal, although I know they are out there.

Three gorgeous, punky-crested red-breasted mergansers swim by.

With a better camera, you would see how beautiful these  merganser boys are. 

Further down the beach, I spy an unusual lump.

Beach lump: what is it?

We walk lumpward and the lump reveals itself to be … a seal pup.

Is it all right?

It is a few feet long, and remarkably fat.

I  scan the water in hopes of seeing a mother seal bobbing just offshore. Nothing. Has the little guy been abandoned? Is it injured or ill?  Not wanting to frighten the seal, I keep my distance, and examine the pup through binoculars.  The little seal seems to sleep.


It perks up and looks around.


It rolls over onto its back and wriggles around, as if to scratch an itch.

Oh, hello.

Sometimes it gazes right at Esau and me. It rubs its nose with a flipper and sometimes seems to be playing peek-a-boo. I worry about its flippers.  Are they moving properly? I can’t tell.

I use my cell phone to call a rescue hotline operated by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals. A woman from the answering service tells me that several people have already called to report the Flying Point seal pup. I ask when a biologist will arrive to assess its health. She has no idea.

“But it may be injured or abandoned,” I say. “Surely someone will come soon.”

The woman explains that the Foundation handles all of Long Island from Queens to Montauk. With only one van. The van has gone to Coney Island to check out a seal, and has several other stops to make on the way back. There’s no telling when or if anyone will come to Watermill.

I call the Southampton police station to see if they can help. The policeman says no one there has the training to evaluate a seal (fair enough). He affirms that the hotline is the best resource.

So I wait and watch, accompanied by my patient dog.

I wonder at the strange tug of kinship with a fellow creature, a baby, alone and possibly in distress. And  yet how different we are. I don’t know how to interpret the seal’s movements. What is it saying when it gazes at us or when it covers its eyes with a flipper, the way my old dog Lucy used to do with a paw?

The sun goes down, and my fingers start to freeze. A friend brings gloves to the beach  and stays to wonder at the little lump, seemingly on its own in an expanse of sea, sand and sky.

No one comes. After a long while, we walk away.

In the morning, I return to find … nothing. The seal is gone, and the ocean has claimed the spot where the little animal rested.

Click here for a follow-up on the seals of NYC and Long Island. To read about the seal-people known as silkies, click here.

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