Archive for the ‘Squirrels’ category

Top Five Urban Nature Stories of 2011: From Peacocks to Mastodons

December 31, 2011

Yesterday we began our coverage of Out Walking the Dog’s Top Ten Stories of 2011 with Numbers Ten to Six. The stories explored urban coyotes and whales as well as a secret garden in the middle of New York City and two peculiar NYC plants, one of which is connected to an on-going ancient British festival.

Today the countdown continues with the top five stories. Here we go:

Number Five:
Great White Peacock of Morningside Heights takes a look at the pure-white free-roaming peacock of Saint John the Divine. My readers appear to be in the grip of a communal fascination with peacocks in general and white peacocks in particular. Well, who can blame them? The birds are extraordinary. More peacock posts will follow in 2012.

Number Four:
City Hawk Snatches Chihuahua? recounts an eye-witness report by a fellow dog walker in Riverside Park of a red-tailed hawk flying off with a pink-leashed chihuahua. Believe it or not, similar stories are regularly reported. Urban legend? Fact? You decide. With a made-to-order illustration by Los Angeles writer and blogger Charlotte Hildebrand.

Number Three:
Rabies in Manhattan: What About Squirrels and Rats? is a search engine favorite, as readers from NYC and around the country seem especially concerned about the possibility of rabies in squirrels.  I wrote the post almost two years ago, during the early days of the NYC raccoon rabies epidemic, but it continues to receive a large number of hits.

credit: Marcelo Barrera

Number Two:
NYC Coyote Watch 2011: Coyote in Queens
was published at the end of January 2011, when a coyote had been seen – and photographed – in Calvary Cemetery, Queens. Queens and the Bronx seem to be the coyote’s current boroughs of choice with a breeding population in the Bronx and on-going sightings in several Queens neighborhoods. Long Island has fallen to the adaptable predator. Today, Queens. Tomorrow, the Hamptons.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, drum roll, please. The Number One Story on Out Walking the Dog during 2011 is …

Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got its Spikes. Written in 2010, Mastodons in Manhattan has consistently been my most-read post. Go figure. It tells the story of how the Honey locust tree, which may be seen in abundance in NYC parks, adapted to predation by North American megafauna by developing long, fierce spikes that are tough enough to pierce mastodon tongues (and automobile tires).

And that’s it for 2011, folks. We hope you’ll continue to follow our urban nature explorations in 2012.

Most Popular Urban Nature Stories of 2011: Numbers 10 – 6

December 30, 2011

Today and tomorrow, we’re celebrating another year of watching New York City’s urban wildlife by looking back at Out Walking the Dog’s Top Stories of 2011.  The articles include mastodons, chihuahua-carrying hawks, whales, coyotes, rodents, burdock, peacocks and the secret garden of St. John the Divine. Today I’ll count down from Number Ten through Number Six. Tomorrow I’ll cover Numbers Five through One.

Ladies and gentlemen, let the countdown begin:

Number 10:
In the Number Ten spot, we have a tie between two very different stories.

NYC Coyote Existential: Where Do They Come From and Where are They Going? explores recent scientific research behind the origins of the coyotes that are populating the Northeast and have begun turning up in NYC. Prompted by my own sightings of a young female coyote in Central Park, the story features several of D. Bruce Yolton’s marvelous night photos that capture the odd, dream-like quality of seeing a coyote in our urban world.

Seed Pods and Eyeballs offers a brief exploration of the marvelous Sweetgum tree with its ubiquitous (in Riverside Park, anyway) spiky seedpods, known as monkey balls, porcupine eggs and space balls, among other colorful names. I was inspired to write the post by a reader’s query about the starry eyes of a snowman in a photo from an earlier post.

Number 9:
Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls To His Friends
looks at the problems of over-population, habituation to humans, and disease that may be caused by feeding urban wildlife. But the story also observes the profound pleasure and connection to nature that many people derive from the activity.  Does the pleasure balance the harm?

Number 8:
The Burry Man, The Burry Dog and Burdock
is a personal favorite. After an unpleasant encounter with burrs in Riverside Park (the dog was covered in them), I researched burdock, and found the bizarre annual British ritual of the burry man. Check out the story for more than you ever wanted to know about burrs along with photos of a burr-encrusted dog and the marvelous real-life burry man.

Number Seven:
Saint John the Divine: A Secret Garden in Morningside Heights
is a photo essay of one of my favorite neighborhood spots in the glory of spring bloom. Free-roaming peacocks, bronze animals and more: read the story and plan a visit.

Number Six:
Whales in New York City
details the thrilling return of whales to the waters of New York, including the presence of a group of 30 to 50 fin whales just past the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

Check back on January 31st – tomorrow!  – for the top five stories of the year.

Sweetgum Seed Balls: Eyeballs and Ankle Biters

December 7, 2011

Riverside Park’s Sweetgum trees have lost their lovely leaves.

Sweetgum trees soar high.

The bare branches are hung with seed balls that look like Christmas tree decorations. If you like your tree decorated in drab brown, that is.

I'm dreaming of a brown Christmas.

The little balls seem to be empty houses, the light, winged seeds having flown out through the tiny windows to colonize new territory for the Sweetgum tribe.

In my house, there are many windows.

Known as porcupine eggs, ankle biters, and monkey balls, among many other names, the seed balls make fine eyeballs for snow people.

Don't bat those porcupine eggs at me, Buster Brown.

But wait. Maybe there is something tasty in there, after all. Either that, or the squirrels are decorating early.

Food or decor? Only the rodent knows for sure.

Morningside Park on Hurricane Sunday and NYC Wildlife Rehabilitation

August 31, 2011

On Sunday, when the hurricane had passed, after strolling the grounds of Saint John the Divine to check on the peacocks, I continued east to Morningside Park.  A downed tree completely blocked the 110th Street staircase:

The rain had been too much for it, and it had just toppled over from its roots:

The water in the little pond was as high as I’ve seen it:

A flotilla of more than 40 ducks swam about:

One or two dozed:

A few preened and nibbled at mites:

Two turtles swam near the water’s edge, looking for hand-outs, ducking under when I tried to snap a photo. Animals in the park seemed hungry after waiting out the storm. One squirrel dove straight inside a garbage can, then perched on the rim.

Robins fluttered through the trees on the hill, while sparrows foraged near the ball fields

A small flock of pigeons pecked hungrily in the grass

and one dark pigeon huddled behind a bench, clearly ill or injured.

I wondered whether I should do something to help it. I had tried once before to get help for a sick pigeon, but was shunted from one agency to another. All the while, I was standing in the rain on a street corner and worrying about being late for the theater.  As far as I can tell, the city doesn’t help pigeons, because, as feral animals (once domesticated and now wild), they are considered neither pets nor wildlife and as non-natives, they are not a protected species. I abandoned the bird that day, and did the same on Sunday.  But I’m not entirely comfortable with my decision, and have decided I need to formulate a personal policy, both compassionate and rational, on when, and how, to intervene with injured or ill animals.

Yesterday, I happened to pass the future home of The Wild Bird Fund.

The Wild Bird Fund is a non-profit organization that helps to save birds and wildlife in New York City.

Surprisingly, NYC is the only major city in the United States that doesn’t yet have a wildlife rehabilitation center, although it has its share of extraordinarily dedicated and skilled rehabilitators.

I crossed Columbus Avenue to Animal General Hospital, where Wild Bird Fund is currently housed, and asked the receptionist if the Fund helped pigeons.

“Of course,” she replied. “Pigeons are their star client.”

So if you find a bird in need, call Wild Bird Fund at 646-306-2862.  Until their own home is ready, the rehabilitators are working out of Animal General on the west side of Columbus Avenue at 87th Street.  They see wild bird cases by appointment only on Monday – Friday from 1- 3 PM. Their clients include owls, swans, kingfishers, ducks, hawks and, of course, pigeons.  They welcome donations.

Please comment to share your own experiences and thoughts on when, and how, to intervene with wild (or feral) animals.  And check back soon for follow-up posts on the subject.

NYC Wildlife Before the Storm

August 27, 2011

Saturday morning bird watch on West 108th Street

No animals are visible on today’s late afternoon dog walk in Riverside Park on the eve of Hurricane Irene’s arrival. Well, actually many animals are out, but only two species: humans and canines.  No wildlife. Not a single bird or squirrel.  Even the cicadas are silent, and the animal world seems to be tucked out of sight, quietly waiting, while over on Broadway, the humans scurry about emptying the local hardware stores of batteries and flashlights.

The animals are still there, of course, curled into nests, dens and dreys just yards away from us walkers. They know how to disappear. They do it all the time. On Friday, a raccoon performed a vanishing act.

First, a bit of wall-walking …

Then, a balancing act …

And, ladies and gentlemen: watch closely.  Now you see me …

Now …

… you don’t!

And … hoopla! I’m back!

Here’s hoping all the animals find safe haven and come through the storm safely.

Of Rats, Red-tails and Rodenticides

February 28, 2011

Yesterday’s walk in Riverside Park yielded the now-common but always thrilling sight of a hawk in a tree.

Inelegant rear view of red-tail.

I soon realized the bird was dining, but on what?

Mystery meat.

A downy substance floated on the slow-moving air, leading me to assume the hawk was plucking a bird.  But the shape of the prey just didn’t look quite bird-like. It seemed a little too big and uniformly colored.

What's on the menu?

The hawk seemed to be having difficulty getting the dining table set up just right. It gripped the carcass in one taloned foot and, turning this way and that, repositioned its prey in different spots on the branch.

Does the fork go on the right or the left?

At one point, it lifted high the foot that held the prey, and hopped along the branch for quite a distance on its free foot.  Then it picked up the body in its beak, and, well, leapt to the far side of a bend in the branch.

Leaping

There the hawk laid the body down in such a way that a long, naked tail draped almost gracefully along the side of the branch.

That ain't no songbird. Note the tail to the left of the hawk.

No wonder it didn’t look quite like a bird.  It was a rat. A big, fat street rat. I celebrated in my heart to see a rat being disposed of,  and in my head, I sang along with my great-grandmother:

“Hooray, Hooray, the chicken gelegt an ei!”

Bubba and Zeyde, my great-grandparents with my grandmother (far right) and her siblings. Taken sometime around 1910 in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

(My father recently taught me this catchy litle Yinglish, as in part Yiddish, part English, celebratory chant – “Hooray, hooray, the chicken has laid an egg!” – and I confess I’ve been eagerly seeking occasions to use it.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate all rats. My friend, Charlotte of The Rat’s Nest, though currently ratless, has owned several charming and affectionate domestic rats. They would come when she called, and served her family as in-house comediennes, as you can see in Charlotte’s amusing short film, Ratz: The Movie.

And then there are the wonderful life-saving African pouched rats that are trained to sniff out mines and can detect tuberculosis faster than a traditional lab test.  Hey, even here in NYC, I took pleasure in seeing a rat swimming in the Morningside Park pond.

Just another brown rat, but it seemed positively bucolic slipping in and out of the water.

But my neighborhood on the southern edge of Morningside Heights is positively overrun with street rats, and I am only too delighted to see my local rats transformed into hawk fodder.

Had enough?

The hawk eventually flew off, leaving the rat behind on the branch.  I turned to share my discovery with a gentleman who had stopped nearby to admire the hawk.

“It caught a rat,” I said happily.

“Oh no,” he said, lowering his binoculars. “That’s bad.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Rat poison,” he declared. “It can harm the hawks.”  And he is right.

City Notification

Most buildings in the area put out poison bait boxes, as does the city.

The poison in rodenticides causes internal bleeding that kills the rat over a period of days.  During that time, the animals may return several times to feed at the bait station, raising the level of toxins in their bodies until they themselves are poisonous. Secondary poisoning is the term for the poisoning of a predator by eating poisoned prey.  Small predators like hawks are at risk; eyasses (baby hawks) and still-developing juveniles are particularly vulnerable.

Baby hawk in Riverside Park, August 2010. Photo by Nabil Esphahani. Click photo to read Leslie Albrecht's lovely article in DNAinfo.com, and see more photos.

Parent hawks unknowingly feed poisoned rats to their nestlings.  In 2008, tests proved that rat poison was the cause of death for three baby red-tails that had hatched in Riverside Park.  Last year (2010), two Riverside nestlings seem to have successfully fledged. At least one of the hawks that I regularly see in the park is a juvenile.

The eyes of a young hawk start out pale, and darken as the bird matures.

Rat poison is a tricky issue, and not just in NYC. Across the country, the deaths of owls, hawks, and small predatory mammals have been linked to secondary poisoning by rodenticides.

Here in NYC, we desperately need to control our rat population.  But how?  How can we lower the number of rats without also putting at risk the majestic raptors that have taken up residence in our restored urban green spaces?  These wild birds provide an elusive but essential connection to the natural world, offering us glimpses of their alien lives and the strange thrill of recognition that wildness still exists, alongside – and within – us humans, even at our most urbanized.

I hope we can encourage private businesses, restaurants, superintendents, building managers and the Parks department to use only those poisons that are least likely to harm non-target species, like our red-tails, and to use them only when necessary.

But we should all take some responsibility for creating a rat-friendly urban habitat.  After all, it’s the endless supply of food that leads to the city’s swollen rat population.  NYC is a rat gravy train.  So let’s stop feeding the animals.

Photo by Vince Noir at Bedford Avenue (click to visit Subway Art Blog)

“What?” you sputter indignantly. “I would never feed a rat.”

But chances are you do feed them, if indirectly.  Every time you drop food in the park, you’re feeding the animals.

Brunch in Riverside Park: where's the shmear?

Every time you toss a half-eaten pizza or hot dog into the street or the subway tracks, you’re feeding the animals.

Get it while it’s hot: free pizza on 110th Street

Every time you use an open city trash can, you’re feeding the animals.

This sparrow and starling hopped in and out of the trash can, pecking at a sandwich.

Every time you neglect to clean up after your dog, you’re feeding the animals. (Yes, rats eat the undigested food in feces, and no, I will not post an illustration.)

And every time your building places trash bags on the street to await the arrival of garbage trucks, believe me, you’re feeding the animals.

Make yourself comfortable while you wait for the Sanitation Dept.

But what to do?  We have to put our trash somewhere, and trash cans and trash bags are the responsible place to put it.  Yet I know that trash night on my block is rat party night.  The supers pile the big black bags into miniature mountain ranges.

After the blizzard: Himalayan trash bag mountain ranges.

The rats slip beneath the piles and tunnel, like miners, into the bags, gnawing easily through the plastic to reach the rotting riches of refuse.  One evening last week, I heard a strange rustling as I neared Amsterdam Avenue, and saw a trash bag moving as if it were alive. Rats, of course.  We regularly see them running across the sidewalk to or from the trash piles or darting into the shadows behind the wheel of a parked car.  Three times, my dog, Esau, has caught a rat, and once a mouse, while walking, leashed, in New York.

So yes, I’d like to see the rats gone. Disappeared. Vamoose. But I want to protect our hawks.

Anyone know a good piper, pied or otherwise?

The oldest picture of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln/Hamelin Germany (c.1300-1633). Painting by Augustin von Moersperg (1592)

(Curious to know if your block has a rat problem? Visit the Rat Map at the city’s Rat Information Portal.)

Squirrels Taunt Hawks, and Pay the Price

February 8, 2011

For the past few months, I’ve seen red-tailed hawks almost every day on my walks with Esau in Riverside Park or on the upper boulevard that runs parallel to Riverside Drive.  The bare branches make them easy to spot, and they seem always hungry and on the look-out for prey.

They often choose to perch in spots where they can keep an eye on promising activity both inside the park and along the Drive.

Red-tailed hawk gives me the hairy eyeball.

Sometimes they open their great wings and soar right over your head on their way to a better look-out.

Beautiful.

On the coldest, bitterest days of winter, the park appears almost empty of wildlife. The squirrels are hidden in their leafy nests, curled into their bushy tails for warmth. The songbirds, too, are out of sight, huddled in the warmest spots they can find.

A long walk on a cold day revealed only a couple of sparrows near the Forever Wild bird feeder, puffed up like miniature Michelin men.

Baby, it's cold outside.

Later that day, on the upper path, a juvenile hawk tried unsuccessfully to snatch a pigeon from a small flock that pecked for seeds on the snowy sidewalk.

It must be hard to be a hawk in winter.

But then, just a couple of days ago, the weather suddenly turned bizarrely mild, and the slumbering squirrels erupted into demented, spring-like bouts of foraging and carousing.

Walking on air

It was probably the presence of so many mad crazy squirrels that elevated yesterday to a three-hawk day.

This is how it was.

At the 108th Street staircase, a hawk kept a baleful eye on rioting squirrels, looking a bit like a beleaguered security guard at a rock concert trying not to get riled by a gang of rowdy teens.

One squirrel ran up and down the tree trunk right in front of the hawk.

I can see you.

Once or twice, the twitchy little mammal made its way right out toward the branch where the hawk sat, and even stretched its body toward the bird.  The squirrel would then quiver with excitement for several seconds, as if it had taken a dare, and was trying to get up the courage to actually touch the big bird.

A second squirrel then joined the first, and the two of them played chase just a few feet from the hawk.

Joining in the ruckus

What is it with squirrels? Why provoke an animal capable of catching and devouring you?

I’ve seen this behavior quite often in the park, and am baffled by it. Oh, I understand that squirrels in a tree are probably quite safe, as the hawk must swoop down with force, talons first, to catch and kill.  But being safe doesn’t explain the behavior. What evolutionary benefit can there possibly be for squirrels to get so unnecessarily close to a powerful predator?

Take a look at what we saw just two blocks away, when we resumed our walk.

Yup, that’s a second red-tail with a partly-eaten squirrel. The hawk is uneasy about being watched from above by yet another red-tail.

Third hawk keeps an eye on second hawk’s lunch.

Just a few weeks ago, I posted a story with several close-up shots of a juvenile red-tail lunching on squirrel inside the park.

Yum.

So what in the world is up with the squirrels? Why do they tempt fate?  Why get close to a predator?  How can this behavior possibly serve the squirrel?  Why doesn’t instinct keep them away? Is there such high evolutionary value to curiosity or boldness in squirrels that the trait overcomes a natural fear of being eaten?

Dear Reader, if you know the answer or have a good theory, please leave a comment.

Update March 3, 2011: This post is now part of I and the Bird #145, a birding blog carnival.
Please visit the wonderful British Columbia blog, Island Nature, for links to more bird posts.

Red-tail Eats Lunch in Riverside Park

January 19, 2011

Regular encounters with Riverside’s red-tailed hawks have rung out the old year and are ringing in the new.

Winter’s bare branches make the birds easier to spot. And the truth is, Morningside Heights and Harlem teem with raptors. Look up and out as you stroll neighborhood parks and streets or along the river, and you may see red-tails, kestrels, peregrine falcons or even a bald eagle.

One morning in late December, I scanned the skies and building tops from my window for avian activity.  Seagulls soared to and from the river, a flock of pigeons wheeled in and out of sight to the east, and a lone starling perched atop the school.

On last year’s Harlem Hawk Walk with James of The Origin of Species, I learned to pay attention to unusual bumps on water towers, antennae and chimneys.

Binoculars revealed a large hawk on the right tower. After about 15 minutes, the bird opened its wings and soared east down a side street. It was probably a red-tail, but I couldn’t be sure. I still need up close and personal encounters to identify what I’m looking at.

Later in Riverside Park, a juvenile red-tail obliged.

I almost walked right by, but a raspy cry drew my attention to a tree branch by the path, where a perching hawk sat and watched … something..

I followed its gaze up the slope towards the retaining wall.

Aha.

I tied Esau to a garbage can

and made my way slowly up the slope. The hawk did not seem to mind my presence.

It was intent on devouring a squirrel. The head was pretty much off the little mammal, but much of the body – and the beautiful bushy tail – remained intact.

I watched from a few yards away, while the first hawk watched from the tree branch.

The meal required a remarkable amount of effort. The hawk stood on the carcass to hold it down.

Then the bird tore and pulled with its powerful beak.

The next day, I returned to the spot to see if any signs of the meal remained. I once found a squirrel tail on the upper path and wondered how it came to be there. Now I think I know the answer. I expected to find bits of fur caught in the fallen leaves.

I did not expect to find … utensils.

Ah, the mysteries of the city.

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.

NYC Snowtorious: after the blizzard

December 28, 2010

During the early hours of Monday’s snowfall, Esau and I walked in Riverside Park

Esau braves the wind and snow

Snow dusted the retaining wall.

Beautiful old Olmsted wall and young evergreen

Later we gazed out the window at Gotham transformed and almost invisible through the snow.

Guardian of Gotham

Tuesday morning the snow stopped. We made our way through the streets to visit family. We passed children scaling a mountain in front of the long-closed Metro Theater.

King and Queen of the Hill

 

We marveled at a buried car and rejoiced that it was not ours.

This is a car. Really.

We had our picture taken in Central Park.

Esau disguised as Henrik Ibsen in his later years

Today, Wednesday, in Riverside Park, children and adults slid down the slope at 108th Street on sleds, saucers, garbage can lids, cardboard boxes, trash bags and a variety of Unidentified Sliding Objects.

Swift down, slow up

A collection of rejected objects huddled at the base of the steps with a bottle of Bud.

Rejected objects seek consolation in alcohol.

Away from the sledding slope, the park was surprisingly quiet and almost empty. We spotted two or three dog walkers and five cross-country skiiers

Skiing the upper path

The snow is lovely, dark and deep,

Check out the salt-protecting booties

We saw no birds and only one squirrel.  But the snow, still largely undisturbed, told us the animals had been out

Kilroy was here

Squirrel marks went every which way

Crazy feet

Squirrels can also tunnel in the snow, although I didn’t see this myself.

As we left the park, we spotted elves among bare branches

Evidence of elves in Riverside Park

Tomorrow may bring sightings of members of the tribe of New York City snow beings. We’ll be watching.

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.

A Visit to Dallas

July 10, 2010

NYC’s recent heat spell has awakened sweat-enhanced memories of 17 summers in North Texas. To a transplanted New Yorker, life in Dallas is mostly summer. It stretches easily for eight months, from April to November, during which the air never cools. Even in the middle of the night, the city is like a warming oven; the sidewalk, streets, buildings and cars are perpetually warm to the touch.

Texans call the early unstable days of summer “spring;” these days are characterized by an apocalyptic enthusiasm of weather: thunder storms, flash flooding, hail that ranges in size from marbles to baseballs – baseballs, people – and has given rise to an entire sub-industry of car and roof repair,  and regular tornado alerts.

Once the Texas so-called spring has roared itself out, the long, hot days of summer lay themselves down over the city like a heavy quilt on a winter sickbed. Days of 100 degree temperatures pile up like dealt cards and when it’s not 100 degrees, it’s 99 or 96, so what, really, is the difference?  From inside an air-conditioned house or car, it looks beautiful out there.

But, oh my friends, it’s hot.

Texans who run or garden or bike tend to get up and out early. Which is what I did on a quick visit to Dallas last month.

My friend Ellen was excited to show me a turkey vulture nest she had spotted a few days earlier, near the bike path around White Rock Lake.  So at 7:30 one morning, we headed out to bicycle the nine or ten mile loop around the lake.

The sun had already begun its relentless shine and the temperature was in the 80s when we stopped at a swampy area to admire a pretty little coot.

It swam placidly about, enjoying the company of two lively juvenile wood ducks.

Further on, a mixed group of water fowl relaxed and foraged

while on the other side of the path, a charming fox squirrel found something tasty to munch on.

In NYC, I miss fox squirrels, just as I missed Eastern gray squirrels when living in Dallas. Bigger than grays, fox squirrels have a lovely reddish tinge to their undersides.

Snow appeared to cover the ground beneath a nearby cottonwood tree.

Hot and thirsty, we took a water break out on a dock

and watched two peaceful fishermen.

Back in the saddle, we neared the turkey vulture nest.

“There,” Ellen whispered. “In that tree hole.”

A turkey vulture nesting in a tree hole? Really? I moved closer.

“Ellen,” I said, “That’s a duck.” 

And it was. A strange-looking, carbuncle-adorned duck.

A Muscovy duck, we determined, after consulting the Audubon Guide on my iPhone. If it is wild, rather than an escaped captive, it is an unusual find. Either way, we were thrilled with the sighting.

After the bike ride, no matter how much I drank, I was thirsty. So another friend pulled the car up to Sonic where, in addition to selling burgers,they sell drinks “as big as your head.”  In Texas, a person needs a drink as big as her head. We bought two.

Summer in North Texas will eventually be followed by four stunningly beautiful months of autumn. Texans call these months “winter,” but people from the Northeast know better.  A person doesn’t really need a winter coat in Dallas, just a jacket.  That’s not winter. That’s fall.

It’s true that every couple of years, a thin winter-like layer of snow dusts the ground, and a crop of undersized snowmen springs up on the lawns like mushrooms after a rainfall.  These snowmen tend to be brownish in color, due to the amount of dirt scraped up by their Creators along with the snow.  And once in a very great while, a winter ice storm turns tree branches and grass blades to crystal.

But the main game in Dallas is summer. And right now, whether in NYC or Dallas, it’s all about the heat. Time to find some shade.

Blog Carnivals and Festivals

April 2, 2010

“Out walking the dog” is participating in several blog carnivals this week.

The post, Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends is part of “I and the Bird #122″.

(“I and the Bird” takes its name from a poem by Eleanor Vere Boyle, a nineteenth-century British poet and illustrator:

“A tiny wren was among the Chrysanthemums this morning,
noiselessly flitting in and out, like a little shade;
evidently in a state of the highest enjoyment.
No doubt I and the bird both took our pleasure with them in different ways!”)

The recent post, Mastodons in Manhattan, is part of both  “Carnival of Evolution #22,” and “Festival of the Trees #46“.  Many of the posts in “Carnival of Evolution” have a scientific bent, as you might expect from the title. This edition of “Festival of the Trees”, on the other hand, focuses on humorous pieces.

Visit the carnivals and enjoy the rides.

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.


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