Posted tagged ‘raccoons in the city’

Urban Raccoons in Winter

February 8, 2012

I hadn’t seen the raccoons that live in the Riverside Park retaining wall for some time.

Nice view.

I believe their numbers were cut down during the great raccoon rabies epidemic of 2010.  I once saw as many as six raccoons come out of this hole, like clowns from a clown car.  But lately, I’ve seen only two.

Two waschbären, or wash bears, as the Germans call raccoons. (from my archives)

And for the past few weeks, I haven’t seen any.

The raccoon den in February 2011 after a snowstorm.

Watching raccoons in winter is a bit trickier than in spring or summer. In wintry weather, raccoons may curl up in their dens for days at a stretch, sleeping away the cold. But in a bizarrely mild winter like the current one, the reason I haven’t seen them is more likely due to the simple fact that I don’t walk regularly in the park after dark.

Raccoons, even in New York City, are primarily nocturnal creatures, emerging as the sun sets to start their day. In summer, when light lingers well after nine pm, they are easy to spot on a leisurely evening dog walk.

Riverside Park sunset over Hudson River

But in February, night closes in on the city before dinner, let alone before the evening walk.

Sparkling New Jersey

And though I love the park at night, caution has been etched into my city soul by growing up and living in Manhattan throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. I try to be reasonably cautious, limiting my night walks in the park which, in turn, limits my opportunities for raccoon sightings and other strange night visions.

A dog walks in the night park. (Its owner was not far behind.)

But after not seeing the raccoons for a while, I started to wonder: Are they healthy? Are they even there? So a couple of weeks ago, the dog and I went into the park shortly after dusk on several mild days to seek them.  And there they were, looking as healthy as ever. (I’ve enhanced the photos, as most were too dark to see.)

One raccoon was already a little distance north on the wall,

Wall walker

while the other seemed to be backing out of the den.

Backing out the front door

It turned around and took in the view. After watching for a while longer, we left.

Who's watching whom?

But wait. It was only later when I looked at my photos that I realized, a la David Hemming in Antonioni’s Blow-up, that there was a third pair of eyes, glowing in the darkness of the den.

Mystery glow.

Let’s enhance that photo, and see who’s there.

Aha. Revelation.

So it appears that at least three raccoons are living in the den this winter.

We’ll have to wait and see what spring brings.

Check out the archives for lots more on NYC raccoons!

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.

Whatever Happened to the Rabid Raccoons of Central Park?

August 23, 2011

Remember NYC’s great raccoon rabies outbreak of 2010?

Is it safe out there?

It began in the summer of 2009 with two rabid raccoons in northern Manhattan.

Riverside Park Raccoons

Several months passed and all seemed quiet on the epidemiological front.

And then, boom! ten rabid raccoons were reported in December 2009, all of them in or near Central Park.

Rabies is a highly contagious and virtually always fatal viral disease of the brain and central nervous system. It is transmitted through the saliva of an infected and symptomatic animal, usually by a bite. Descriptions of rabies reach back thousands of years into the ancient world. According A Rabies-Free World, Aristotle wrote that “dogs suffer from the madness. This causes them to become very irritable and all animals they bite become diseased.”  Irritable?  That seems like an almost pathologically understated description of symptoms that include “slight or partial paralysis, cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium.”   Let’s just say it’s a bad disease.

Rabies Advisory signs appeared in the parks.

By late fall 2009, rabies advisory signs had appeared in Central, Riverside and Morningside Parks, showing a rather cute drawing of a raccoon head with large letters proclaiming: Leave Wildlife Alone.

No one seemed to know how many raccoons lived in the city parks, but for months, the rabies cases kept on coming. (Visit Out Walking the Dog’s archives to read earlier posts on the rabies epidemic. )

Between January 2010 and the middle of September, a staggering 123 cases of rabies were confirmed.

I wondered how the city would ever regain control of such a virulent disease in a park where every inch of space is shared with humans, dogs and other wildlife. Would it treat with oral vaccines? Would it try to eradicate the raccoons? Would the city panic?

And then, suddenly, it was over.  And aside from a single case in February 2011, there has been no raccoon rabies reported in Manhattan for almost a year.  What happened?

You may remember reading about the extraordinary initiative that was quietly undertaken by the USDA to trap, vaccinate and release every one of Manhattan’s many healthy raccoons.  (Surprisingly, marshmallows seem to be the urban raccoon’s bait of choice.)  Well, despite skeptics, that labor-intensive program worked, at least in the short term.

The population of Manhattan’s raccoons is smaller and healthier. This hole in Riverside Park’s retaining wall once housed as many as six raccoons; today there are two.

Our narrow island is again rabies-free. Fingers crossed that it stays that way.

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.


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