Now that it’s spring, many of us are more conscious of the need to brush our pet, to
remove hair that will end up on the furniture or clothes. Rather than dispose of
their hair in the garbage, however, you can make it available to birds that frequent
our courtyards. They will gladly use it to build nests, and the time is right.
Just gather the hair in a specific place, and next time you exit your building, leave it
on the grass or any bushes you can reach. It won’t be there long, so no one need be
concerned about unsightly bunches of animal fur in the courtyard.
As I approached the building, it was there,
on the threshold, wedged (by its own efforts)
between the door and the door jamb.
A small bird, brown/gray like many,
(or I would not have seen it).
Not knowing what to do,
I opened the door and
it flew—or rather fluttered—
into the building,
quickly finding the place
where the elevator door meets its frame,
wedging itself in,
always on the ground.
With a scarf,
I picked it up and took it outside,
laying it on the grass.
By then, it had died, so
I covered it with
the leaves of the ground cover
that shares space with the grass.
Only later did I realize that
when we die,
we want to be enfolded,
protected on as many sides as possible.
The next to the last day of September, I was walking in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights from the Heather Garden, and just before I got to Sir William’s Dog Run, my eye caught a movement high up in the northern red oak tree. Warblers! Knowing it’s migration time for insect and nectar eating birds – ie. warblers, flickers, kinglets, hummingbirds – I never leave home without my trusty, light-weight, pocket binoculars. Let me tell you, it is challenging keeping your binoculared eyes on moving warblers. The balletic pattern of one of the warblers foraging in the oak tree made me think REDSTART! These tiny birds, black and red male, gray and yellow females, flash their tails and dive up and down, in and out, gleaning insects from the leaves. It was a lovely female redstart fanning her bright yellow tail and flitting, butterfly-like, from leaf to leaf.
There was another warbler with a different type of motion. Catching up to him with my eyes, I see it is a male northern parula warbler; gorgeous little fellow with olive shoulders and back, blue-gray head, bright yellow belly turning orange up by his neck with a black necklace. What a find!
The next afternoon I met Kellye Rosenberg leading a tour for New York City Audubon. We met at the saltmarsh of Inwood Hill Park, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan Island, right next to the shipping canal that connects the Harlem River with the Hudson River at Spuyten Duyvil. So much to see there. The week before, birding with my friend Elizabeth White-Pultz of the Inwood Birders group, we saw a marsh wren and a pair of common yellow-throat warblers hanging out in the marsh grass, flowering goldenrod and asters. Columbia University has their boathouse there with a new kayak dock used by the rowing crews and the public. Columbia has housed their boats up there since the late 1920s. Across the Harlem River you can see a giant blue and white letter C painted in 1952 by Robert Prendergrast, Columbia medical student and coxswain of the rowing crew, painted on the massive Fordham gneiss outcropping. From the marsh we walked up into the verdant hills of the park and after we entered the deeply forested paths we found black-throated blue warblers male and female redstarts, northern flickers, and a white-breasted nuthatch.
Fall migration happens more slowly than spring migration, when literally hundreds of millions of birds take the aerial route known as the Atlantic flyway from their winter feeding grounds in South and Central America to their northern breeding grounds in the middle Atlantic states, New England and Canada. Flying over New York City, they drop down in huge numbers in our parks to feed and rest, and sometimes stay, nest and raise their young until it is time to make their journey south in order to find food throughout the winter. And so it is that birds leave our area, not because it is too cold in winter – after all they are covered in a layer of down, just like our down coats that keep us warm and cozy in January, February and March. But they cannot find the food they need: insects and other invertebrates, fish, amphibians, small mammals. In addition to watching migrating warblers and other song birds, during fall migration you can join groups looking at migrating hawks, eagles, and owls; egrets, herons and shorebirds. And from the far north come our wintering birds that are able to survive the cold months in New York City. Small flocks of tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees descend on our wooded parks. And in autumn and winter we make way for ducks, geese and swans! Wood ducks, northern shovelers, hooded mergansers, ruddy ducks, snow geese, brandt geese and mute swans flock to our wetlands to find food when their summer territories freeze over. They are not alone. More and more we are seeing bald eagles along our coast in winter.
And of course we have our year-round birds who are able to find seed, nuts, and dried fruit even in winter: blue jays, house sparrows, crows, starlings, pigeons, cardinals, downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, mallard ducks and Canada geese. And let us not forget our birds of prey that are here all year: red-tailed hawks, cooper hawks, sharp shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, American kestrels, great horned owls, saw-whet owls, and screech owls. New York City, as it turns out, is a birding haven throughout the seasons. So take a walk with or without binoculars and you will start to see our lovely and interesting feathered neighbors.
We hear them throughout the day, their high-pitched, keening, keeeeeeearr, over and over again, calling for their parents to feed them a pigeon, a rat, a squirrel. Lucky us to have three gorgeous juvenile red-tail hawks: Buteo jamaicensis: Buteo: a kind of hawk; jamaicensis: the island of Jamaica where specimens were given their scientific name. Their huge nest sits on the fire escape of the top floor of a building high on a hill, just east, above and behind Broadway and the tasty and fun Buddha Beer Bar. Throughout May we watched the parents carry food to the nestlings and now here they are – outside our window!
There are more than 40 known pairs of breeding red tails throughout the five boroughs. Pale Male, the Fifth Avenue hawk has successfully raised his young this spring with his fifth mate after the previous four died from rat poisoning.
Our largest hawk, the red tail is dark brown above, has a white chest with brown streaks and a horizontal rufous band across the tail. The juvenile’s tail is vertically banded with brown and they have pale yellow eyes that mature to dark brown. Red tails can be more than 2 feet long with a wingspan of over 5 feet.
These beautiful birds of prey mate for life, but feeding on poisoned pigeons or rats shortens their lives. When this occurs the spouse will immediately find another mate. Red tails are typically shy of humans, but not in New York City, where these hawks nest on apartment buildings and hunt, roost, and fly near New Yorkers in parks and on city streets.
They build their nests both in trees and on ledges of apartment buildings, churches, hotels and skyscrapers. These nests are huge: close to 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high, constructed with large deciduous branches and lined with fresh green sprigs in early spring. Both parents build the nest, but the female spends more time arranging the bowl, where she lays 2 -3 brown or red speckled white eggs. The male provides most of the food for the family. Fledglings stay close to the parents and may even come back to the nest at night. Parents continue to provide food for the nestlings up to two months after fledging, which is why we hear them, still begging for food.
Red tails are carnivores, feeding on rodents, pigeons, doves, and other songbirds. When you hear crows and blue jays or see a flock of pigeons flying, look for this large hawk. Nearby birds, even tiny sparrows will “mob” it by attacking as a group to drive it away from their nests.
By early autumn our three babies will venture away from the neighborhood and find a territory of their own and next year we should have more of these huge and beautiful babies learning to hunt and survive in our city.
Amelanchier canadensis, or the downy serviceberry tree, is one of the first to bloom in early spring in the northeastern United States. New York City has just gone through a long , brutally cold, and snowy winter. The snow has finally disappeared, but there are new puffs of white dotting the hills and meadows of city parks: the blossoms of the serviceberry tree.
This little tree has many common names: serviceberry, because it blooms when the ground finally thaws, so that burials can take place; shadblow and shadberry, because it blooms when the shad begin their northern migration into the estuaries off the Atlantic Ocean, like the Hudson River; and Juneberry because the fruit ripens in June.
An understory tree, it only reaches 15-30’ in height, and has many slender trunks. This is a valuable native tree, and though small in stature it is huge in terms of its ecological value to wildlife. The beautiful flowers attract pollinators, the berries provide nutritious food for hungry birds, and the foliage is beautiful in every season, particularly in autumn. As it is one of the first trees to bloom, it attracts all kinds of pollinating animals, when there are few flowers available. The nectar attracts butterflies, and the pollen attracts honeybees, bumblebees, flies, and wasps. The purplish-red berries are sweet and delicious and are among the most favorite fruit of birds. Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings, song sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds, catbirds, and rose breasted grosbeaks are some of the beautiful birds that come to this tree in droves. Squirrels, chipmunks, and woodchucks also feed on the berries. Humans can eat the berries raw off the tree, cooked into pies and jams, fermented for wine, or eaten dried.
This little tree has a great botanical and cultural history as the fruit, seeds, leaves and bark were important sources of food and medicine for native peoples. For many tribes, serviceberries were a common source of food in the summer. They would eat the berries raw as we do today, or mash them and form them into pemmican cakes made of animal fat, dried meat, and dried berries. Other parts of the plant are also edible. The Lakota of the Great Plains, used the flower petals, leaves and stems to make a drink, and the Cheyenne, also of the Great Plains, boiled the dried leaves to make a red tea.
Serviceberry shrubs were used for medicinal purposes by native Americans for the treatment of earaches, toothaches, the common cold, influenza, coughs, and fevers.
Woodworkers and indigenous people used branches, stems, and wood to make baskets, furniture, rope, tools, and harpoons.
In autumn, a blend of pink, orange, gold, red and green creates gorgeous, colorful foliage. No two leaves have the same colors , and there are times when they are so beautiful, that, inveterate leaf collector that I am since the age of five, I collect each and every one I find on the ground.
The house sparrow’s Latin Name, Passer domesticus means small, active bird (Passer) belonging to a house: domesticus).
One hundred house sparrows were introduced from Europe into Brooklyn, Manhattan and Chicago in the early 1850s and the species expanded throughout North America. It is the most commonly seen bird throughout the five boroughs.
The male has a gray crown with chestnut patches bordering the crown and extending down to the pale gray cheek and neck. The black stripe in front of the eye extends to the beak and meets the black bib. The thick bill is grayish-black, and the legs are pale brown. The rump and tail is gray, the shoulders are chestnut brown, and the wings are brownish with a white wing bar. The female has gray checks, neck and breast without the black bib. She has a buffy stripe between a brown eye stripe and brown crown.
House sparrows have the unusual behavior of taking baths in patches of dusty soil, usually in large groups. Each little bird creates a depression and throws dust all over its feathers to destroy parasites. Originally from Africa, they have evolved this adaptation of bathing without water.
These are small birds about 6 inches long, with a wingspan up to 9 inches. However, they have big personalities, unafraid of humans or dogs, they stay together in large, family flocks and feed out in the open.
House sparrows mate for life. They live and nest inside every street corner lamppost pipe, over air conditioners, and inside any cavity they can find on building exteriors, dock pilings, and window grates. Within these cavities they construct their nests with dried grasses, feathers, and string. I have seen them emerge from places that are surprising, like the nostrils of Teddy Roosevelt’s bronze horse on Central Park West in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They are devoted mates and devoted parents. When we lived on our houseboat, our cat Woody caught a baby house sparrow, and carried it back to the boat, alive. I gently removed it from his jaws and kept it warm. The bird’s mother and father stayed outside the houseboat window on a piling looking inside and chirping nonstop. Once the little fella could stand and seemed out of shock, I opened the window and out he flew, accompanied by his parents who chirped wildly to him as they flew back to the park.
Their voices are a series of seemingly identical chirps, although a bird researcher I know told me that they have different sounding chirps.
House sparrows have an important ecological role. They are omnivores feeding on fruit in summer, and dried berries and grass seeds in winter. In summer they also consume invertebrates: beetles, cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, aphids, spiders, flies and moths.
When I walk out of our building at 295 Bennett I love seeing them inside the yew trees and holly bushes. Just north of 4501 Broadway there is a tree that is a roosting site for hundreds of them each evening and across the path is a tree that is a roosting site for hundreds of European starlings. The noise these two species make is startlingly loud as they settle down each evening after a long day of hunting for food, keeping warm, and preening their feathers. And the chatter each morning is just as loud as they prepare for the day ahead.
These are tough little New York City birds and without them our parks, streets, sidewalks and back yards would be pretty empty of bird life.
Though I have lived in Manhattan for most of my life, I had never seen such an abundance of skunks until I moved to Fort Tryon Gardens. Beautiful, crepuscular, quiet, determined, and forever nosing around for food, I find them endlessly fascinating. Mephitis mephitis is a remarkable animal. Mephitis is Latin for foul odor. Mephitis mephitis means… double foul odor. Watching them and learning about their biology and all the ways they are beneficial to us, and our backyard, has been a pleasure.
Skunks are beautiful creatures, with glossy black fur and bold white markings leading to a long, fluffy tail. Each skunk has his or her own individual markings. The female skunk is a devoted mother. She generally gives birth to an average of six, hairless, blind babies in her leaf-lined burrow/den, under rocks in our park or under a building, sometime between April and June. Though they have no fur, they do have the outlines of where their white stripes and black fur will soon grow in. Mom nurses her babies for six weeks and then, on a warm spring evening, she leads them out to the park or on the walkways around our buildings and teaches them to hunt.
Many of the animals we don’t want in our apartments are a desirable meal to a skunk: mice, rats, centipedes, beetles, spiders, wasps, bees, and creepy-crawlies of all sorts. Skunks are omnivores and will eat fruit, berries, seeds, insect eggs, insect larvae, worms, small mammals, and human garbage. After about a year, the babies will leave their mother, but should they run into each other they immediately recognize their mother or siblings and will greet each other with love and playful tumbling. They have poor eyesight and usually we see them before they see us. They have only one defense, their spray, which they are loathe to use, because they have a limited amount and only use in times of utter urgency. That is why it is best to give them a wide berth when you spot them. They shuffle along quickly, nosing the ground, searching for prey. Their little paws are like hands, and they use them to turn over rocks and logs. They use their long digger claws to scratch away the grass looking for earthworms in the soil. In the morning you can see shallow holes in the dirt, evidence of their nighttime foraging.
Apply a small strip of eye lubricant (such as Puralube) or 1-2 drops of mineral oil to your dog’s eyes. This will help protect the eyes in case any of the solution splashes or drips in.
In the plastic container, combine 1quart hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 to 2 teaspoons of liquid soap. Add lukewarm water if needed (for larger dogs). Mix ingredients well. The solution will fizz, as a chemical reaction is occurring. Use immediately – do not store.
Do not soak your dog with water prior to bathing. Promptly begin cleansing the affected areas thoroughly, massaging the solution deep into your dog’s coat. You may wish to use a sponge or washcloth. Avoid getting the solution in the eyes, ears or mouth.
Allow the solution to remain on your dog for at least five minutes (longer if strong odor persists).
Rinse your dog well with lukewarm water. Repeat steps as necessary until odor is gone. Dry your dog well and give him/her a treat!
Skunks are generally fine around people as long as you don’t seem threatening. One summer evening we were eating outdoors at the New Leaf Café in Fort Tryon Park and a skunk started to walk into the dining area. One of the waiters started to clap his hands. The skunk did an about face and walked into the shrubs. A minute later, it tried to walk back into the dining area from another angle, this time the diners started gently clapping, and out it went. For the next quarter hour you could hear diners clapping from one area, then another, then another, until the skunk finally gave up and left the restaurant. Like us, all it wanted was something good to eat.
The only real predator of the skunk is the great horned owl who has no real sense of smell and is not deterred at all by skunk spray. For some years, we had a nesting pair of great horned owls in Inwood Hill Park. The main killer of skunks is the automobile. Last week I was crossing Bennett Avenue and smelled a really strong skunk smell. One large male was lying dead in the middle of the road, hit by a car. When they finally see the car coming, instead of running, they will spray the car, thinking that will stop it. Although intelligent, skunks have not yet evolved to identify oncoming cars.
Skunks in the wild only live a few years because they so often end up as road kill. In captivity they can live up to 10 years. Once winter comes, several skunk families of mothers and their pups may den together for warmth, often using abandoned woodchuck burrows, or they may den with a woodchuck family. If the temperature is warm enough, they will emerge to feed, but usually once the hard frosts set in and the ground freezes, they go into “torpor” and become inactive for long periods of time.
When asked about the presence of skunks in northern Manhattan, Jennifer Hoppa, director of Fort Tryon Park, Inwood Hill Park, and Highbridge Park told DNA Info: “I think it’s a learning opportunity. If you’re planning on living in a community that is more than one third open space, you have to learn how to peacefully coexist.” I couldn’t agree more.
Coming into 295 Bennett the other morning I spotted a cicada sitting quietly on the brick of our building and I looked around to see if its archenemy – the cicada killer wasp – was nearby. Last year was a huge year for the 17-year “Magicicada” with millions erupting from the earth to morph into large winged insects that nibbled on tree leaves, laid their eggs in tree twigs, mated and died. Their eggs hatched and their larvae fell to earth, digging into the soil to quietly live on tree root sap for 17 years, before emerging once again to continue its cycle of being the longest-lived insect on earth.
The giant wasp, Sphecius speciocus, also known as the cicada killer, though it looks dangerous, is actually a beneficial insect that helps control the cicada population. You may have noticed these Buick-sized wasps flying around the Fort Tryon Gardens co-op apartment buildings from July through August. In fact, this year, management had a pest control company put out traps, though the traps were made to attract hornets, not Sphecius specioucus. When I voiced alarm and dismay over the thought that we would poison these important wasps, our hard working super, Manny, told me he thought that the traps wouldn’t work, and he was right! I saw dead flies but no dead cicada killers, at least outside 303 Bennett.
These giant wasps are not aggressive toward humans. The males have no stingers at all and are only interested in finding females. As you walk by them, they may fly over to you, but only to see if you are a female wasp. These are burrowing wasps, capable of digging a tunnel up to 20 inches deep and more than half an inch wide. The female digs by using her jaws to loosen the soil and her back legs to push the soil behind her as she backs out of the burrow. The dislodged dirt forms a mound around the tunnel entrance.
The female has a retractable stinger that she uses to paralyze cicadas, which she then carries to a nest cell within her burrow. (see video)
Once she has dragged the cicada into her nest, she inserts an egg into it. When the larva emerges it feeds on the cicada. Females determine what gender their eggs will be: if the egg is male she inserts one into the cicada. If the egg is female she leaves it two or three cicadas. Females are much larger than males and need more food as they develop.
Before my husband and I moved to Fort Tryon, we had lived on a houseboat on the Hudson River at the 79th Street Boat Basin for 36 years. It was in Riverside Park that I first encountered these amazing wasps. We moved to our apartment at 295 Bennett so that we could still feel close to nature: with views of the Manhattan schist cliffs, birds, trees, and flowers across the street, so close you feel you could reach out the window and touch all this beauty. However, when we moved away from the marina I was sure I would never see cicada killers again. The week we moved in, mid-August 2011, imagine my surprise when I walked out the door and saw these huge wasps, digging their tunnels, and going about their amazing lives.
Next summer, when the adults emerge from their burrows, don’t be alarmed, but rejoice in these winged neighbors who help keep our beautiful trees free of those leaf-nibbling cicadas.