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Archive for May, 2010

Parrot near Brooklyn College

Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx has had colonies of parrots for a while, but now the little green birds may be starting a colony in lower Manhattan. Dennis Edge, a friendly birder who is compiling a book of his many finds around Tompkins Square Park, says he’s seen at least two for a couple months in Tompkins and nearby community gardens.

It’s too late to be building a nest for eggs, he says, but the birds seem to be building something–like one of their insanely huge colony nests, which can grow to the size of a smartcar. No one knows where, but once the colony gets going, it’s huge and they like to build them on tall towers (or trees in a pinch), so it shouldn’t be hard to fine in the East Village.

Steve Baldwin has done an amazing job tracking and advocating for the monk parakeets or Quaker parrots at BrooklynParrots.com. He gives free, frequent tours by Brooklyn College and Greenwood Cemetery. At one point he had a highly-detailed map on his site of nests around  New York City and New Jersey, but he took it down after reports of men showing up in vans and grabbing birds.

These huge nests make the parrots unpopular.

The feral parrots x are from South America, but have shown up in cities worldwide, even cold ones, usually with a myth about them escaping from an airport crate. They run into trouble for destroying crops and messing with electrical lines when they build their huge nests. But people love them. And they’re an okay replacement species for the Carolina Parakeet that we Americans wiped out a century ago.

Now that red-tailed hawks are becoming commonplace, it’s fun to have a new freaky species to look for.

Where to Go to See Parrots in the U.S.
Check Out BrooklynParrots.com

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You’ll see at least one white squirrel: non-releasable Elliott  

Olney, IL, watch your back! Brevard, NC–a longtime rival  White Squirrel Capital of the World–may be snatching the title for good. About 20,000 – 25,000 people are expected this weekend at Brevard’s 7th annual White Squirrel Festival to go on a white squirrel safari, compete with white squirrel photography, feeder-making and the “squirrel box derby.” (Well, okay, some actually come for the music.)

Normally there’s just one guy in a  squirrel suit called Woody the White Squirrel, but this year’s extravaganza will feature 250 people in white squirrel costumes dancing to BrotherBrother for five minutes Saturday afternoon to set a world record. (Coincidentally, robots in Austin will be dancing for their own record nearly simultaneously.)

“We’re really having fun with the theme,” says the guy who dreamed the whole thing up, Phil Davis. “We’re willing to be a little weird.” Brevard is joining the ranks of towns that have parties to celebrate something no one can imitate: local wildlife. So along with 32 Bald Eagle Watches, Moose Festivals and events to watch hummingbirds and bats, it’s only natural that a town with 1,000 white squirrels would flaunt it.

Many small towns–especially Olney–brag about their white squirrels. Cryptomundo lists 10 white and black squirrel cities and some try to tour them all. White squirrels, which are far more rare and exotic–breed competition that is suitably fierce and fun.

“There’s a bunch of wannabe cities,” Davis dismisses the competition. “They paint their squirrels is the rumor. We’re not in support of towns that bleach their squirrels.”

Typical pattern of Brevard, NC, white squirrel

Davis, a branding expert, said the town had an anemic monarch festival before he hit on the idea of trying a squirrel festival to coincide with more proven entertainment, a Memorial Day concert. Something about the name caught on. Now some attendees are astonished to find that white squirrels really live there. “You mean they actually exist?” they’ll ask.

“It’s primarily a music festival. They just love the fact it’s wrapped in white squirrels,” he says. “They love the magicalness of it.”

Elaborate and very cool map showing percent of white squirrels around town

But there’s plenty for people who actually want to see and celebrate the white squirrels. There are free  squirrel safaris that center around the likely ground of Brevard College. And they’re guaranteed to see at least one: Elliott, a genial white squirrel who couldn’t make it in the wild. Elliott was attacked by an adult when he was young, lost an eye and has complicated tooth problems, says wildlife rehabilitator Jennifer Burgin. Now five, Burgin feeds him a special diet by hand twice a day.

Burgin, who has been rehabbing squirrels for 20 years, likes how the town appreciates their squirrels. “They’re very serious about their white squirrels,” she says. “Everybody is very proud of them.” In 1986 Brevard banned killing, catching or hurting its squirrels. People take extra care to avoid hitting them,  says Davis, who himself rescued one from the road. “I don’t want people of gray persuasion to get angry, but white squirrels do enjoy some special protection.”


Another thing Brevard has up on Olney is a population of about 1,000 squirrels and the White Squirrel Research Institute. Founded by a former professor at the college, Bob Glesner, the institute gathers and processes an impressive set of data on white squirrel population. Local residents volunteer for an annual survey to count both the number and percentage of white squirrels.

Glesner is watching whether the population becomes fragmented, but generally thinks they’re doing okay. About 37% percent of the town’s squirrels are white overall. But around the college, where the tours go, it’s 46%. The highest is the performing arts center, where almost 9 in 10 squirrels are white.

The town is quick to point out that their white squirrels are not albinos. They have black eyes and their fur is just a color phase–a hair color, like a chocolate or yellow lab. Brevard’s squirrels have a distinct look: a darker stripe down their spine and dark frosting on the top of their head.

Davis thinks the white squirrels are just what Brevard, which sits near the border with Georgia and South Carolina, needs. “Don’t laugh,” he says. “There was another rodent that saved another city. I don’t think anybody’s laughing about Disney and Orlando.”

Where to Go See Unusual Squirrels
More Interesting Animals You Can See Down South
Adopt a Brevard White Squirrel
Attend the World’s Biggest White Squirrel Festival in Brevard, NC

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For years I’ve heard about a Chinatown park where old men bring their exotic birds and this morning I finally went to find it. The Wah-Mei Bird Garden in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, just south of Delancey, can draw 40-some old Chinese men, each carrying a singing bird in an ornate cage. Or that’s what I’ve heard. I only saw three bird guys.

I arrived around 8, in time to see the first bird man take the flannel cloth off his cage. It must shield the bird from the city, though most of narrow Roosevelt Park itself is not much better. It’s got bridge traffic on two sides and it’s dark and unkempt with wavy pavement and a drugged-out man lurching around. The cages themselves are fantastically carved wood, bamboo and what looked like ivory. They hang them on a long line over a fence that encloses the official Wah-Mei Bird garden. You can hear the birds sing if you get close. Nearby, other elderly Chinese exercised with swords.

The most friendly and happy bird

The bird man schedule remains mysterious to me. I asked the men; they acted like they didn’t understand me. I asked around; workers and dog walkers said it’s every day around this time. (Later, I read on New York Daily Photo blog it’s much busier on weekends.) Any singing bird is welcome, but the most desired are male Wah Mei (Garrulax canorus) that know lots of songs. The men who pretended not to speak English told a local guy can be had for $100 in Queens. Tracy Wong described in a NYU paper how the men get the territorial male birds to compete in singing.

The second bird I saw, another bright yellow one in a fabulous cage that looked like it included ivory, was my favorite. He’s a mimic. I whistled to him and she whistled back. And kept the tune going. He was probably annoying his owner with my tuneless notes all day. He ate from fancy porcelain jugs, too.

The third bird was probably the only one that was really a Wah Mei. CITES, which restricted its import after the bird flu outbreak, says that it’s the most popular bird traded in China. Before the ban, they figured 1.8 were captured each year, with most of the females just eaten.

Probably the only real Wah Mei
Where to Go See Weird Birds

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The first blue jay fledgling fell out of the nest built precariously on a New York fire escape this afternoon. It attracted a crowd of neighbors, who put it back in its nest and installed a plastic tarp under the whole set up.

Just yesterday I put up flyers explaining the blue jay babies were up there and it would be normal if they would fall out. If it were a forest instead of Fifth Street, they’d be fine. The parents would feed them for a couple days on the ground. The parents, however, made a really unfortunate real estate choice. Below their nest is sidewalk,  street and a tiny tree pit–no grass or bushes or any other baby bird amenity. And thousands of helpful New Yorkers walk by every day. Somebody would pick it up and bring it to their vet. That’s what happened to a blue jay nest in the next block two years ago. The mom spent weeks looking for them.

So this afternoon I got a call about the flyer from a neighbor. The one bird on the sidewalk wasn’t not fully feathered and was weak and skinny. It looked way too young to be out of the nest to me. People label New Yorkers as harsh, but soon there were six of us trying to figure out how to get the bird back on the fire escape, ringing doorbells, taping on windows.

My friend Pierre found a long board and tripped the fire escape ladder so it would fall. Generally this kind of thing is frowned upon in the city, but Pierre bravely climbed up and replaced the baby. While I was getting some clear plastic, the mother jay returned and swooped at Jonah, a 10-year-old good samaritan. Pierre and I basically lined the fire escape and left some raw peanuts for the blue jays’ trouble.

So far, so good. The mom returned, ate peanuts and sat on the nest. I got a call from the people who live in the blue jay apartment. They’d been worried about the birds and didn’t mind our clamoring over their fire escape.

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What do you get for a fellow despot of an impoverished country? How about a menagerie? Conservation groups are pissed that Zimbabwe is sending North Korea a mini-menagerie–two of every species from Hwange National Park.

Somalia gave Kim Il Sung an Ass photo by (stephan)

You can only imagine how a nation that can’t provide food and electricity for its own people will treat elephants and lions from Africa. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Some news reports make it seem ambiguous where they might go. But there’s only one zoo in North Korea and it’s totally sad, crappy, creepy and unaccredited.

Asia Times reports that a bunch of animal fighting films have come out of North Korea and pits animals against each other to fight to the death–just the kind of flick our Supreme Court endorsed.

“In all probability, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sanctioned the filming of Fighting Animals, or at least gave it his curious approval – though there is no evidence he was directly involved despite his well-documented interest in filmmaking,” the Asia Times says. “The film’s producers would have needed access to rare and valuable animals and the only place in the country that holds them is the Central Zoo in Pyongyang.”

The Pyongyang Central Zoo was hit by bird flu

Aside from the animal fighting scandal, Lonely Planet says all the animals at the Korea Central Zoo, also known as the Pyongyang Central Zoo, “look pretty forlorn Worst off are the big cats…kept in woefully inadequate compounds.” Visitors also describe and photograph lots of cats and dogs at the zoo. Of course, North Korea has a different way to describe it: “Working people and school youth and children have a pleasant time, seeing animals associated with meaningful stories.” They also report renovations.

Zimbabwe defended the deal as just a business transaction, not political. Is that better? They’re selling two elephants too young to be separated from their mother for $10,000 each, $900 each giraffe, $600 per zebra and then, the AP reports, some cheap birds: $10 each for blue crane, saddle-billed stork and white pelican. The blue crane seems like a real bargain: they’re listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with only 26,000 left and falling and range maps don’t even show them in Zimbabwe.

Some animals do get out of North Korea. In 1995 a Siberian tiger named Rail went to the south. In 2005 Seoul got a bear and lynx–but sent in a hippo and llama.  

The only good thing that can be said of the deal is that wild animals are pretty much doomed under Mugabe anyway. Zimbabwe’s Conservation Task Force explains that Mugabe didn’t just take land from white farmers, he took it from parks and wildlife, too.

Where to Go See Big Cats

조선 중앙 동물원

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The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society announced this weekend that they’ve gotten a bunch of cross-disciplinary experts together and decided  that cetaceans have human rights.

The Declaration of Cetacean Rights, which anyone can sign, basically includes the right not to be killed, captured, abused or owned. The society, which met at the University of Helsinki (nice touch), says their rights to “life, liberty and well-being” are due after we figured out that they have more intelligence, self-awareness and culture than we previously thought. The petition gets at the idea that it’s okay to care about the fate of not just the health of a species population or ecosystem, but an individual animal.

Most westerners would go along with most of that–although the part that would ban Sea World or swim with dolphin programs might shock some. We already don’t hunt whales and changed the tuna industry to avoid dolphins (which are really just small whales). Japan still kills about 23,000 dolphins a year on purpose.  Hundreds of whales are killed each year–no one is sure how many exactly how many–mainly by Japan, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Russia.

The controversial part, at least in my mind, is that they also “affirm that all cetaceans as persons.” I don’t think they’re persons. Individuals, sure. Anyone who’s spent time with higher functioning animals can tell you they’re individuals. They don’t need to be people to have individuality and rights. Then again, if they didn’t put a little bit of crazy talk in there, who would write about them?

Where to Go See Dolphins
Where to Go See Whales

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The last time cheeky wild Mommy Squirrel came inside my apartment and somehow got Mickey, the squirrel recovering from a malocclusion, to bust out of her cage, there was some question as to why I didn’t get pictures. At the time, it seemed like an emergency. 

Today I left the office for two minutes and came back to find Mommy Squirrel in my chair. So I grabbed the camera to see what Mickey would do. She came out and deliberately ate in front of Mommy Squirrel, but then seemingly ignored her. My dog Jolly would do give dogs who barked at him a kind of I can’t see you kind of nonchalance.

I hope it’s not any kind of Mickey’s disability that she actually can’t see the invading squirrel. I suspect Mickey is like my mom: she only pretends to be oblivious, but is on top of everything going on.

Where to go to See Interesting Squirrels
Where to See Wildlife in New York

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