They are typical New Yorkers, smart, sociable, feisty, and loud-mouthed, shunning bright, cheery colors while showing a distinct preference for black. But they aren’t groundlings, their realm is the sky overhead, where you may recently have heard their raucous croak – cr-r-uck or prruk – or what has been described as a metallic tok. Crows? No, these guys are bigger and more solitary. This croaker is the common raven (Corvus corax), whom most of us know only from a line in Poe's poem "The Raven: "Quoth the Raven 'Never more.' " The real, unliterary raven typically frequents the forests, coastal cliffs, and tundra of Canada. Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, 4th edition, 1980, reports it as expanding its range in the Appalachians, but only a casual visitor on the East Coast south of Maine. When I used to vacation on Mohegan Island, off midcoast Maine, I would often see them soaring overhead, but never saw them in the vicinity of New York. Even just a decade ago they were unknown down here, but recently their croak has been heard in various locations, one has been spotted on the roof of the Flatiron Building, and they are reported nesting in a water tower near Forest Park in Queens, at Co-op City in the Bronx, on the Brooklyn waterfront and in that borough’s Prospect Park. Once a rural resident, the raven has followed a worldwide human trend in migrating to the cities – at least, to this one – where they now nest on such manmade structures as bridges and cell towers.
But you may also have heard the more familiar caw of the crow (Corvus brachyrhyncos), once common throughout this country but decimated in the early 2000s by the West Nile virus. Fortunately, this noisy cousin of the raven is making a comeback, appearing in numbers close to what it was before the West Nile outbreak. Watch for crows in parks, since they like trees for nesting and open spaces for foraging. And what, by the way, does brachyrhyncos mean? It’s a kind of bastardized Latin, derived from ancient Greek: brachus + rhyncos = short + beak. Short? It looks pretty long to me, but who am I to argue with ornithologists? If they say it’s short, it must be, but short compared to who or what?
And now for another bit of urban wildlife. STRAPHANGERS GO BERSERK AFTER WOMAN TOSSES BUGS IN SUBWAY CAR screamed the headline of the New York Post. It seems that a videotape showed a woman on the D train trying to sell worms and crickets out of a bucket. When some teenagers bumped into her, she got angry and dumped the crickets and worms into the train. Someone pulled the emergency brake, causing the train ,unhelpfully to stop on the Manhattan Bridge. Skeptics later tracked down the woman who posted the video and got her to confess that she had posed as the cricket lady, doing “performance art” on the subject of homelessness; a confederate had knocked the bucket out of her hands. So it was all fake, and the woman has been arrested on a charge of reckless endangerment. The chirp of the cricket is not likely to be heard on subway trains.
This incident was faked but, in addition to singers and acrobats, the subway has witnessed chickens, frogs, goldfish, cats and dogs, buckets of dead crabs, a monkey, a used condom tied to a pole on the F train, and a man with a duffel bag full of snakes that he silently took out and draped on fellow passengers, except for one middle-aged woman who shrieked and screamed in protest. And none of these were faked. And so, dear tourists and visitors, ride our subways and have an adventure!
Not that crickets are alien to the city. The fall field cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus) can be found throughout the city in grassy fields, woods, garden beds, abandoned lots, playgrounds, schoolyards, and even tree pits (small plots of soil near a curb where a tree is planted). And as autumn brings cooler temperatures they sneak inside buildings, crawling through cracks in foundations and gaps in window frames. We hear them at night, when the males rub their wings together, the best of them dazzling females with their perfect pitch and regular song pattern. But we don’t hear their chirp for long, since by Christmas they succumb to old age or starvation. If only cockroaches would do the same!
And in the sky above, you can see more than an occasional raven, or a bunch of crows, their floppy black wings beating the void. Anywhere near water, as on Staten Island or in Jamaica Bay, you can see the outspread black-and-white-patterned wings of the osprey soaring overhead or diving to snatch a fish out of the water. Almost eliminated by DDT in the 1980s, this magnificent avian has made a dramatic comeback. In 2015, 21 osprey nests in and around Jamaica Bay produced 45 young – far more than before the onset of DDT. I have seen those nests: big twiggy affairs with mamma and the little ones peeking out, and dad nearby, bringing home the bacon, or rather, the fish. New York is, in fact, a very “birdy” city, being situated at the junction of the Atlantic and Hudson Valley flyways, with wooded sanctuaries like Central Park (especially the North End and the Ramble) squeezed in among the asphalt and concrete of the urban wasteland.
|An osprey, preparing to dive.|
Not so lucky is the monarch butterfly, easily identified by its orange wings with black tracery, which I have often seen, two or three at a time, fluttering around the well-named butterfly tree in a little park near the Hudson River here in the West Village. Their numbers have declined because the milkweed, a common summer wildflower, is declining in the Midwest, though I have found it at various locations, always dry and sunny, in and near the city. Female monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, and the larvae feed on milkweed sap, which is toxic to other creatures, including humans; less milkweed means fewer monarchs. The greatest danger to the monarchs used to be the loss of their forest habitat, the goal of their annual autumn migration in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which was devastated by illegal logging until Mexican authorities stopped the logging by offering different job opportunities to the locals.
But now a new threat to the monarch looms: a boom in avocado farming, inspired by a growing demand for avocados in the U.S. Farmers in Michoacán are cutting down the oak and pine trees of the monarchs’ winter sanctuary to create avocado orchards. It is said that the authorities are turning a blind eye to this development, either because of bribes or because they are fearful of organized crime and its links to the avocado industry. To offset deforestation, trees are being planted in large numbers, but the monarch’s fate is, as of now, uncertain. The next time I see avocados in a supermarket, I will think of these endangered creatures, so beautiful to behold, especially when they migrate in the autumn. I’ve never seen the migration at its height, when waves of monarchs flutter through the fields, but I’ve seen any number of them feeding on asters on Monhegan in the early autumn – a sight that I hope will continue for years to come. But will it?
Bees too are in danger, though they can now be kept legally in the city, and a stand at the Union Square greenmarket on Wednesdays sells locally harvested honey from rooftop colonies throughout the boroughs. U.S. beekeepers now lose some 30 percent of their colonies each winter, because of global warming, habitat loss, parasites, and insecticides far more deadly than DDT. Why should this matter to people living cozily in cities, if they don’t yearn for honey? Because bees pollinate 71 of the 100 crops providing 90 percent of the world’s food. In short: no bees, no food. At least, no plant-based food. Big Agriculture is fighting hard to prevent bans on the insecticides here in the U.S., but the European Union has banned several of them, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is phasing them out on the public lands they manage.
A personal note: When I was about to graduate from college long ago, the dean called me in to discuss my future plans, which were vague at best. Learning that I was an aspiring writer, he told me of a woman writer who kept bees. "In the summer I keep bees," she said, "and in the winter they keep me." She earned enough from selling honey to keep her home heated and meet other expenses, so that she could pursue her writing without a regular job. Did I miss my calling? Perhaps, but I've been fond of bees ever since.
Obviously, some forms of wildlife are declining, while others thrive. Among the latter are those black-masked sneaky creatures with striped tails that now abound in Central Park, coming out from the bushes at night in startling numbers, as many as 22 in one sighting at the edge of the Pond in the park’s southeastern corner. Raccoons, of course. These nocturnal prowlers have now become a tourist attraction, rivaling MOMA and the Met; people flock there nightly to feed the animals soft pretzels, organic gummy bears, potato chips, bits of hotdog, stale bagels from a bakery, and other goodies, and try to pose with them for selfies. And the raccoons don’t mind; in fact, they flock there too in anticipation of goodies. Though it’s not illegal, feeding them is not approved of by city authorities, since raccoons can carry rabies. Nor do raccoons need these freebies, since they do quite well on their own, devouring plants, smaller animals, and insects. But there they are, receiving free eats nightly from the unwary fingers of tourists, while in the nearby distance the buildings of Midtown Manhattan soar mightily, their many windows ablaze with light. Once again, where but in New York?
A note on the Donald: It’s not easy, getting him out of your mind. And who is this arch foe of the establishment appointing as cabinet members and staff? Among others, a hedge fund manager and a graduate of Goldman Sachs. No comment. But for Goldman Sachs, one of the two top companies I love to hate, see my post #158 of December 21, 2014: “Goldman Sachs: Vampire Squid or Martyred Innocent?” (And the other object of my hate? Monsanto, of course.)
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My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Bob Dylan's Village. Reminiscences of the 1950s and 1960s.
© 2016 Clifford Browder