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Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

Neighborhoodcats.org photo of JFK cat protest.

by Erik Baard

Australia is learning that it’s traded one form of “cute overload” for another, and there might be lessons for New York City.

 

As reported in this article, Australia attacked its cat overpopulation problem in the interest of preserving its indigenous bird species. The trouble is, without the feline predators around, a rabbit population explosion ensued, stripping away ground foliage needed for safe bird nesting.

 

The conflict between cat lovers and conservationists, which is often an inner one, spans the globe. In NYC it’s found focus on Jamaica Bay and the JFK Airport. Emotional pleas and conservation science studies have crashed upon walls of bureaucracy in recent years as airport officials cleared out a stray cat population. One ironic twist is that some airport managers have claimed that the cats are attracting birds, with their food and feces, and posing a hazard to planes. While bird strikes are very real, environmental concerns on Jamaica Bay center on ground nesting birds.

 

Cats are the flashpoint where empathy and responsibility crash in on themselves.

 

We feel for the cats, cast off in a breach of our social contract with them as a companion species. Activists might have a point in calling the feral ones, though born outside of human housing, “homeless.” That’s certainly true for abandoned pets. But we also grasp the suffering that attends habitat loss and losing young, as birds and other small species struggle to hold on under assault from feline predators.

 

Our sense of responsibility is weighty because we’ve both marginalized local species to a fringe of habitat and introduced an effective predator.

 

The greatest point of consensus is that cats should be adopted only responsibly (for life, and neutered), and that they should be kept indoors. But in cases where colonies already exist, sterilization and reintroduction seems is the most humane and effective means of dealing with the cat population. Infertile cats will still hold territory, preventing a rapid repopulation of the area by breeding cats from adjacent neighborhoods. With rats, another species that’s forever the subject of population control schemes, denying food helps disperse a population and keep them busy seeking sustenance instead of breeding. When social animals have a central food source, they gather and find mates, and have the surplus energy to breed and bear young.

 

Just ask the rabbits down under!

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East River book cover.

East River book cover.

A good chunk of the East River book is now online for free! Get some hot cocoa and enjoy?

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by Erik Baard

 

 

He walked up from below the high water mark beside the old seaplane ramp at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and called out, “That’s it! New York City is done!”

 

Not comforting words from a man who measures time in mass extinctions. Paleontologist Carl Mehling is one of many native New Yorkers struggling at the fringes of our city’s constant reinvention and real estate development to preserve glimpses of life from earlier eras. As collections manager for fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, Mehling went on a personal quest to be the first person to discover naturally occurring fossils in all five boroughs in one year.

 

In his hand that November day he held a piece of chert, a smooth rock that in this case looked like caramel. On its surface were pinholes that a magnifying lens revealed were ringed by radiating spokes. “There’s no ambiguity. That’s a crinoid,” a starfish cousin, Mehling said. The cluster of crinoids that left traces in this stone probably lived about 380 million years ago, he said.

 

Crionoids at Floyd Bennet Field. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Crinoids at Floyd Bennet Field. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 Earlier fossil finds include a brachiopod and a bryozoan (a shellfish and a creature resembling coral, respectively) in a Riverdale Park streambed in the Bronx, another brachiopod or bivalve on a tiny Inwood Hill Park beach in Manhattan, and scallops and oysters on Rockaway Beach in Queens. Conference House Park on Staten Island yielded favositid corals, more crinoids, brachiopods, and bryozoans.

 

 

 

 

 

Brachiopod and Bryozoan from Riverdale Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Bryozoan and Brachiopod from Riverdale Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod or Bivalve from Inwood Hill Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod or Bivalve from Inwood Hill Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scallops in the Rockaways. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Scallops in the Rockaways. Photo by Jill Palermo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brachiopod and Crionoid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Brachiopod and Crinoid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crinoid and Bryozoan from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Crinoid and Bryozoan from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favositid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

Favositid from Conference House Park. Photo by Carl Mehling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mehling targets often forgotten shorelines because “there no buildings and no sidewalks and no streets. They’re remnants of what might have been there a hundred years ago.” When we arrived at one prospective site on Jamaica Bay to find that it had been recently bulkheaded, he remarked, “This is the worst place on Earth to look. It’s so depressing.”

 

In addition to field prospecting, Mehling is compiling a list of all of the fossils discovered in New York City from academic sources. Many can’t be traced today, even the mastodon bone that was dredged from the East River shoreline of Long Island City when Standard Oil built a barge slip a century ago. It hung in a nearby shop window for years before vanishing. Central Staten Island holds rich reserves of fossilized Cretaceous plants that grew when dinosaurs reigned, but they’ve been paved over in recent decades. “There are parts of Staten Island that, if I heard that there was construction starting, I would be out there in an hour.”

 

He’s often in a rush. “I deal in millions of years but always feel I have to be a half-hour early. As if it matters,” he remarked. Actually, it did, one day in August when he tackled Queens and Staten Island, with some Nature Calendar people in tow. We had to race to sites before our quarry was covered by the rising tide.

 

An hour later I was scratching around stones jutting from a red clay shoreline bluff near Conference House Park, hoping in vain to loosen something interesting…if I could recognize it. Mehling was yards behind me on the beach, casually picking up Devonian fossils like sea glass. If a rock looked promising but showed no micro-fossils on its surface, Mehling would smash it open with a larger rock. Jill Palermo of WeAddUp.com and Queens Community Board 2 environmental chairperson Dorothy Morehead came along and had the good sense to stick with him, not me.

breaking rocks in the hot sun. Photo by Jill Palermo.

Carl Mehling demonstrates the paleontologist's/prisoners workout routine: breaking rocks in the hot sun. Photo by Jill Palermo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“This is coral, hundreds of millions of years old. If this fossil is as old as I think it is, this place was below the equator when it was living,” he said. “It’s moved a lot, and it’s been through hell.” He also found sea shells from the same period. Still, he’s not very excited by his finds, dismissing them as “invasive species” transported by the glaciers that ground their way down the continent, and therefore not much better than the fossils one can find in the imported stone that make up the Rockefeller Center façade or the walls of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.

 

In the Rockaways, Kelly Rimshnick is ankle deep in water not far from her kids as we scour the intertidal zone. “Are you looking for something dangerous?,” she nervously asked.

 

Three of us turned up oysters that Mehling said were merely “12,000 years old, tops. They’re the same species that you find here today.” Mehling, who discovered in Patagonia, Argentina the first fossilized fetal dinosaur skin, says globally these fossils are “as common as pigeons.” Still, he’s excited. “These are native, they are really from this place. In that sense these are real rarities, the stuff I like. That’s why I love to hunt in New York City, because fossils are not supposed to be here.”

 

That’s as much a state of mind as physical reality. As an urban forager, Mehling is used to eating meals of delicious plants that others pass by. But New York City is also truly a lousy place to find fossils. Our bedrock was produced in a fossil-erasing lathe of geologic forces, not gentle sedimentation. Worse yet, “If all the manmade stuff was taken off of Manhattan it would be just a big rock. It’s been stripped.”

 

Mehling dreams of finding an unlucky mastodon, caught in bogs during the glacial thaw. Short of that, Mehling plans to kick continue kicking over stones in Inwood Hill Park and Central Park (and check this site too), along the Bronx River and in Van Cortlandt Park with very humble expectations. “This is the lowest form of fossil hunting,” he said. “The lowest, but done with high hopes.”

 

The challenges don’t stop eager local amateurs from frequently bringing in egg-shaped stones for him to inspect. “I have to explain that there are many ways nature can produce that shape. Not every round stone flew out of a dinosaur’s ass.”

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by Erik Baard

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

 

Far inland, a wind

lifts fine snow from ancient pines.

Shimmers like sea spray.

 

 

I wrote that haiku twenty years ago intending to show the sensual commonality of contrasting locales, pointing toward our shared experiences across superficial cultural divides. Only today, while poking around data piles about pines in this tanenbaum time of year, did I learn of the deep connection Eastern White Pines once had with the ocean.

 

Within twenty years of landing on the Eastern White Pine-spired shores of New England, the Pilgrims were exporting trunks for ship masts to ports as far away as Madagascar. The New World, from Nova Scotia to Georgia and out west to Minnesota, boasted Eastern White Pines standing over 80’ (24m), with reports of individual trees soaring up to 230’ (70m). Though this species is the tallest pine in North America, healthy ones are also pin straight.

 

As the colonies grew, so did competition for use of Eastern White Pines. In no mood to pay market rates for its materials, the British government carved the trunks of choice trees with the “broad arrow,” reserving them for Navy ships and exacted heavy penalties from violators. Colonists came to resent that heavy-handed claim on their assets and began falsely marking lesser stands while selling the navy’s best as more profitable lightweight, strong, knotless, and pale (hence the tree’s name) plank wood. Though it’s little remembered today, friction over the issue contributed to revolutionary sentiments among New Englanders. During the vicious “Pine Tree Riot” a sheriff was lashed with pine switches and his horses were maimed. One might say the Minute Men thumbed their noses at the crown by putting an Eastern White Pine in the white canton of their flag, where the cross of St. George used to be.

 

You can still see a broad arrow carved into white pine in New York City today, but not in a way one might expect. The pinewood door of an 18th century mansion belonging to the wealthy, rebel Blackwell family of western Queens bears the mark from a British soldier’s saber as a sign of punitive confiscation. The house has long since been demolished, but the door (with melted bottle windows in a neat bit of early recycling) is on display at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

 

The rapid growth of the new United States was fed by raging deforestation. Henry David Thoreau was troubled: “The pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure,” he wrote in Autumn

                                                                                        

Of course, human appreciation the Eastern White Pine long precedes that European imperial tussling and Yankee commoditization. Native Americans depended on the trees for much more than their wood. Their Vitamin C-rich needles can be made into a tisane, or “herbal tea.” The inner bark, called the cambium, can be beaten into a flour extender in hard times. Cones can be stewed and the seeds are edible. The sap, resin, and tar have medicinal value. Resin can be used to waterproof materials, from baskets to boats.

 

Across a wide swath of North America, Eastern White Pines feed white-winged crossbills (whose bills are specialized for prying open cones), pileated woodpeckers, flying squirrels, red squirrels, beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, mice, rabbits, and voles. Bald eagles, moths, chickadees, morning doves, common grackles,and  nuthatches shelter in them when they stand, while in fallen trees you’ll find woodpeckers and hibernating black bears nesting. They become such a bedrock of the ecosystem because they efficiently spread seeds by wind and mature trees are somwhat fire resistant.

 

Sadly, it’s tough to find what naturalists reverently call the “virgin whites,” specimens aged over 350 years. After centuries of rampant exploitation (and vulnerability to blister rust that’s carried by cultivated ribes) we’re beginning to make restitution. A few mature stands can be found within the boroughs, notably along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and at the Jackson Pond pine grove of Forest Park in Queens. In northern Manhattan, visit Inwood Hill Park near Payson Street. Look for tall, blue-green pines with finely serrated needles measuring between 2” and 5” (5-13cm), and bundled in groups of five. The cones are soft and slender and about 5” long. For me, the most beautiful part of this tree is its almost fractal expression: branches, needles, and cones all spiral in a Fibonacci sequence.

 

Here’s a great little video lecture snippet:

 

 

 

Conifers like the East White Pine are marvelously well adapted to snow and cold. The smaller and more numerous needles (compared with typically broad, deciduous leaves) remain evergreen and exceptionally dark to absorb maximum sunlight in the dim northern winter. Photosynthesis isn’t the aim in the dormant season, but rather simple heat, because like humans, trees survive best in a limited temperature range. With few pores and a waxy coat, they also retain water well. Unlike the skyward reaching branches of some species, their branches angle downwards before curling up at the end, to slough off snow before the weight can cause damage.

 

 

Future generations of New Yorkers will enjoy more Eastern White Pines than we do. It’s a core species of the Million Trees NYC drive. A crew of volunteers from the LIC Community Boathouse was happy to plant white pines in Floyd Bennett Field under the guidance of Friends of Gateway. Our little Charlie Brown Christmas Tree-like saplings surrounded dying Japanese black pines, which were planted under a “Beautify America” program spearheaded by Ladybird Johnson. Those exotic transplants are falling to the blue stain fungus, which doesn’t affect indigenous white pines, explained Dave Lutz, chair of Friends of Gateway. Earth Day NY rounded up people to plant some more for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation this autumn and I was glad to participate. Another recent “Million Trees” planter of a white pine was Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Volunteer tree planters are needed.

 

For an urbanite, the greatest value of a stand of Eastern White Pines might be spiritual, in a way that transcends any one religion or the Christmas holiday. As Thoreau wrote, “I saw the sun falling on a distant white-pine wood…It was like looking into dreamland.” When we look upon the tree for itself, and not for its uses, the effect is immediate and the cause is clear for why the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people called this the Great Tree of Peace.

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newtown_pippin_toa

Imagine the sandy shores of Dumbo, Stuyvesant Cove, Hunters Point, South Beach, and Pelham Bay resplendent with bushes full of white blossoms that grow into delicious fruits akin to fat cherries as summer passes. Or seeing trees at City Hall, or in a school playground just inland from the Newtown Creek, heavy with sublimely sweet and tart green apples.

Welcome to New York City, 2015!

Well, potentially. Check this page in the coming weeks to learn how you can be part of bringing beach plums and Newtown Pippin apples back to NYC! It might even be possible to have the Newtown Pippin recognized as the official apple of the Big Apple. We have some amazing sponsors and partners already committed to plantings and helping others receive saplings.

Beach plums grow in sandy soil, even dunes, from New Jersey to eastern Canada. They sustain birds and delight beachcombers, and provide a living for those who make them into desserts. Industrialization erased them from our city’s shores.

Newtown Pippins were developed on the Queens bank of the Newtown Creek in the 18th century and quickly became known as the “prince of apples.” Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Victoria were all ardent fans. Today they are grown by celebrities like Dave Matthews. They consistently win apple taste competitions to this day. The namesake creek has quietly descended into a state that should shame all New Yorkers. The nation’s largest oil spill leaches into it while combined sewer outflows continually assault it. The creek bed is laden with heavy metal wastes.

beachlg

May the restoration of these species remind us of how lush and wondrous our environment once was, and inspire us to act to replenish our city.

One key element of the campaign will be to excite city officials by providing a taste of these plums and apples. On Saturday, Dec. 13, we will carpool or take a train out to Riverhead, Long Island, to buy apples, cider, plum jams, plum pies, and other delicacies at Briermere Farm. While we are there, there will be some exploring, of course!

If you’d like to come, please email naturecalendar@gmail.com so that we can determine how best to coordinate travel.

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by Erik Baard

 

As I walked past the Sunnyside Railyards yesterday I spotted a tree with a crown that each year is generously laden with green-gold pods. It’s rising up from beside the tracks, reaching eye level for strollers on the south side of the overpass. It occurred to me that while I’ve seen this kind of tree countless times throughout my life, I didn’t know its name.

 

When I focus on a tree these days, the first question I ask is its name, followed by “can I eat it?” For the latter obsession, I blame Wildman Steve Brill. The foraging instinct that he reawakened in me is useful not so much as a survival tool as a prime mover toward general ecological knowledge. Once I’ve asked that, the other questions come flooding: If I eat it, with what species am I now competing for food? If I can’t eat it, what chemicals are there to thwart me, and why? What species are able to eat it and what’s different about their physiology? Did those species co-evolve with the tree because they are superior vectors for spreading seeds?

 

Anyway, I did some digging and found some foresters who want us all to do some more digging…to uproot the species.

 

Oh, “Tree of Heaven!” Oh, “Ghetto Palm!” It’s amazing how a species can be viewed with such difference. We’ve already considered how the pigeon is “revered and reviled,” to use Andrew Blechman’s phrase, as a carrier of both the Holy Spirit and disease. Anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt, as opposed to soil, as “matter out of place.” The Ailanthus tree is indeed “out of place”; it’s an invasive species from eastern and southern Asia and northern Australasia. I also guess it doesn’t help that the male flowers of this tree smell like cat urine.

 

I couldn’t find a reason for its more flattering moniker, translated from the Ambonese in Indonesia. Folk medicine practitioners do make some intriguing claims for the tree though; Asian tradition holds that the bark is good for lowering heart rate, reducing muscle spasms, and, well, delaying a particular spasm that could cause your Fourth of July fireworks to shoot off a little too soon. Maybe it was an Ambonese wife who named the tree?

 

The inimitably New York name stems from the hardiness of this tree. Even when the city fails to green a community or lot, Ailanthus trees will find a way to grow. Park Slope has its London planes, while back alleys have the ubiquitous “poverty tree.”

 

That ability to thrive in urban wastelands spotlights another similarity between pigeons and ailanthus trees: despite being so opportunistic, they are usually benign to other, indigenous species because they specialize in unclaimed niches. There are places, however, where Ailanthus can be a destructive force. At forest fringes and clearings, or where new forests are being seeded, Ailanthus squeezes out slower-growing but essential native trees. One good case of this is Conference House Park on Staten Island. Volunteers are needed to yank young Ailanthus on Monday, from 1PM through 4PM. But be careful not to pluck similar-looking sumac, ash, black walnut, or pecan.

 

If you can help, RSVP by calling 718-390-8021 or emailing cheri.brunault@parks.nyc.gov as soon as possible.

 

And even as you’re thrashing the Ailanthus out of our city’s bucolic frontier in southern Staten Island, keep some gratitude in your heart for the shade it provides us when it seeds into the toughest hardscapes of the urban core.

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by Erik Baard

 

 

One of the stupider “sports” people have come up with is pigeon shooting, where the birds are released from boxes into the line of yahoos’ ready fire. In a 1902 debate over a bill banning the sport from New York, a state senator compared that lack of humanity and sportsman-like behavior to shutting a doe up in a barn and then blasting her as she ran out the open door.

 

As nearby as Pennsylvania the practice persists, and New York City birds are being stolen to supply the madness. Fortunately, In Defense of Animals is part of the vanguard to stop it. This week the group conferred its first $2,500 award for information leading to the arrest and conviction of a person netting pigeons, also known as rock doves, in NYC. The recipient was Desi Stewart, a street sweeper with the Doe Fund. He spotted Brooklyn resident Isaac Gonzalez spreading seed and netting many pigeons on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officer arrested Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan Criminal Court on June 26, 2008.

 

It’s a shame Gonzalez didn’t go to prison, if only because we’ll miss the small ironic pleasure of letting him know of his idiocy in trapping for deathly amusement birds whose intelligence might have made them useful allies in alleviating the sufferings of confinement. Kindred criminal spirits in Brazil, at least, were smart enough to attempt to employ the birds as jailhouse smugglers, complete with little pigeon backpacks!

 

Pigeons have a growing fan base outside “the clink” (is my mother the only person who still uses that expression?) too. National Pigeon Day  was Friday the 13th in June, appropriately enough for such a besotted bird. In Defense of Animals, the United Federation of Teachers Humane Education Committee, the New York Bird Club, and luminaries ate pigeon-shaped cookies…and perhaps scandalously snuck a few crumbs to their avian honorees. The contributions of this species, including astonishing heroics in war, rescue, and acts of touching personal loyalty were recounted.  

 

City Councilman Tony Avella, who’s taken the lead on a number of animal rights issues, shared a moving observation. “They are often a city child’s first contact with nature and an elderly person’s only friends,” he said.

 

One might wonder why there isn’t a greater effort to control pigeon populations, for fear that they might crowd out other, indigenous species. To understand how little worry ecologists have in this regard, here’s a simple exercise: plant your own lush garden or grove of indigenous plants and trees and wait for the pigeons to show up. Or simply visualize the trees on your block being filled with pigeons. It simply won’t happen. The “rock dove” species feeds on the ground and prefers barren areas much like its ancestral cliff sides in Asia Minor. In other words, buildings and asphalt. Not that city life is kind to pigeons. In the wild they live about 14 years, but typically reach only two in urban areas. They do, however, breed a lot more.

 

If you’d like to get involved in the responsible care and control of pigeons in the city, try volunteering for Pigeon Watch. And remember, if you witness a pigeon netting in the five boroughs of New York City, call New York State DEC Officer Joseph Pane at 718-482-4941. If you need help in rescuing a pigeon of any age or condition, please visit New York City Pigeon Rescue Central. For the simple enjoyment of learning more about this species, one great place to start is Andrew Blechman’s book, Pigeons, which he calls “the world’s most revered and reviled bird.”

 

All this brings to mind that we’re at a sad centennial: it was in 1908 that zookeepers posted a $1000 reward (more than $23,000 in today’s dollars) for fertile, wild passenger pigeons. That awakening to the crisis was too late and the reward was never collected. Over-hunting and habitat destruction wiped out that species, which once filled North American skies in flocks of billions. Martha, the last of her kind, died in captivity in 1914. I’ll write more about this missing species of pigeons in coming weeks.

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