Monday, August 08, 2005

Of Men and Rats and two postscripts

When John Blakeman acknowledged that "It's becoming clear that rats are the missing prey, substituting for the voles of rural areas," I replied:
Well, it makes sense. Rats are extremely clever animals, it seems to me, and there's a great deal of human food consumption that goes on in the park on a large scale during daylight hours only. People purchase hot dogs and pretzels from the numerous [year-round] vendor carts, leaving crumbs and more behind. Another factor, I'm sure, are the various bird and animal lovers in and around the park who deliberately feed critters -- People bringing sacks of grain for pigeons every day, [the redtails know these regular feeding spots and perch nearby], all the squirrel feeders who feed their bushy-tailed friends almonds and walnuts as well as peanuts daily. I'm afraid the Bird Feeding squad [I'm on it] that fills feeders for the various titmice, woodpeckers, sparrows, etc. once or twice a week in the fall and winter may contribute to the rat feast as well.

John sent me a letter in return:
As I've contended from the beginning, the continued presence of red-tailed hawks in Central Park (as elsewhere) is utterly dependent on a reliable, accessible prey base. And those prey are almost surely rats, not pigeons. But rats don't venture out into the daylight unless lured by food -- which is provided by humans. If humans weren't spreading pound after pound of seeds, nuts, and their own food scraps, the rats wouldn't be out in the daylight and vulnerable to hawks.
I now think red-tails are in Central Park because humans indirectly feed the park's rats. Red-tails are in CP because humans are. At the base, it's the people, not solely the rats, pigeons, trees, buildings, or anything else. It's the abundance of human-provided food for both rats and pigeons that causes the hawks to inhabit and breed in Central Park.
The unique field biology of the Central Park red-tails is becoming much clearer. Were humans to stop providing food for the rats and pigeons, especially the rats, the hawks would leave the city for more typical rural areas where voles are the essential prey base. Like so much of the rest of everything in New York, it's the activities of the people that allow red-tails to occupy Central Park. It's not any obscure natural history. It's the animal-feeding and food discarding habits of people that inadvertently provide the essential food base for the hawks. This is not so for any other hawk population that I know of. Curious and unique.

John A. Blakeman

PS from Marie:

No, I wouldn't say Central Park is unique. There are Redtails nesting in other New York City parks --Prospect Park, Inwood Park, etc. Elsewherethey nest in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge MA, on the Boston Common, and probably in many, many other public places that have the mix of people-that-eat-and-feed and grass, trees, shrubs, water --habitats for hawks and rats to use for their purposes and to intersect with each other.

Second Postscript:

This exchange between me and Blakeman prompted me to send a letter to Neil Calvanese, Vice President of Operations for the Central Park Conservancy. He's in charge of everything, including the periodic rat-baiting [poisoning] that is done in the park. Just in case he hadn't heard, I informed him of the Trump Parc family, and requested an immediate suspension of rat-baiting in the southwest quadrant of Central Park.

The Conservancy has always been responsive to public concerns about the park's wildlife. Rat-baiting was always suspended in Pale Male's hunting territory during the Fifth Avenue hawks' breeding season. I am expecting a favorable response to my request, and will post it here when it comes. [I'll post his response whtever it is.]

[For those of you who believe that rat-baiting should be ended everywhere in the park -- as I do -- please don't write to me. I have come to see this as an unrealistic goal. The public is too freaked out about rats to tolerate such an action. If you must -- and I'm not recommending it -- write directly to the Commisioner of Parks, Adrian Benepe.]