|Marie Winn's Articles|
Between 1989 and 2001 I wrote 35 or so articles for the Leisure and Arts page of the Wall Street Journal. Most of these were about birds and birdwatching, although a few were about various cultural subjects.
This Web site will make available a selection of these pieces, just to keep them in circulation.
By the way, two of the following articles have been included in a book published in 2003, entitled City Birding: True Tales of Birds and Birdwatching in Unexpected Places. It is published by Stackpole Books and can be purchased for $18.95.
BIRD BY BIRD
[Published in the Wall Street Journal on December 7, 1994 with the title: All Happy Writers are Alike: Detestable]
The package arrived as I was daydreaming about William Boot. Boot, you may remember, is the unprepossessing little guy who writes a nature column entitled "Lush Places" in Evelyn Waugh's comic masterpiece Scoop.
One of the reasons I like to think about Boot is because I too, write a column devoted to nature -- it appears occasionally in this newspaper -- and Boot's prose style serves as an odd source of inspiration: "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole..."
But I dream of more than Boot's exemplary style. Thanks to a case of mistaken identity, Boot's newspaper, The Beast, sends him to cover a revolution in the mythical country of Ishmaelia. There Boot survives hair-raising adventures and manages to scoop the rest of the foreign press corps, before returning to the plashy fen and his playful sister Priscilla, the one who once altered an article he had written about the habits of the badger by substituting "the great crested grebe" for "badger" throughout the manuscript, whereupon a certain major in Wales "challenged him categorically to produce a single authenticated case of a great crested grebe attacking a rabbit."
Boot's metamorphosis from quiet country writer to world- famous foreign correspondent always feeds my fantasy life whenever the going gets tough in the nature-writing business.
When the UPS man handed me that small package a few weeks ago, I knew within minutes that I too was involved in a case of mistaken identity. Actually, the mistake had to do with the book contained in that small package. With two birds in its title and pictures of three birds and a large speckled egg on its jacket, this book gave every indication of being a bird book. That's why it was sent to me.
It turns out that Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, has nothing to do with birds. It's a book about writing, a genre I usually avoid. But Fate had brought this book to my doorstep, and so I decided to read it. I ended up reading it twice and expect to dip in it again in times of need. For Anne Lamott understands better than anyone that writers need help and that writing is a deeply unpleasant occupation.
She describes what happens when she sits down to write: "You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again...There are voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed... There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind you have meningitis..."
This woman is uncanny. Just a few moments ago I felt a little pain too, but mine, I thought, might be a brain tumor.
Writers, she goes on to say "want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every form of mental illness> from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout -- the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self- loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation..." Yes, she has put her finger on it. It's that old double whammy of grandiosity and self-loathing that makes writing so unbearable.
It's thrilling to know that all writers go through this in order to produce the smallest crummy thing. There may be one or two exceptions who just love to write, who sit down and can barely wait to start. But Anne Lamott tells you how to deal with the likes of them. Hate them, she advises.
It's not only because she gratifies every writer's deepest and whiniest sense of self pity that I recommend this book to other writers, amateur or professional, without reservation. She also gives some useful tips for overcoming the problems she describes so poignantly.
For grandiosity, Ms. Lamott recommends attacking your job in tiny increments -- short assignments, she calls them -- and then making sure you finish each little part. Finishing things, every writer knows, is the hard part. Take it bird by bird, as Ms. Lamott's father once advised her panic-stricken ten-year-old brother who had a report on birds due the next day and he had not begun it, though he had had the assignment three months.
Her other piece of useful advice has to do with first drafts. Don't be afraid to write atrocious first drafts, she says, though in place of atrocious she uses a word that cannot be printed in this paper. It rhymes with pretty. And she warns that perfectionism is what stands between you and that excremental first draft; avoid it, she exhorts.
I didn't find the rest of her advice all that useful, but that may be because I don't write fiction, and some of her chapters have to do with characters and plot. I still enjoyed reading those sections, however, because they are very funny, and filled with stories about the author herself, her childhood, her family, and her son Sam. She writes so well, in fact, that it's hard to believe that she, too, has trouble with writing. That's what's so deeply comforting about this book.
There was one thing she didn't mention, and it happens to be something that works for me: finding inspiration in the works of others. Inspiration is a curious thing--like the Muse invoked by the Ancients. It can descend from all sorts of places. Sometimes, before I start to work, I am inspired by reading something by a great prose stylist like Joseph Mitchell. And then again, sometimes the Muse is summoned by the words of William Boot: "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole..."
RED-TAILED HAWK IN HARLEM
[published in the Wall Street Journal on 4/
The invitation had gone out to some 90 families living near Central Park's north end: "Have you ever seen a red-tailed hawk in Harlem? You might if you join the Birdwatching Club." It went on to offer free birdwatching walks and activities for parents and children at the Dana Discovery Center, the park's handsome facility at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street. To the great delight of the Central Park Conservancy and the NYC Audubon Society, joint sponsors of the club, more than 50 families signed up.
The first meeting was set for Saturday, January 8. But a few days before, real winter kicked in. Temperatures fell to the teens and 20's. Several inches of snow fell on Friday, concealing a treacherous layer of ice already formed over much of the park's surface. To make matters worse, a wet, sleety rain poured down early on Saturday, coating the snow with another layer of sheer ice. Starr Saphir, a birding professional and one of the club's organizers, slipped and fell on the ice on her way to the meeting. She sprained her ankle and was forced to turn back.
The idea for the club started with Marianne Cramer, the Central Park Conservancy's official Park Planner. The North Woods on the edge of Harlem, filled with bird life but long shunned as too dangerous for family recreation, had undergone extensive reclamation, and the nearby Dana Center hoped to entice neighborhood families to participate in its educational activities. A new convert to birdwatching herself, Ms. Cramer thought: what could be better than a family birdwatching club?
Ms. Cramer called Norman Stotz, past president and present board member of the New York City Audubon Society, and before anyone could say yellow-bellied sapsucker the contributions started pouring in. The Nikon Co. donated 30 pairs of high-quality new binoculars, five Audubon Society members chipped in serviceable used pairs, the Houghton Mifflin Company sent over 20 copies of Roger Tory Peterson's First Guide to Birds. And numbers of expert birders volunteered to introduce parents and children to the joys of avian identification. Everything looked promising for the Birdwatching Club. Until the weather acted up.
Two sessions were planned for the first meeting on Saturday. By 9 a.m, a sizable little congregation of stalwarts had gathered at the upstairs meeting room of the Dana Center. In charge was Murielle Peters-Davis, the young director of Visitor Services for the Central Park Conservancy. Jessica, Belinda and Stamatia, three shiny-eyed young interns from the H.S. of Environmental Studies were there. Andrew Vladeck, a personable Urban Ranger in a Teddy Roosevelt-type uniform was also there. Five members of the board of the New York City Audubon Society were there, including Peter Mott, a science teacher at the Fieldston School. With Ms. Saphir out of commission, he agreed to lead both groups that morning--if anyone showed up, that is. It was a long wait.
At 10:30, just on time for the second session, the first members of the Birdwatching Club arrived at last. Hester, aged about 7 and her Mom, followed shortly thereafter by Michael and Johnathan and another Mom.[On request, Johnathan's name label was corrected to include the first "H"]. The two boys were cousins, and they might have been 7 or 8. They were extremely sharp. When Mr. Mott gave a lesson about binocular usage before distributing the precious instruments, it was Michael, for instance, who explained quite accurately what a fingerprint is. A fingerprint is what the police look for when there's a murder, he declared. A fingerprint is mainly something to keep off the lenses of good binoculars, Mr. Mott added firmly as he handed out a pair to every member of the Birdwatching Club.
"Do we get to keep them?" asked Michael, or maybe it was Johnathan. The answer, that the binoculars were a loan for each meeting of the club, was accepted philosophically
The next arrivals were Edgar, Vanessa, Clara, Danilo, and Marco and a Mom. Finally Naeem. There were now 8 club members and four Moms, one of them, as it happens, Ms. Peters-Davis.
The next 20 minutes were devoted to attaching straps to the little slots on the sides of the binoculars, a task that was quite beyond the capabilities of a number of the adults present, but was performed dexterously by several of the children.
After a first lesson in focusing the binoculars, during which Michael and Johnathan were enlisted to enact flying birds at a distance, the club was ready to take to the outdoors. Everybody restored layers of clothing, and Ms. Peters-Davis temporarily abandoned her role as group chairman to firmly pull a warm cap over Naeem's head. Then the group walked to the edge of the Harlem Meer, a large pond just a few steps from the center's entrance. It was a hazardous journey, because of the ice.
That was to be the extent of the day's expedition, a prudent decision. There all binoculars were trained on the available birds, which, not surprisingly, were starlings and pigeons. When a single blue-jay joined the birds, everybody observed its black "chin-strap". A largish bird sailed by high in the sky and parents, children, interns, and Auduboners pointed their glasses upward to follow its flight. Is that an eagle? asked one of the Junior Birdwatchers. No, it is a gull, answered Mr. Mott.
The charter members of the Birdwatching club were just about to go indoors for hot chocolate, and they looked contented. Even a pigeon or a starling can be a revelation when magnified eight times through an optical lens. Still it must be said that these were not exactly thrill-packed encounters for kids weaned on Brontosaurus Rex or even Big Bird.
At that moment a really big bird sailed into view. Danilo, or maybe it was Marco gave a yell:"Hey, is that an eagle?" Everybody let their binoculars hang around their necks and stared up with their own two eyes. "It's a hawk, a red-tailed hawk!" exclaimed Mr. Mott with quite a little excitement himself.
Hot in pursuit of a flock of pigeons, the huge raptor circled right over the birdwatchers. The pigeons whirled and circled in a panicky cloud. The hawk herded the pigeons like an aerial collie rounding up a flock of unruly sheep. Then the drama moved out of sight to the north, behind a building.
A great teacher seizes the moment, and Mr. Mott proceeded to give a great lesson in birdwatching. He stretched out his arms at his sides as if he were a bird in flight. Holding them there, he held his hands down at the wrist. "That's a gull in flight. The wing tips go down," he said. Now, arms still outstretched,, he lifted his hands at the wrist so that his fingers pointed up and his palms faced outward. "That's a hawk in flight. The wing tips go up." This simple trick served to clear up an area of difficulty for almost everybody there, even some experienced birders. [Check it out.]
Upstairs, as the interns poured hot chocolate and added marshmallows, Mr. Mott asked who was coming back next week. It was no surprise when all hands went up. For the promise had been magnificently fulfilled. Everyone had seen a red-tailed hawk in Harlem.
FROM FAKE TO REAL
[Published in the Wall St. Journal on September 8, 1994, under the headline Central Park and Its Bird-Watchers Go Wild]
When Central Park was created some 150 years ago, its founding fathers never intended any part of it to be a real wilderness. The city of New York was still surrounded by vast tracts of unspoiled woodlands, meadows and marshes. With plenty of wilderness right around the corner, why bring the mess right into one's front yard?
In fact, Central Park was created as a romantic improvement on the wild, a carefully fashioned landscape where city-dwellers could come and enjoy the illusion of wilderness without any of its inconveniences or dangers. With its caves and grottoes and meandering streams that turn on and off with a faucet, Central Park was an early version of a Nature theme park.
Today pristine wilderness is a rare commodity. Indeed, those places where it has not been destroyed by farming or development are in such demand by a nature-famished population that one can hardly see the birds for the tourists. Central Park, in the meanwhile, has been growing wilder.
Over the years raccoons, woodchucks, frogs, turtles, Butterflies, dragonflies, crickets and birds have been infiltrating those man-made woods and bosky glades that Henry James once characterized as "pathetic little efforts of exaggeration and deception". And gradually, through Nature's mysterious alchemy, [and through neglect] the former fake has begun to turn into what Henry James himself might have called the real thing .
Now it's official. In a list featured in the August issue of Travel & Leisure magazine and compiled by the bird expert and author Roger F. Pasquier, New York's 840 acre enclave of green has been designated one of America's 14 great birdwatching locales.
Though Central Park's bird enthusiasts were not completely surprised by the designation, still they were flabbergasted to find their park on the same footing as Yosemite and the Everglades, the Monterey Peninsula, Hawk Mountain, Cape May and other famous birdwatching Meccas included on Mr. Pasquier's list. Why, those are the very places they dream about when they meet at Mugger's Woods or the Swampy Pin-oak or other favorite haunts in the park, to exchange notes on what they have seen that day. These exchanges, by the way, rarely refer to birds as objects of sensory perception, but rather as spoils of conquest. For example: "Did you get the prothonotary warbler?" one birdwatcher might ask another. "No, but did you get the Cerulian, Blackburnian and black-throated green?" the other might parry.
What, in fact, makes Central Park a great place for birdwatching? The obvious answer, and the one most significant for that subset of park birdwatchers who like to make lists, is the sheer numbers of species to be seen in those 840 acres.
During the spring and fall migrations, when the great majority of American birds take to the air and head for breeding grounds up north and then back to southern winter homes, they need stopover places on the way for rest and refueling. Those that find themselves flying over Manhattan Island don't have much choice: Central Park is it, the only green place for miles around. This concentration of a great variety of birds in a small geographic area is called a migrant trap.It leads to exceptional birdwatching.
On May 8, 1993 a team of 13 of the park's most experienced birdwatchers participated in the first official Spring Migration Count for Central Park. They racked up an amazing 100 species of birds. This included 24 different warblers, 5 species of vireos, five kinds of woodpeckers and five varieties of thrushes, [six if you include one of the park's most common birds and a member of the thrush family--the American robin.]
Even without a team effort the numbers can be high. On September 2, 1992, Tom Fiore, one of the park's most talented birder, ranged through the park for 10 hours and tallied 81 species of birds. At the end of the day he transcribed his list into the Bird Register. This is a blue looseleaf binder that resides on a table near the entrance to the Loeb Boat House, right next to the frozen yogurt counter. It is there for everyone to read, and allows any birdwatcher to find out who has seen what and where in the park, and to add a contribution.
Not only does the park attract large numbers of birds. On most days during the spring or fall migrations the wooded areas of the park are swarming with birdwatchers, many of them among America's best. Walking through that wild woodland tangle called The Ramble on a nice day in May or September, you might run into several members of the ornithology department at the American Museum of Natural History. They like to spend their lunch hours warbler watching, a Birdman's Holiday, you could call it. You might even encounter Roger F. Pasquier himself, who lives in New York and watches birds regularly in Central Park.
This concentration of expert birders in a single bird-rich location leads to a phenomenon called the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, named after a rest stop in Patagonia, Arizona, where a rare bird was once discovered. Much to the amazement of the birders who rushed to the spot, three other equally rare birds soon showed up at the same roadside rest area.
Was this a bizarre coincidence? No, a better explanation has become part of birdwatching mythology. Since so many experienced birders congregated at a single spot to look at the first rarity, their sharp eyes and ears spotted other unusual birds lurking in the vicinity.
In Central Park, similarly, the presence of so many crackerjack birdwatchers helps to uncover elusive creatures that might otherwise go undiscovered. Hard-to-locate birds like the Connecticut warbler or the yellow-breasted chat, considered rare species in other locales, are regularly found in Central Park.
Another resource makes Central Park a fulfilling place for visiting bird lovers: the park's regular birdwatchers themselves. At any time of year a visitor is likely to run into one or another of them -- Norma Collin or George Muller or Charles Kennedy or Sharon Freedman, among others. These are men and women who visit the park daily, in heat wave or blizzard, and know exactly what's going on with the park's avian population.
They are a friendly lot, and if you are wearing binoculars, the badge of the bird fraternity, they are likely to take you in hand and steer you to where the action is. "There's a saw whet owl in a Japanese holly just a little ways from here," they will tell you if you give them half a chance. Many other places have abundant bird populations. But few make their birds so accessible.
Yet the greatness of Central Park has another, deeper, source: the very idea that a bit of real wilderness can exist and thrive in the middle of a city like New York.
It seems remarkable that a pair of wood thrushes, a diminishing species in America, birds of deep woods and sylvan glades, should have chosen to build a nest and raise a family in a cherry sapling in Central Park's Ramble, as they did last June. There I and other birdwatchers had the opportunity to really watch them living their parallel lives day after day -- to watch, and to listen to their enchanting song.
On June 22, 1853, when Central Park was still a plan on paper, Henry David Thoreau heard a wood thrush singing as he took his evening walk on Fair Haven Hill, near Walden. He described the experience in his journal:
"This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring...." He went on a bit more and then concluded "I long for wildness...woods where the wood thrush forever sings."
Last spring and summer a wood thrush gave regular concerts in Central Park. And numbers of city people passing through stopped and listened to its penetrating, flute-like song: Ee-oh-lee, Ee-oh- loo-ee-lee. Surely they marveled to hear the song in the heart of a city, and surely its beauty and wildness lifted their spirits as it did my own.
[Wall St. Journal book review of The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall
In her superb new book The Hidden Life of Dogs, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas presents a long-overdue defense of anthropomorphism. As she demonstrates convincingly again and again, animals do have thoughts and emotions comparable in some ways to our own. And why should this not be so? Evolutionary evidence shows that all human characteristics with survival value have predecessors in the phylogenetic past. Clearly such supremely valuable human properties as reasoning ability and emotional complexity did not spring forth fully evolved, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. The notion that only humans think and feel, as Marshall points out, is a relic of creationism harking back to the Victorian era.
Marshall establishes that not only do dogs reason, they even engage in their own form of anthropomorphism . She dubs it cynomorphism, from the Greek kunikos, meaning doglike, a root from which the word cynical also derives. An example of cynomorphism has been observed by dog owners whose usually amiable pet snarls at them in defense of some slimy, dirt-encrusted bone. Obviously the dog assumes that the human will find the revolting object as desirable as another dog might do. Here the animal is ascribing dog values to humans, just as humans often interpret dog behavior by their own standards. The dog is wrong, in this case, just as an anthropoorphizing human often proves to be barking up the wrong tree, as it were, and for identical reasons: both base their comparison on an incomplete understanding of the species being compared.
When people anthropomorphize about a different class of animals entirely, such as birds, they are even more likely to make faulty comparisons. Marshall provides a telling example: a psychiatrist of her acquaintance saw a bird fly into a picture window and fall to earth, whereupon a second bird swooped down, picked up the fallen bird and flew off with it. The psychiatrist promptly concluded that the second bird was a male and the mate of the first, presuming further that the faithful partner had arrived to rescue his loved one and carry her off to safety.
I hope the doctor is more astute about human motivations. For his anthropomorphic conclusion is faulty, as any birdwatcher worth his scope could have told him. Birds [apart from certain waterfowl] do not carry each other to safety under any circumstances. Indeed, there is only one reasonable explanation for the scene the doctor describes. The swooping bird was a predator taking advantage of the first bird's accident to seize it as prey.
One can cross the boundaries of taxonomical class in the other direction, and assign bird-like characteristics, values or behaviors to homo sapiens. Ornithomorphism, as this sort of comparison might be called, is not all that uncommon. Like anthropomorphism, it is sometimes apt and sometimes far off the mark, depending on how closely it conforms to bird realities. Here are some common examples:
Eats like a bird. This always refers to the modesty of
someone's appetite, therefore implying that birds eat small
quantities of food. This, of course, is wildly incorrect. Though a
hummingbird may only consume half an ounce of combined insects and
nectar in a day, this actually constitutes more than twice the bird's
total weight-- the equivalent of a hundred-fifty pound man taking in
three hundred pounds of food daily. Though people are likely to be
thinking of small birds when they refer to a bird-like appetite, the
comparison may be slightly more apt in the case of really large
birds. An eagle eating two pounds of meat a day is only consuming a
quarter of his body's weight. But that would be 37 1/
To feather the nest. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition [another superb book, just published] this phrase means "to grow wealthy by taking advantage of one's position..." Numbers of birds, mainly ducks, grebes and waterfowl, but also some perching birds and birds of prey, do indeed feather their nests with down they pluck from their own breast. The down helps to insulate the birds' nest, as it does countless human jackets and quilts. But insulation is not the main advantage that accrues from the feathered nest. The area of skin that has been plucked bare, known as the brood patch, serves to facilitate heat flow from the incubating parent to the eggs, thereby increasing the odds of successful hatching. A bird who has thus feathered his or her nest [both sexes may have a brood patch and share in incubating duties] has certainly taken advantage of its position to increase its wealth, which for birds mainly resides in healthy fledglings.
Nest egg. The phrase denotes a sum of money set aside as a reserve fund, or, more broadly, an accumulation of wealth. This, according to the same reference book, derives from "an artificial or natural egg placed in a nest to induce a bird to continue to lay eggs in that place." In fact, generally it is the removal of laid eggs from a nest, rather than the addition of an artificial one, that will induce a bird to continue laying a larger wealth of eggs than she might normally produce. A Northern flicker, one of the most common members of the woodpecker family, lays three to six eggs before beginning to incubate. But according to Arthur Cleveland Bent's classic "Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers" a certain Charles L. Phillips induced a nesting flicker to lay 71 eggs in 73 days by removing one egg from the nest each day. Furthermore, studies of Black-Headed gulls have demonstrated that the introduction of a wooden "nest egg" into the nest at the very start of the nesting period will often prevent the development of eggs altogether, as in that particular species the process of incubation itself serves to shut down the birds ovaries and prevent egg production.
Bird brain. The words do not flatter the intellect of the one thus described, and clearly insinuate that birds are not very smart. Christopher Leahy, the author of "The Birdwatcher's Companion" seems to agree when he writes "If we define intelligence as the ability to understand, reason, to make deductions from apparent facts, to use symbols and to deal with abstractions, it is very clear that birds have none at all."
Still, there are experts who think otherwise. "It appears that birds are more capable of learning and reasoning than has been assumed and that they are, in fact, in the same intellectual league as most mammals," write Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin and Darryl Wheye, the authors of that highly useful collection of facts about North American birds, "The Birder's Handbook."
To support their claim they cite titmice in Great Britain learning to dip into milk bottles left on doorsteps, kestrels following slow trains in Mexico to catch small birds disturbed by the trains' passage, and laboratory experiments showing that caged blue jays who try to eat a distasteful Monarch butterfly quickly learn to avoid any insect with a Monarch's orange and black coloring. Indeed, jays in adjacent cages who merely observed their fellow birds' gustatory displeasure also learned to avoid the unpalatable butterflies. That's reasoning. The authors provide many other astonishing examples of bird intelligence including pigeons who learned to get at a banana hung too high for them to reach by pushing a box under the fruit, hopping up on it and pecking away.
Ornithomorphizing occurs most frequently, and, perhaps, most appropriately in the area of human home and family life. People often refer to their homes as nests, talk about indulging their nesting instincts, refer to their children as nestlings and, eventually, bemoan, [or celebrate] their status as empty nesters. These comparisons, to be sure, may be based on an element of wishful thinking. Birds are brilliant architects and home decorators, as anyone who has watched a Northern Oriole or a red-eyed vireo in the process of construction will confirm. They are also brave and resourceful parents: a small kingbird will attack an eagle who has trespassed its nesting territory. Birds are inspiring in their tenacious attentiveness to their young: according to the Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, the average nestling feeding rate for a wide variety of small songbirds is 4-12 meals per hour. Inspiring, too, is the fact that in the avian kingdom males and females almost always share in the care and feeding of their young. Surely such admirable traits are not merely "for the birds".
ABOUT THOSE DUCKS, HOLDEN
[Published in the Wall St. Journal on 14 March 1994 and in Chapter I of Red-Tails in Love]
Dear Holden Caulfield,
I know it’s probably too late and you don't give a damn about such things any more -- you're probably in some crummy retirement community in Florida or Arizona or somewhere, for crying out loud. Here's how I figure it: in 1945, when your author, J.D. Salinger, published the first story about you in Collier's Magazine, you were a Junior in High School. So you're probably getting Social Security by now.
But all through Catcher in the Rye you kept asking a question, a really good question, and nobody ever gave you an answer. It was pathetic. I mean, you really wanted some information, and in Chapter 12 all Horwitz the taxi driver would say was "How the hell should I know?" No wonder you ended up in a loony bin in the last chapter. I hope I'm not giving away any secrets or anything, but Catcher's been out for a long time and I guess most people know how it ends by now.
You remember your question --the one about the ducks in Central Park. You kept asking what happens to those ducks when all the lakes freeze over. You were real worried about them. You wondered whether some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. It showed that you were a sensitive kid, Holden, it really did, you caring about the ducks and everything. I mean, most people just don't give a damn about the animals in the park and all.
Well, all these years I've kind of wondered about your question myself. But not very hard. Because things have changed since the 1940's or 50's when you were getting kicked out of that phony prep school and meeting old Sally Hayes under the clock at the Biltmore. Would you believe it, Holden, that clock isn't there any more. They've taken down the whole damn hotel, for chrissake!
But that's not what I mean when I say that things have changed . I mean that it hasn't been so cold these winters.
I remember Central Park in the 40's and 50's. In those days it got really cold in January or February. Kids used to actually ice skate on the old rowboat lake. Like me and my sister old Janet used to skate there all the time, and so did a lot of other people. Of course we didn't have much choice if we wanted to skate because they didn't have any skating rinks in the park in those days. There was only the rink at Rockefeller Center, and that one was too expensive. Besides, all the girls there had these little skating dresses with white fur at the hem and sleeves. I didn't have one.
In those days, I'm sorry to tell you, Holden, I didn't worry about the ducks like you did -- I honestly never gave the ducks a single thought. I don't know what was wrong with me. Something, I guess, because I never got kicked out of school, either.
By the time I grew up and began to care about ducks and stuff like you did, the winters stopped being so cold. I don't know why, exactly, maybe the greenhouse effect or whatever. But it's the truth. The lakes in Central Park hardly ever froze over during the last few decades, not solidly so you could skate on them, and not all over so anybody had to worry about the ducks.
But recently I've been thinking about you a lot, Holden. Really I have. Because this has been one unbelievably cold winter. I mean it's been really cold. All the lakes and even the Reservoir in Central Park have frozen solid. People are skating on the rowboat lake, for chrissake, and I haven't seen anybody do that for about 500 years, not since I was a little girl. So your question began to really bother me.
And guess what, Holden, I actually found out what happens to the ducks in Central Park when everything freezes over. And I can tell you that nobody comes with a truck and takes them away to the zoo or anything. No, there's another answer.
My friend Bill DeGraphenreid figured it out. He's this nice dark-skinned guy with a big shock of white hair who feeds the ducks all year. I mean he really cares about the ducks and he brings them huge amounts of food all the time. And imagine this: he actually knows those ducks. I'm not kidding, it's absolutely amazing. There's this one female mallard he calls Missy, and there's all Missy's children -- she had eight ducklings last spring – and there's Missy's sister who was slightly crippled from getting tangled in fishing line. Her name is also Missy. When he calls "Missy, Missy!" one of the two Missys always comes.
Anyhow, when all the lakes froze this year Bill got real worried about the ducks. So he looked all over the park for them. Finally he found them. All of them. Hundreds of ducks, including Missy and Missy's sister, Missy. They were all in a secret place, just about the only place in all of Central Park that hadn't frozen over, because there's an actual natural spring that runs into it, while all the other streams in the park turn on and off with a faucet, for chrissake.
So Bill's been going there just about every day with heaps of food for Missy I and Missy II and all the other ducks even though the roads in the park have been horribly icy and besides, he has this painful foot condition called spurs that makes it hard to walk.
So Holden, I'm going to tell you how to find the secret place where the Central Park ducks go when all the lakes are frozen over. Do you know where Balcony Bridge is? It's this structure that’s actually a part of the West Drive, somewhere around 77th Street. If you stand on its east side you get a fantastic view of the rowboat lake and the Central Park South and Fifth Avenue skylines. From its west side you're facing the Museum of Natural History.
Well, all the ducks are down there under old Balcony Bridge. Nobody hardly notices them but if you stand there facing Fifth Avenue and throw down a lot of bread you'll see them all right. They'll all come out and push and shove and gobble up every crumb. You should come and do it, Holden. It'll make you so damn happy it'll just about kill you. It really will.
Off-leash dog- an intractible problem may be solved
CENTRAL PARK: A GOOD PLACE FOR A COYOTE?
[This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on April 8, 1999]
Last Thursday one of the weirdest visitors ever showed up in Central Park. You may have seen him on the news that evening or on the front page of the New York Times the following morning. The color photo by Dith Pran reveals a man dressed in protective clothing who is cowering in the background while a few steps away, leaping gracefully over some clumps of grass, his mouth gaping, ears erect, bushy tail between his legs, is a large,furry, brownish grey canid. A coyote.
A surprising variety of creatures -- raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels, mice, rats, 5 species of turtles, at least 6 kinds of fish, and 22 species of birds are year-round residents of Central Park. A far greater number are tourists, among them 4 kinds of bats and some 170 species of birds. They pay regular visits, but for perfectly good reasons having to do with food supply they wouldn't want to live here.
Occasionally, some wildly unexpected creatures show up. A few years ago a South American gull whose northernmost boundary is Lima, Peru stopped in at the little water body near 5th Ave and 59th Street officially called The Pond.[It turned out that the bird had come from the Bronx Zoo where an outdoor aviary had collapsed.]
Only last week  a flock of 17 big green and red parrots were seen swooping around the park, flying in formation like planes at an air show. They have been identified as Mitred Conures,[Aratinga mitrata] a species that usually resides in the mountains of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru. This particular flock seems to have permanently relocated, and spends its winters in the vicinity of Rosedale, Queens.
How did a coyote find its way into Central Park? Once a resident of the American West, Canis Latrans [the species name means "barking dog"] has dramatically expanded its range and may now be found throughout the northeastern states.] An animal with a deeply ingrained fear of humans might conceivably have come down from the wilds of Westchester, where coyotes have been sighted.. It could have skulked from green patch to green patch through the wilds of the Bronx, swam across the Harlem River into Inwood Park and then Riverside Park on Manhattan's wild west side. But how on earth did he get from there to Central Park with no connecting strip of green? Crosstown bus?
Unlike the gull or the parrots or just about any of the park's exotic visitors of the past, the latest rarity was not exactly given a warm welcome. Before the birders' grapevine could notify the park's tightly knit nature community of the thrilling arrival, a posse of policemen, park workers, public officials, and news reporters commenced to hunt the coyote down. And although he was finally captured, in the process he proved to be just as wily as his famous cartoon prototype
Regina Alvarez, a Section Supervisor for the Central Park Conservancy, was one of the many participants in Central Park's first Coyote Hunt. A personable young woman with a genuine interest in wildlife, Ms. Alvarez often acts as a liaison between the park's powers-that-be that might see a dead branch as an eyesore to be removed and its vigilant community of regular birdwatchers who regard it as a potential home for a woodpecker.
"We had heard rumors earlier about a coyote in the park, but nobody was sure whether it was an April Fool joke," Ms. Alvarez relates. "At about 10:40 a.m. I heard one of the guys who works at the Castle reporting on the walkie-talkie that he'd just spotted the coyote at the Marionette theater. I dropped everything, got into my golf cart and scooted across the Great Lawn. "When I reached the Delacorte bathrooms I heard on the radio that the coyote was heading for the Ramble. That animal was so fast! As soon as somebody said 'He's at the Castle' somebody else said 'No, he's here at Bow Bridge,' and then 'No, he's at Balto," and then 'No, he's at the Hallett Sanctuary.' The coyote got from the Castle to Hallett in less than 2 minutes."
The Sanctuary is an enclosed nature preserve on the west side of The Pond. By the time Ms. Alvarez got there a large number of people had already gathered: At least 25 police officers from the Emergency Service Unit were there. They were filling their dart guns with Ketamine HCl, a widely used veterinary tranquilizer.
Neil Calvanese, Central Park's Chief of Operations, and its preeminent tree expert was there, together with Dennis Burton, the park's Woodland's Manager. Also people from the Parks Dep't, from the ASPCA and the Center for Animal Care and Control. Commissioner Stern was there. So was the Borough Commissioner, some deputy commissioners, and lots and lots of reporters.
The coyote had been seen entering the Sanctuary through a hole in the fence on the west side. When Ms Alvarez arrived she saw Van Thon, another Supervisor, closing up the hole.
Ms. Alvarez continued her narrative: " Maria and Russell--she's the Great Lawn Manager and he's the Turf Care Supervisor for the park--and I were told to spread out around the sanctuary and tell on the radio when we see the coyote. Neil and the commissioner and the guys with the darts went inside the sanctuary.
"Then I saw him --a beautiful, big, healthy animal. Really big. When he saw they were chasing him he did the smart thing -- went right back to the hole he had gotten in through. But he saw they had closed it. So he kept running.
"You could tell that nobody there knew how to hunt down a coyote. Every time the animal appeared everybody made so much noise that they'd scare him off. The animal was basically going around in circles, but they kept waiting in these odd spots where they couldn't get a good angle.
"The whole thing was so exciting because this never happens in the park, and it was exciting to see a kind of animal I'd never seen before. But I also felt terrible. He was just trying to live. They weren't trying to kill him, but I still felt awful. I actually think everybody was sort of rooting for the coyote. We couldn't help being impressed that it took so many people to catch one animal.
"Then I heard that he'd escaped, got out of the sanctuary. Unbelievable. He emerged on the south east side of the sanctuary and began swimming! I think that's when they darted him. But still he managed to get by the big crowd standing there, and he began running north along the East Drive. He made it all the way to the Rumsey Playfield. Then the drug really began to take effect. "But even after a circle of policemen surrounded him, he still resisted for quite a while. Finally they subdued him and strapped him on a stretcher. They took him away and that was it."
The coyote was taken to the Bronx Zoo's Wildlife Health Center where he will remain until further notice. James Doherty, the zoo's General Curator was most welcoming. "I'm delighted to know there's a coyote in New York City. It add to the richness of a place. The city is big enough to have raccoons and woodchucks and coyotes -- a great variety of animal life.
In a phone interview on Tuesday Mr. Doherty reported on the condition of the Central Park coyote. "The animal is a young male and weighs 35 pounds. He looks to be in very good condition.Nice teeth, good flesh. No broken bones. No erratic behavior that might indicate rabies.
"Ideally he'd be reintroduced into some wilderness area upstate. But most of those regions already have a coyote population and wouldn't accept him. He needs a good place with no other coyotes. The difficulty is finding such a place."
All at once I thought of a place that might serve the bill perfectly, a place with no coyotes, God knows, and a place, moreover, where the coyote would serve a useful function: Central Park itself.
The park's most intractable problem happens to be unleashed dogs. Though it is illegal to let a dog run unrestrained in Central Park, the rule is broken rampantly and, in the early morning hours, with the tacit approval of the Parks Department. Meanwhile, the great numbers of dogs running free wreak considerable damage on the park's turf and plantings. Unleashed dogs also pose a threat to the park's wildlife. Two weeks ago an unleashed dog killed a male pheasant that was the new mate of a female that had lived near the Conservatory Garden in lonely splendor for the past two years. The new pair had just been about to start a family.
When asked how a coyote might survive in Central Park the zoo's Mr. Doherty answered: "Coyotes avoid people. There'd be no reason for people to worry on their own account. He would probably eat squirrels and rats and possibly stray cats. He'd probably get dogs that were off the leash. But it would be unlikely to attack a dog on a leash with a human at the other end..."
THE BARRED OF THE BARRIO
[published in the Wall Street Journal on January 2, 1996 under the headline Rare Bird Roosts in East Harlem Project]
The first to discover the Barrio owl, as it came to be called, was 9-year-old Brandon Shackelford. He lived in the James Weldon Johnson Houses on 112th St.and Lexington Ave, smack in the middle of East Harlem. The neighborhood is sometimes called El Barrio [The District] because that’s what its large Hispanic population calls it.
The Shackelfords' third-floor apartment, one of 1307 units in the project,faces a spacious courtyard containing pathways, play equipment and quite a few mature trees. Brandon was about to leave for Boy Scouts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, December 2, when he happened to look out the window. Wow! There was an owl sitting in the tree just outside his window. It was huge! Every other tree in the plaza was bare, but this one, a red oak, was still full of leaves, which was undoubtedly why the bird had chosen it for his daytime roost.
A little after sunset that evening, Brandon, his sister Tawanna and his mother, Stephanie Shackelford, saw the bird fly off for its night hunting, languidly flapping its long, long, bat-like wings. Double wow! The next morning they saw that it sitting in the same tree again. It was asleep.
On Monday Brandon, a third grader at a local parochial school, told his teacher about the owl. Brandon must have been persuasive, for the teacher strolled over to have a look at the courtyard during his lunch break. He called the New York City Audubon Society the minute he returned . “There’s a large bird, I think it’s an owl, in a housing project on Lexington Avenue and 112th Street,” he told them.
Word of the Barrio owl spread among birders by means of an efficient and long established telephone grapevine. The first contingent arrived later that day and had little trouble finding the owl. It was sitting in the only tree with leaves, just as the caller had said.
And what an owl. Only two Eastern owls have dark eyes and only one has neck feathers that resemble a heckered or barred muffler. It was a Barred Owl, a large, nocturnal bird of prey noted for its spine-tingling vocal repertoire – screams, monkeylike laughter and a characteristic love song often transliterated as “Whoo cooks for you? Whoo cooks for you all.” This one, however was silent. It was asleep.
Two species of owl, Long-eared and Saw-whet, show up in Central Park regularly. That year the park had been experiencing an extraordinary influx of the saw-whet owl, a tiny yellow-eyed bird frequently nicknamed "Little Adorable." Instead of the usual one or two sightings, there had been more than 25. In fact saw-whets had been popping up all over the city that year, including one discovered sleeping on a Christmas tree for sale on Broadway and 79th Street. A Barred owl had not been seen in Central Park for decades.
On Wednesday, December 6, a delegation of park regulars -- Tom Fiore, Rebekah Creshkoff and I --arrived at the owl tree just before sunrise, but only to find we were not the first. John Suggs, a high school math teacher, gave us a thumbs-up sign and left for work.
As small crowds of birdwatchers arrived steadily all that day, project dwellers took notice --the newcomers were as conspicuous as Westerners in China. Many passers-by looked up and became instant owl-watchers. By 4 pm there was quite a congregation of birdwatchers and project residents ---about equal numbers of each-- gathered around the owl tree.
Some of the birdwatchers were uneasy about the safety of their binoculars in this tough neighborhood. But part of the pleasure of the sport is letting others in on the show. Before long the pricey Bausch & Lomb Elites and Leica Trinovids were being passed around the crowd as usual. As the project residents uttered exclamations of admiration and wonder at the owl's fine details revealed by superb optical equipment, the birdwatchers felt unusually gratified, and just a little sheepish for having worried.
Some of the residents were uneasy too, but mainly about the owl. "Does it bite people?" asked one of an over-excited group of boys aged between 11 and 17 whose names were Robert Crump, Cahiem Harris, Jon Rodriguez, Sadane Parsons, Brian Figueroa, Tyrone Boggs, Brandon Cleckley, Nequan Glover, Anthony Tucker, and Jose Diaz. [I promised to include their names in my article if they'd stop throwing things at the owl].
Besides sharing their optical equipment, the birdwatchers shared information about owls and their habits with the other spectators -- there's nothing birdwatchers like better than to share bird knowledge. The residents seemed more interested than most, which led to a heightened feeling of camaraderie among the owl-watchers.
Quite a few local residents were anxious about the bird's well-being. Victoria Berrios, who was born and raised in the project, looked up at the bird and said anxiously, "That bird looks lost and hungry. Maybe we should call the ASPCA." She was relieved when Charles Kennedy, a wildlife photographer and a daily Central Park birdwatcher explained that the owl was probably feasting on the local rodent population. "I hope he gets plenty of food in his belly so he won't go anywhere else," Ms. Berrios declared, "We have plenty of wildlife around here, but only the kind with two feet."
Yet the story behind the Barrio owl was not as auspicious as the birdwatchers assumed. A call to Julio de la Torre, then president of the New York Linnaean Society, and author of "Owls--Their Life and Behavior" placed the owl's visit to an East Harlem housing project in a grave perspective.
"I'm not surprised to hear about a Barred Owl in the city," said Mr. de la Torre. "Owls are being discovered in unusual places throughout the Northeast. Bears are walking into supermarkets in major urban centers along the Canadian border. In fact, we are in the midst of the most extraordinary mass movement of birds and other wildlife that I have ever encountered."
As Mr. de la Torre explained, recent climatological factors -- the absence of snowfall and a severe drought the previous year--- had led to a near-total failure of virtually every major food item consumed by seed-eating and fruit-eating creatures from Labrador to North Carolina.
" There are no seeds, so the seed-eaters at the bottom of the pyramid, mice and voles and shrews, are starving. Consequently the larger creatures that prey on them, the raptors, are fleeing starvation too. Under normal circumstances Barred Owls do not frequent built up areas. When you see these birds in an urban environment, you know that the pickings are bad out in the forest."
"What do you think this owl is catching when it hunts in the Barrio," I asked. "Would it be eating rats?"
" It might if its hungry enough," answered Mr. de la Torre. "A Barred Owl will typically leave a Norway rat alone. And city rats are notoriously ferocious, so if that's what the Barrio owl is eating, well, that's an owl 'con cojones'. For a family newspaper you might want to translate that as an owl with real guts."
Shale Brownstein, a psychiatrist only recently afflicted with ornithomania, observed the Barrio owl at 7 a.m on Friday, December 8, as it slept in its usual tree. Dr. Brownstein was one of the last owl-watchers to enjoy a look at the beautiful bird. By the next day it was gone. ### Postscript: I took two owl pellets containing the bones of the Barrio owl's prey to the American Museum of Natural History for analysis. With the help of mammalogist Clare Flemming and ornithologist Paul Sweet I learned that our owl was taking advantage of its urban resources in a way requiring fewer cojones than Mr. de la Torre imagined: there were no rodent bones in the pellet, only avian remains, mainly those of Columba livia, a bird that appears in field guides as the Rock Dove, but is universally called by its vernacular name--the pigeon.