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Owl Lands on Central Park Birders

Notes from Robert DeCandido (PhD), who gives tours in Central Park as Birding Bob.

We have again added two Eastern Screech-owl walks in Central Park this week. Both walks will meet at the North End, since we had very good luck there with owls and bats. In fact, in one unbelievable moment, the most amazing thing, ever (ever) happened on a Bob owl walk:

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was playing the owl tape via the Ipod for a few people when an owl swooped in and landed on Tom Walsh’s hand. His son Jack was finally impressed – and I am finally absolved of running the most boring bird (and owl) walks of all time!

Further details about the owls we saw last week (including Great Horned Owls) are provided below. We also include a New York Times article from June 1934 about a “savage” screech-owl that was attacking people in Douglaston, Queens – and an excerpt from Sam Yeaton about screech-owls in Queens covering the 1919-1945 time frame.

Bird Walk Info
Bird walks for this week ($5):

1. Thursday 7:30, Aug. 13: Owls and Bats of Central Park (The North Woods) – meet at 5th Ave and 106th street
2. Friday, Aug. 14: Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Ave.) at 9am.
3. Sunday, Aug. 16: 9:00 amTurtle Pond Dock.
4. Sunday 7:30 pm, Aug. 16 $5. Owls and Bats of Central Park (The North Woods)

In the last week of August, we will add some trips to the Empire State Building at night. Why? We just received this report from Sandra Critelli: (night of August 11th) – Hi Bob! I wanted to tell you that last night I went to the Empire SB to take my friend from Italy and it was a good night for birds, at least the little time I was there. I counted 29 birds flying mostly low, a little higher than the deck, small to medium (robin) sized birds. All between 8.30pm and 9.25pm when I had to leave unfortunately (I was enjoying the birds). And at 8.50 I saw a flock of approximately 25 little birds flying south and at eye level. And numerous moths low and high. And too many Italian tourists out there!!! Goodnight Sandra

Here is what we saw last week (selected highlights) with some anecdotal notes and observations. Not all species we saw are reported here – we list the best:

Owl and Bat Walks (three walks) Summary – the burning question of the week was, “Where is David Mills?” David, who is back in England with his lovely wife Geraldine, took control of the bat portion of our walks last year with the aplomb of a general. In a recent email, he wrote, “Education, education! Far more people die of bee stings or dog rabies (or get struck by lightening) in the US every year then get bat rabies, so people should not worry too much. More people get dog rabies in a year than they do in 10 years with bats but do people go “all protective” and scared when seeing dogs in Central Park?
In comparison with most people’s views about bats, they should!! Bats do not make nests, or enlarge holes, or chew wires etc in houses as they just hang up etc in caves, trees, bridges & houses. Do let me know if you have any questions on bats or pass my email (see above) to anyone with a question to answer that you can’t. And tell them to raise a glass to bats when they enjoy a margarita as “no bats – no tequila” (only bats pollinate the Blue Agave plant).”
OK we had great luck with Red Bats on both walks in Central Park – the north woods were filled with them hunting along the paved path and making us duck as they swooped in and about our heads. As for owls – in the north woods we brought in two Eastern Screech-owls (email me if you want info about their history in Central Park and NYC), but had no luck with owls on the Ramble night walk. (So this week we are only doing North End owl/bat walks.) And in the Bronx (Pelham Bay Park) at the Bartow-Pell Mansion after a NYC owl slide talk, we went outside and called in not one, but two! Great Horned Owls. Bob was even impressed.


Queens Vigilantes Hunt Savage Bird(New York Times 18 June 1934; Page 19)

Patrol Douglaston with Rakes and Clubs for Creature that Attacked Passerby

Woman’s Face is Gashed

Five Other Victims Reported – Dr. Blair Suspects Screech-owl is ‘Protecting’ Nest

A vigilante committee formed to hunt down a savage night bird that had attacked at least five persons along 241st Street Douglaston [Queens], within the last five nights [June 1934], patrolled the vicinity for at least five hours last night without catching a glimpse of the marauder.

Just before the vigilantes turned out, the mysterious bird – which is believed to be a screech-owl – chalked up his sixth victim. He was Charles Taylor, a student at New York University. Taylor reported that the bird struck him while he was crossing the lawn to his home. He ducked and the bird skimmed past his head.

The bird’s other victims, all neighbors on 241st street in the Douglaston Park sector, were Arthur L. Stemler of Bancamerica Blair; Russell cardigan, a stock broker; Mrs. Earl R. Evans, 23 year-old housewife; Peggy Noone, 13 year-old daughter of John B. Noone, assistant treasurer of Standard Brands; and William MacDonald.

The Vigilantes Set Out
The vigilantes, about twenty strong, assembled at Mr. Cardigan’s home before nightfall. They were armed with lawn rakes, rug beaters, tennis racquets, an assortment of clubs, and even one bayonet and one rusty machete, souvenir of the Cuban insurrection. Henry M. Ferguson, a bank engineer, wore a Prussian helmet. Earl Trangmar, director of marketing research for Metropolitan Life, had another steel hat and carried the machete.

Up and down the street they marched, using unarmed decoys to lead the way, while the rake or strong-armed men carried up the rear. Joseph Spiro, owner of Douglaston’s taxi fleet, hooted at intervals. Once, his imitation was so realistic that a vigilante swatted him with a tennis racquet.

Mosquitos came and went, leaving their mark on the vigilantes. A group of youngsters strolled by chanting, “Who’s afraid of the big bad bird?” Wives hooted from suburban doorways. Patrolman George Ludwig was summoned by a grouchy neighbor to drive the rowdies away. And there wasn’t a chip out of the man-eating bird, not a single hoot, even of derision.

Finally the vigilantes broke up. Their wives and unsympathetic friends saw that they got their bird – but not the one they were seeking. Their initial defeat did not, however, change their stories of the savagery of the feathered attacker.

All six attacks were on Snell Boulevard and Rushmore Avenue. The heavy foliage of the Maple trees on both sides of the street hides the marauder by day, and at night serves as a leafy ambuscade, whence at any moment, a winged fury with blazing eyes and nerve-shattering screech may drop upon an unprotected head.

Mr. Stemler was the first to have an encounter with the “Douglaston Devil.” The next vic
tim was Mr. Cardigan. When he told his story the next day to commuters, they joked about it so mercilessly that he determined to capture the bird. He is the organizer of the vigilantes.

Mrs. Evans was attacked shortly before midnight, Saturday. She and her brother, Mr. Tyrell, had gone for a walk. Hardly had they left their home at 46-54 241st Street, when the bird flew down. They beat it of but it returned to the attack. It flew at them five times and then disappeared.

What the Bird is Like
“I could not see the bird clearly at all,” Mrs. Evans said. “It seemed dark and had a wingspan of about sixteen inches. It kept flapping its wings in my face and shrieking and trying to get at my eyes.”

Other persons in the neighborhood could add little to that description except that the bird seemed soft and furry.

Dr. W. Reid Blair, curator of the Bronx Zoo, said he believed the nightbird would prove to be a screech-owl with a nest in the vicinity.
============================“The common nester in our streets and backyards was the [eastern] screech-owl. In 1919, people in Flushing [Queens] were familiar with owls (Barn, Long-eared, and Screech), and no one disturbed the screech-owls. For example, there was one in a hole in a maple about twelve feet above the ground on the corner of Sanford Avenue and Kissena Boulevard in front of St. Joseph’s Home, and a sign nailed to the tree called it to the attention of all passersby and said, “Please do not disturb this owl.” Squirrels on the other hand were rare. A friend of mine, seeing a squirrel in his neighborhood, made a house and nailed it to a tree in his backyard. Immediately, he got a screech-owl that lived there for many years. A screech-owl also lays four eggs in a well-protected hollow tree and usually fledges all four, much less subject to predation than baby Robins…. However in 1919, screech-owls, while perhaps not abundant, were actually plentiful. And this was for many years. I remember one Christmas Count after World War II when Frank and Norton Smithe counted 13 screech-owls in Douglaston alone. There were many more red-morph than gray-morph owls, but both were present. I have a photo I took in 1924 of Harrison Skeuse holding a gray-morph screech-owl, but both were present. These were taken out of two holes in two adjacent apple trees at the south end of the gully at Oakland Lake.” Sam Yeaton (1988). Early Northeastern Queens. Reprinted from the Queens County Bird Club publication “News & Notes” for the years 1990–91.

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