Dogs Don't Eat Warblers--in Prospect Park or Anywhere

Warbler Flavored MilkbonesBrooklyn is the epicenter of a one-sided feud between birders and dog people. In the City Room blog Emily Rueb recently chronicled the grievances of the Brooklyn Bird Club against dog people in Prospect Park. Dog people generally feel like they’re big, friendly, goofy Labrador retrievers getting scolded for something they didn’t do.

Ms. Rueb never quite articulated the position of dog people of the park, so let me try. I’m a birder and dog person. If I could say one thing to birders in the park, it’s this: dogs don’t chase birds and birds know that.

Tracker Jon Young explains this in his recent “What the Robin Knows.” He can figure out what animal is chasing a bird by seeing how far and in which direction the bird flees. That’s because birds don’t flee more than is absolutely necessary–they can’t afford the wasted energy.

“The towhee, the catbird, the robin–all your local birds–know the difference between the housecast seriously on the prowl and the housecat simply walking home,” Young writes. “The birds easily pick up the difference in body language between the furtive cat and the rambunctious, definitely bothersome, but relatively clueless and harmless dog…One of those animals habitually hunts and kills birds; the other doesn’t. Taking into account the evolutionary pressures exerted down through the ages, the resulting instincts, the baseline issues and energy conservation, how could the robin not know the difference?”


The Brooklyn Bird Club put up deliberately misleading signs throughout Prospect Park trying to keep all dogs out of wooded areas.

The Brooklyn Bird Club put up deliberately misleading signs throughout Prospect Park trying to keep all dogs out of wooded areas.

Also, birders, please stop using the excuse of ground nesting birds. What birds are you talking about? It’s not like piping plovers are nesting at the boathouse.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, six species in the east are potential ground breeders, but none of them exclusively and all classified as of “least concern” by the IUCN red list. Two, the robin and mourning dove,  even basic birder like me know, almost always nest about eye level or higher. Neither the junco nor towhee are in Prospect Park during breeding season, according to the data on ebird. The song sparrow rarely summers in the park. That leaves the brown thrasher, which only occasionally nests on the ground.

Part of the defiance of dog owners stems from the silly strategy used to enforce park rules. If there is a problem with dogs bothering birds in the woods during migration or breeding, then that’s where signs and enforcement should be. Instead, police flash their lights and sirens on the meadows at 9:02 a.m. in the winter when there is not another soul around. That’s like pulling someone over for going 55.5. That’s the easiest way to enforce the rules, but also the least helpful.

I’m trying to follow the rules and I always feel like I might get busted for a mistake. I didn’t even drop–let alone unhook–the leash with my two beagles for our first year in the park. They never go out of sight, nevermind offleash in the woods. Like most dog owners, I don’t do it because it’s dangerous for dogs. Park workers have yelled at me attaching the leash to something while I go to throw out a poop bag. I’ve had birders lecture me on rules I wasn’t breaking. Birders who glare at me just because I have a dog–on leash, mind you–are not improving their image as misanthropes.

The park is a shared space and dog people have to follow the rules. But I can’t be responsible for birders’ irrational fears. Bird guides say they want all dogs banned from the park–even though the vast majority of woods in the park are fenced off, so dogs can’t get in. I think Prospect Park is one of the worst places for the birder-dog people conflict not because of anything going on here, but because a few of the individuals in the birding community here don’t like dogs and conflate their phobia with damage to wildlife. 

The real threats to the birds in the park are fishing line (which ensnares about a bird a week, according to park staff), a feral cat colony, round-ups  by the the USDA, rat poison–all of which have been documented. How many dog-related bird deaths have their been?

Do you know what actually does scare birds? Large groups of people. People pointing long lenses at them. Birding group leaders yelling at dog owners. (Young says wildlife regularly flee from an area where people have emotional flare-ups.)

Birders who are great at identifying obscure species don’t necessarily watch animal behavior. Birders are continually amazed that ducks swim a couple feet from my beagles. Some birders threatened to call 911 when a puppy jumped the dog beach fence, showing naivete of both animal and police behavior. (The dog owner swam out to get the dog.)

Perhaps birders are confused by the idea of “bird dogs,” but dog is trained or bred to hunt songbirds. A few dogs (labs, goldens) are bred to retrieve dead ducks without harming them. Some breeds are trained to flush (spaniels) or point at (pointers) gamebirds birds. All these dogs are bred and trained specifically not to harm the birds.

Dogs chase squirrels. As a wildlife rehabilitator who treats squirrels, I feel extra outrage at people who let their dogs kill them for fun. There are only a handful of dogs in the park who have actual hunting experience. Here’s how one coonhound named Smokey showed it: he frantically uncovered a hole where a family of rabbits hid. He seemed annoyed no one wanted to do anything about them. I’m sure there are some dogs–whose prey drive is excited by birds birds who bouncing on the sidewalk–mainly pigeons. 

The Brooklyn Bird Club is rallying for more signs. Years ago they installed intentionally misleading signs throughout the Ravine woodland–a dog with a slash through it–that only in small print said dogs must be off-leash. This is the worst kind of nature lover–the misanthrope who pushes other people away from wildlife, claiming it as their exclusive domain. I’m all for people self-policing the park and keeping wildlife safe.

The cost of this absurd obsession isn’t just to dog owners. The police and Prospect Park Alliance are wasting what little resources they have on leash laws while, as a parent, I regularly have to battle with cyclists who won’t stop a the park’s red lights even for a mom with a stroller.

Some moms and I started a petition to get better bike signs and enforcement. The Prospect Park Alliance is reluctant to put up any signs telling bikers to stay off sidewalks because, Eric Landau, says they have to balance the needs of everyone.

I’m teaching my young daughter Ginger to be a birder. She already knows many birds by sight and sound and knows that blue jays like to squawk at hawks. She knows individual birds and gets excited to see “my cardinal friend.” I want her to be like the best birders in the park–the ones that get other people excited about what’s out there.

UPDATE: The Prospect Park Alliance now says they put up the signs of the dog with the Ghostbusters-like slash through it. Contrary to what a BBC member claimed proudly. The Alliance says they’re putting up new signs that clearly show a green circle with a dog on leash compared with a slash-circle with a dog off-leash.

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