They're the New Yorkers you love to hate, but have you really ever spent any time getting to know them? A day-in-the-life look at the city's signature critters.
Thu Sep 27 2007
Average life span: One year Distance traveled per day: 900 feet Diet: Anything, including soap
9PM The rat, let’s call him the Donald, is awoken by the scent of soggy pizza crust drifting through the sewer under West 34th Street. It’s here that he spends most nights jowl-to-whiskered-jowl with other rats (who don’t, incidentally, have any neighborly allegiances). “Two kinds of rats are considered pest species in New York City: the roof rat, or black rat, and the Norway rat, or brown rat,” says Darrin Lunde, mammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History. The latter—larger and more aggressive than the former—predominates New York’s rat population (which varies in estimated size from 250,000 to a whopping 96 million, depending on whom you ask).
11PM After gnawing through a trash bag—and unearthing his favorite: gooey macaroni and cheese—the Donald goes digging in his regular flower bed. If he burrows long enough (he can squeeze through holes in the concrete), he’ll reach a network of tunnels that lead to the basement of his most frequented Italian restaurant. “Rats have adapted to human habitats,” says Lunde. “Very few species are opportunistic enough to exploit this rich niche.”
1AM The restaurant storage space provides the Donald with several meals’ worth of grub —and lots of room to trickle his urine, which he does frequently and indiscriminately. “Rats eat about a third of their weight every 24 hours,” says Lunde, adding that they’ll consume literally anything, including any kind of meat and even soap. “They’ll gnaw their way into a tin can if they’re really hungry.”
3AM The Donald finishes his outing with a satisfying electrical-wire-shredding session. According to Robert Sullivan’s book Rats, a full quarter of all fires of unknown causes are started by rodents’ love of wire chewing (which comes, apparently, as a result of wires’ similarity to vines). And the oral fixation doesn’t stop there: They’ve been known to gnaw on concrete, too. “The brown rat’s teeth are stronger than aluminum, copper, lead and iron,” writes Sullivan. “They are comparable to steel.”
4AM Having squeezed through several tiny spaces to leave the restaurant (according to Sullivan, the rat can collapse its skeleton to get through an opening as small as a quarter), the Donald finds a trash-strewn corner in the Herald Square subway tracks and takes a nap. “Rats are actually very sedentary,” says Lunde. “They don’t move around unless they have to—that’s why you tend to see them during construction, or after heavy rain when the sewers are flooded. Otherwise, they’re very good at staying out of sight.”
6AM Just before dawn, the Donald gets some hot rodent-on-rodent action. “If they are not eating,” writes Sullivan, “then rats are usually having sex.” According to him, the creatures—which live for about a year—may mate up to 20 times a day, and in all-male rat colonies, males will have sex with other males. “The average for the brown rat is six to nine babies per litter, with six to eight litters per year,” says Lunde. “Do the math; it’s staggering.”
Average life span: Three years Distance traveled per day: Four miles Diet: Almost anything, though seed is healthiest
6:30AM The pigeon, a.k.a. Rosie, wakes up in her nest on a ledge under an air conditioner in the East Village. She’s raising two chicks (she’ll have 12 this year, and you’ll never see them as babies because they’ll hide in the nest until they’re fully feathered and almost full-grown) but isn’t confined to home: Her lifelong mate sits for the day shift. Both male and female feed the squabs with crop milk, a high-protein cottage-cheesy substance produced in the food-storage chambers of their throats.
9AM Wending her way through the city streets, Rosie stops on her usual stoops and windowsills to see what she can scrounge up in the way of food. “Pigeons are actually ‘rock doves,’” says Andrew D. Blechman, author of Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird. “It’s believed they originally come from the cliffs of Asia. That’s why they prefer our architectural canyons.” About a million of these skyscraper lovers dwell in our city.
1PM Rosie makes her regular early-afternoon trip to Washington Square Park. “Pigeons often visit the very same place every day and at the same hours—they keep to routines,” says Blechman. Jackpot: A child is running through the grass, throwing birdseed at every winged creature he sees. “Pigeons flock to cities because we drop a lot of food,” says Blechman. 3pm Rosie sets out again—this time to the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue, a gold mine of discarded hot-dog buns. According to Blechman, she “uses the position of the sun, the earth’s magnetic field, and ultrasound hearing” to find her way home.
5PM Back at her nest, Rosie is full of bread, ready to regurgitate it into the squabs’ hungry beaks.
7PM Rosie takes a crap off the ledge—and onto a pedestrian below. “The droppings were considered a precious commodity at one time,” says Blechman. “The ancient Egyptians used them as fertilizer, and during colonial times, they were a key ingredient for gunpowder.” These days, the stuff is credited with the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases. And while some like to believe that getting shat upon is good luck, the corrosive feces are acidic enough to slowly break down concrete and steel.
7:30PM As Rosie settles in to roost for the night, the angry pooped-upon New Yorker calls 311 to report the nest to the pest-control center. “It’s a sad nosedive,” says Blechman, “for a bird that was once worshipped as a fertility goddess in ancient Mesopotamia.”
Average life span: Six years Distance traveled per day: ½ mile Diet: Nuts, seeds, berries, flower buds, fungi, insects and sometimes small birds
6:30AM Katie the squirrel wakes up with the sunrise and squeezes out of the three-inch opening to her foot-deep home in the cavity of an old Central Park tree trunk. No one can be sure just how many squirrels populate the city, but the estimate is that there are about seven for every habitable 2.5 acres.
9:30AM Her day of foraging for acorns, hickory nuts and maple seeds is well under way, as Katie scampers across tree branches for edible bounty. Gray squirrels are omnivorous and will eat insects and small birds on occasion, but for the most part, nuts and seeds keep her going. A bird feeder—which she’ll sometimes find here in the city—is a huge bonus.
12:30PM Speaking of bonuses, Katie finds some stale bread crumbs scattered in the middle of a footpath. A speeding bike almost takes her out, but she darts away at the last minute. “The numbers of dead squirrels on the road are a testament to their less-than-stellar record of getting out of the way in time,” says AMNH mammalogist Darrin Lunde. Close call. Let the feeding resume.
3:30PM Katie uses her 22 teeth (which she sharpens and cleans daily on tree branches) and strong jaw to gnaw open a hickory nut and then buries the contents in the soil—but not too far down, so come winter she can find it easily. “Memory has nothing to do with recovering nuts; it makes a nice story but it’s not true,” asserts Lunde. “All the evidence suggests that squirrels can smell caches of nuts, which are never buried very deep.”
6:30PM There’s a ruckus in a nearby tree. A handful of male squirrels start chasing after a female—just like a bunch of boys in elementary school, except this is serious: The fastest male gets to mate with the female. “Gray squirrels aren’t social, and the two sexes usually come together only for mating,” says Lunde. And while the chase may be reminiscent of third grade, the sex recalls high school: It lasts less than 30 seconds.
7:30PM Katie heads back to her tree to rest. Autumn has arrived, and although she doesn’t hibernate, Katie’s workday gets shorter with the sunlight hours: Come midwinter she’ll be sleeping in till noon.
Average life span: Six months Distance traveled per day: 14 feet Diet: Anything, including roach feces
4:30AM You flip on the bathroom light and see Leona, a female roach, scurrying back to her home in the wall. “Roaches are afraid of light,” explains Andy Linares, president of Bug Off Pest Control Center (bugoffpccenter.com). “They’re also thigmotactic, which means they like to feel both the top and bottom of their bodies in contact with a surface—it’s why they like cracks and crevices.”
4:33AM You’re done peeing, the light’s off again, and Leona ventures to the sink to feast on toothpaste and soap. “Roaches will eat anything short of fabric,” says Linares. “Other roaches’ feces are a food of choice, and if there’s nothing else available they’ll eat each other’s carcasses.”
9AM Leona scuttles back through the wall to join a crowd of her peers, which can range in number between dozens and thousands, depending on the amount of space and available food. She’s a German cockroach, the half-inch critter you’re most likely to encounter, but the city is also home to her brown-banded, American and Oriental (water bug) cousins. “Roaches have a potent aggregation pheromone, which causes them to cluster,” explains Linares. This is for the sake of procreation (and eating each other’s shit), and is just part of the adaptability that’s allowed the species to last eons. “The oldest cockroach fossil is nearly 350 million years old,” says entomologist Bill Robinson. “Amazingly, their general shape has changed little in all this time. The flat body and long antennae that got them around dead leaves now get them behind baseboards.”
NOON Inside the wall, a male roach detects Leona’s female pheromone. The transfer of sperm (in a little packet called a spermatophore) happens when the pair join end to end. The act takes less than ten minutes—there’s no time for pillow talk with predators around.
4PM Leona makes her way to your kitchen to snack on a banana peel. You’ve put down bait traps, but she’s immune to that particular poison. “We have to use a variety of techniques,” says Linares, “since interbreeding allows hatchlings to have resistance.” And even if you cleared your trash obsessively, she wouldn’t starve: Female German roaches can last for 40 days with no food; American ones can go for 90.
9PM It’s dark, but roaches don’t sleep—ever. Leona pokes her antennae out of the crevice and, sensing no motion, ventures into the bathroom again. She’s traveled only a few inches when you whack her with your slipper. “Life,” says Linares, “is opportunism: hide, eat, procreate. It’s every roach for himself.”