Mandarin duck holds NYC in its spell

It took just days for the brightly colored Mandarin duck that appeared suddenly in a Central Park pond to turn both New Yorkers and visitors into a new gaggle: the quackarazzi.

A horde of photographers has been gathering daily in the park off Fifth Avenue for well over a month, hoping to catch a glimpse of the exotic bird with pink, purple, orange and emerald green plumage and markings that admirer Joe Amato compares to “a living box of crayons.”

“So many people are drawn to this bird because its vibrant, vivid colors are associated with sunsets and rainbows,” said Amato, who comes almost daily from his Queens home with his expensive camera equipment in tow.

Bird lovers and sightseers have dutifully documented the bird’s every move through social media postings and videos that have noted its gentle glides across the water, its sniping at the ordinary mallards and even a vacation, of sorts, to a lake in nearby New Jersey.

This week, New York’s latest rising star didn’t disappoint — with the feathery showboat preening its wings in the shadow of the historic Plaza Hotel as people on shore jostled for a better look.

Leesa Beckmann commuted two and a half hours from her home in Vernon Township, New Jersey, to see the duck that her 90-year-old mother has been talking about since its arrival.

“I’ve got to see this magnificent duck,” Beckmann said to her mother.

She plans to shoot and frame photos for her mother to hang on the wall.

Ornithologist Paul Sweet, however, who heads a vast collection of bird specimens at the New York-based American Museum of Natural History, isn’t as throttled as others are about the duck.

Sweet says there’s nothing special about a Mandarin duck in Central Park. Not only is there another one (albeit captive) a short walk away at the Central Park Zoo, but such ducks are often imported from Asia for use on private property. From time to time, they escape into the wild.

“This bird is clearly not a vagrant,” said Sweet, adding that there are no records of actual wild Mandarin ducks in North America. If that actually happened in New York, of all places, “birders would be very excited.” For now, he says, they’re not.

“A lot of non-birders tend to see gaudy birds as more beautiful,” Sweet said. “But to me it’s no more beautiful than, say, a sparrow.”

In this case, expertise is not the point: Beauty is in the eyes of the New York beholders — humans for whom the carefree creature that has made Central Park its home offers some kind of balm in a troubled, chaotic world.

Low prices make for slow alligator season in Louisiana

The Free Press WV

Here’s a fashion trend that’s good news, if you’re an alligator in Louisiana: Prices for skins are down to less than half what they were just five years ago, making for a slow wild harvest.

The director of the state’s alligator program estimates that about 18,000 were taken from the wild this year.

Jeb Linscombe of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says low demand has cut prices to between $7 and $8 a foot for the past two years. That’s the lowest since the recession cut prices to $7.50 a foot in 2009.

“Nobody really wanted to buy them,” said John Currier, a hunters’ representative on the Louisiana Alligator Advisory Council. “By the time you figured the gasoline and the other expenses, the price they were offering wasn’t worth it.”

Currier said he gets tags for 22 alligators, but only hunted one during the September season — and that was because a friend of his daughter’s wanted to bag one.

In general, Linscombe said, an average of $20 a foot is needed for hunters to make a profit.

Prices after the recession rose to an average $29 a foot in 2013 and 2014, then fell to $23.50 and, in 2016, $17.

Last year, Linscombe said, about 15,000 gators were taken from the wild.

The low demand is just fashion’s fickleness, said Clint Hebert, sales and marketing manager for the Mark Staton Co. of Lafayette, which deals largely in alligator leather goods.

“The market is typically driven by the overseas fashion houses,” he said, but he’s philosophical: “For the most part, the economy and the fashion industry will turn around and the fashion will spring back.”

Louisiana’s alligator farms typically harvest about 300,000 or more a year, Linscombe said. He didn’t expect that to change. Most farmed skins are on the smaller side, used for watch bands rather than for handbags or boots.

He said there’s no danger that slow hunting seasons will lead to alligator overpopulation in the swamps.

Unregulated hunting made the alligator one of the first species on the list when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. Louisiana had ended all hunting 11 years before that, and allowed its first small, highly regulated hunts in 1972 and 1973. The season became statewide in 1981; two years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled that the species had recovered over most of its range.

An average of 33,500 wild alligators a year were taken from 2010 to 2016. Even the highest modern wild harvest is only a tiny percentage of the total, now estimated at nearly 2 million just in Louisiana.

“Alligators are cannibalistic. The population will control itself,” Linscombe said.

Unicorns Existed, But Climate Change Killed Them

The Free Press WV

New research in Nature Ecology & Evolution reveals the 7,700-pound hairy rhino, also known as the “Siberian unicorn,” was still stomping around Eurasia 39,000 years ago.

Paleontologists previously believed the animal, which sported a single three-foot-long horn, died out around 200,000 years ago.

But an amino acid-extracting procedure confirmed Elasmotherium sibiricum lived much later, and that plummeting temperatures during the Pleistocene ice age — not proto-human hunters — were to blame for its demise.

Only five out of 250 known rhino species still exist.

Learn More:    Quartz    Gizmodo

Huge Lizard That Terrified Neighbors Finally Caught

The Free Press WV

Florida authorities have caught a huge lizard that has terrified residents of a suburban Miami neighborhood for months, the AP reports. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said Thursday the Asian water monitor lizard measures more than 8 feet long. The lizard is an escaped pet. It was first reported loose in August in a Davie neighborhood. Residents said it lurked in their backyards and scratched at their patio doors. Wildlife officers and Davie police officers caught it Tuesday after getting a tip from a resident who said the lizard frequently appeared on his property around midday.

A wildlife commission statement says the lizard will be returned to its owner, who received a criminal citation for its escape. Owners must have cages to keep these lizards as pets. It’s illegal to release nonnative species in Florida.

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