UPPER WEST SIDE — Red-tailed hawks bring wild beauty to Riverside Park, but some say the graceful raptors are to blame for an uglier side of park life — rats.
Residents who live near Riverside Park say the disease-carrying vermin are on the rise because the Parks Department has scaled back control efforts in order to protect the hawks. Parks officials deny that claim.
"The rats have been essentially unchecked for years," Upper West Sider Mary Hogan told Community Board 7's Parks Committee on Monday night. "They now own that park."
Hogan, who's lived at West 89th Street and Riverside Drive for 25 years and says she visits the park daily, says she's seen children run away from rats at playgrounds and heard of at least one dog being bitten by a rat.
Another resident at the community board meeting said locals have renamed Mount Tom, the rocky outcropping at West 83rd Street that was thought to be a hangout of Edgar Allan Poe, "Rat Hill." Another woman said she's spotted the normally nocturnal rodents in broad daylight near Riverside Drive and West 100th Street.
Hogan believes the rat population has surged in recent years because Parks "stopped meangingful rat extermination" in 2008, when a red-tailed hawk was killed after it ate meat from a poisoned rat. Earlier this year, another member of the park's hawk clan, which nests in a tree near the 79th Street boat basin, died as a result of eating rat poison.
In both cases, hawk lovers blamed the Parks Department, assuming the majestic birds had been felled by Parks Department rat poison.
But necropsies revealed that the poison both hawks ingested wasn't the type used by the Parks Department.
Nonetheless, the Parks Department has cut down on the amount of poison it uses in the park, said its spokesman Phil Abramson. In the past, the department used small amounts of poison on a "targeted basis" during the winter, and occasionally in late summer and fall — but not anymore, he said.
"We value our wildlife and work diligently to create the necessary balance between public health and safety, and wildlife health and safety," Abramson said in an email. "Out of concern for the resident red-tailed hawks in Riverside Park, poisoned bait is not currently used."
Even though Parks isn't currently using poison, the department deploys several other strategies in its war on rats, Abramson noted. Those include increasing trash pick-ups, using rat resistant garbage cans, and reducing the use of open Dumpsters in the park, which attract the hungry pests.
"The suggestion that we aren't doing anything (about rats) or that we've abdicated is simply incorrect," said Riverside Park administrator John Herrold at Monday night's meeting.
But Hogan said the anti-rat measures aren't working, and she wants the city to do more. She brought 115 signatures from neighbors and a letter from a 400-member block association to Community Board 7 on Monday night, demanding stepped up rat control.
Hogan said some of her neighbors are afraid to speak out about the issue because they're ashamed of the apparent rat influx. They worry that the rodent infestation could erode property values, she said.
"How many people will be willing to pay top dollar for an apartment in a family neighborhood that has rats criss-crossing the streets?" Hogan said. "There is a cost to ignoring the rat problem."
Community Board 7's Parks Committee didn't take any immediate action, but said it would revisit the rats issue at its February meeting.
Tracking the number of rats in Riverside Park is difficult. The city provides detailed rat data about specific buildings on an online map, but it doesn't include parks. The Parks Department doesn't have its own data on rats in parks, Abramson said.
Community Board 7 Parks Committee chair Klari Neuwelt asked Herrold at Monday night's meeting if the park had seen a rise in rats in recent years, but Herrold didn't answer the question directly.
"I believe it fluctuates seasonally," he responded.