When Pineapple Races Hare, Students Lose, Critics of Standardized Tests Say
A reading passage included this week in one of New York’s standardized English tests has become the talk of the eighth grade, with students walking around saying, “Pineapples don’t have sleeves,” as if it were the code for admission to a secret society.
The passage is a parody of the tortoise and the hare story, the Aesop’s fable that almost every child learns in elementary school. Only instead of a tortoise, the hare races a talking pineapple, and the moral of the story — more on that later — is the part about the sleeves.
While taking the test, baffled children raised their hands to say things like, “This story doesn’t make sense.”
Antitesting activists have taken up the cudgel, saying that the passage and the multiple-choice questions associated with it perfectly illustrate the absurdity of standardized testing. And by Friday afternoon, the state education commissioner had decided that the questions would not count in students’ official scores.
Daniel Pinkwater, a popular children’s book author who wrote the original version of the passage, which was doctored for the test, said that the test-makers had turned a nonsensical story into a nonsensical question for what he believed was a nonsensical test, but acknowledged that he was tickled to death by the children’s reaction.
“One kid called me, and there were quite a few e-mails,” Mr. Pinkwater said.
“Some kids took me to task; the phrase sellout appeared on my screen,” he said, adding that he had been paid for the right to his excerpt and never looked back to see what had been done with it. “Others were gentler about it.”
While the furor over the test passage seems to have achieved phenomenal proportions in New York — one boy has already posted a picture on his Facebook page of a T-shirt with the motto “Pineapples Don’t Have Sleeves” — it has caused similar ripples across the country.
It turns out the same passage and questions, perhaps with variations, have been used at least as far back as 2007 in states like Illinois, Arkansas, Delaware and Alabama, and every time, elicited roughly the same spectrum of incredulity, bafflement, hilarity and outrage.
“I’m still confused about the WHOLE thing,” a student from Alabama posted on a blog in March 2010.
“Our whole school was talking about that story all day long,” posted Adam from Arkansas, a month later.
“Given all the negative feedback they got in other states, they should have pulled this story,” Diane Ravitch, an education historian and critic of the growth of standardized testing, said Friday.
“When the kids ridicule it when they first read it, you know that something’s wrong here. That’s the scary part.”
The test publisher, Pearson, did not respond to requests for comment about the most recent confusion caused by the passage, which was reported Friday by The Daily News.
In a statement Friday afternoon, John B. King Jr., the state education commissioner, said that “due to the ambiguous nature of the test questions the department has decided it will not be counted against students in their scores.”
Mr. King also said that a committee of teachers had reviewed all testing material, including the passage in question, and that it had been reused by Pearson as a way to compare New York students to counterparts in other states. Mr. King also said that in the context of the full passage the questions “make more sense.”
But more than a dozen eighth graders interviewed Friday unanimously disputed Mr. King’s assessment, saying that two of the six questions were barely rational. (All six are being thrown out.)
The crux of the passage is that the pineapple challenges the hare to a race, and the other animals are convinced the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve and will win. When the pineapple stands still, the animals eat it. The moral of the story: “Pineapples don’t have sleeves.”
One of the disputed questions asked, essentially, which was the wisest animal. Some students said that none of the animals seemed very bright, but that a likely answer was the owl, because it was the one that uttered the moral.
Others worried that the owl was a distraction, because owls are supposed to be wise, so it would be the wrong answer.
The other tough question was why the animals ate the pineapple. Students were torn between two of the four choices: they were annoyed or they were hungry; either one seemed to work.
“It was kind of weird,” Octavio Solis, 13, an eighth grader at Intermediate School 136 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, said Friday morning, bursting out laughing at the memory of the passage. “I didn’t really understand it, why they ate the pineapple.”
A sidewalk sampling of students in the Delta program, a gifted program at Middle School 54 on the Upper West Side, reached a consensus that the owl was the wisest. (Correct.) Most thought the animals ate the pineapple because they were annoyed that it had tricked them (Also correct.), and said that there was no evidence that the animals were hungry.
(By that point the pineapple had “lost all human traits,” said Geoffrey Cowling, 13, so eating it did not seem so bad.)
But Kate Scheuer, another Delta student, said the jokiness of the story made her nervous. “I thought I was getting it wrong,” she said. “I was second-guessing myself because it’s so ridiculous.”
Deborah Meier, founder of the progressive Central Park East schools in New York City, who has lectured and written widely about testing, said the pineapple passage was “an outrageous example of what’s true of most of the items on any test, it’s just blown up larger.”
In the world of testing, she said, it does not really matter whether an answer is right or wrong; the “right” answer is the one that field testing has shown to be the consensus answer of the “smart” kids. “It’s a psychometric concept,” she said.
Even very intelligent children, she said, can sometimes overthink an answer and get it wrong.
A more legitimate question for a nonsense fable, she said, would have been something like, “Is this a spoof? Is it intended to make sense?”
Mr. Pinkwater’s original twist on the fable is in his novel, “Borgel,” part of his book, “4 Fantastic Novels,” published in paperback 12 years ago. It is told by a 111-year-old man to a boy who might or might not be his relative, while they are riding a bus. “He tells them these fables from the old country, and this is one of them,” Mr. Pinkwater said. “Sometimes everybody on the bus would get involved.”
In the original version a rabbit races an eggplant, and children speculated Friday that the eggplant had been changed to a pineapple because some kids might not know what an eggplant was. Why the rabbit was changed to a hare was harder to explain. There is no mention of sleeves.
Mr. Pinkwater (whose wife, Jill, is a former college remedial reading teacher) said he considered himself a nonsense writer, and the test-makers had taken his story far too seriously. “Well give me a break,” he said. “It’s a nonsense story and there isn’t an option for a nonsense answer.”
Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously
A recently released study has concluded that computers are capable of scoring essays on standardized tests as well as human beings do.
Mark Shermis, dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, collected more than 16,000 middle school and high school test essays from six states that had been graded by humans. He then used automated systems developed by nine companies to score those essays.
Computer scoring produced “virtually identical levels of accuracy, with the software in some cases proving to be more reliable,” according to a University of Akron news release.
“A Win for the Robo-Readers” is how an Inside Higher Ed blog post summed things up.
For people with a weakness for humans, there is more bad news. Graders working as quickly as they can — the Pearson education company expects readers to spend no more than two to three minutes per essay— might be capable of scoring 30 writing samples in an hour.
The automated reader developed by the Educational Testing Service, e-Rater, can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds, according to David Williamson, a research director for E.T.S., which develops and administers 50 million tests a year, including the SAT.
Is this the end? Are Robo-Readers destined to inherit the earth?
Les Perelman, a director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says no.
Mr. Perelman enjoys studying algorithms from E.T.S. research papers when he is not teaching undergraduates. This has taught him to think like e-Rater.
While his research is limited, because E.T.S. is the only organization that has permitted him to test its product, he says the automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction.
The e-Rater’s biggest problem, he says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945,” he said.
Mr. Perelman found that e-Rater prefers long essays. A 716-word essay he wrote that was padded with more than a dozen nonsensical sentences received a top score of 6; a well-argued, well-written essay of 567 words was scored a 5.
An automated reader can count, he said, so it can set parameters for the number of words in a good sentence and the number of sentences in a good paragraph. “Once you understand e-Rater’s biases,” he said, “it’s not hard to raise your test score.”
E-Rater, he said, does not like short sentences.
Or short paragraphs.
Or sentences that begin with “or.” And sentences that start with “and.” Nor sentence fragments.
However, he said, e-Rater likes connectors, like “however,” which serve as programming proxies for complex thinking. Moreover, “moreover” is good, too.
Gargantuan words are indemnified because e-Rater interprets them as a sign of lexical complexity. “Whenever possible,” Mr. Perelman advises, “use a big word. ‘Egregious’ is better than ‘bad.’ ”
The substance of an argument doesn’t matter, he said, as long as it looks to the computer as if it’s nicely argued.
For a question asking students to discuss why college costs are so high, Mr. Perelman wrote that the No. 1 reason is excessive pay for greedy teaching assistants.
“The average teaching assistant makes six times as much money as college presidents,” he wrote. “In addition, they often receive a plethora of extra benefits such as private jets, vacations in the south seas, starring roles in motion pictures.”
E-Rater gave him a 6. He tossed in a line from Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” just to see if he could get away with it.
The possibilities are limitless. If E-Rater edited newspapers, Roger Clemens could say, “Remember the Maine,” Adele could say, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry could sing “Someone Like You.”
To their credit, researchers at E.T.S. provided Mr. Perelman access to e-Rater for a month. “At E.T.S., we pride ourselves in being transparent about our research,” Mr. Williamson said.
Two of the biggest for-profit education companies, Vantage Learning and Pearson, turned down my request to let Mr. Perelman test their products.
“He wants to show why it doesn’t work,” said Peter Foltz, a Pearson vice president.
“Yes, I’m a skeptic,” Mr. Perelman said. “That’s exactly why I should be given access.”
E.T.S. officials say that Mr. Perelman’s test prep advice is too complex for most students to absorb; if they can, they’re using the higher level of thinking the test seeks to reward anyway. In other words, if they’re smart enough to master such sophisticated test prep, they deserve a 6.
E.T.S. also acknowledges that truth is not e-Rater’s strong point. “E-Rater is not designed to be a fact checker,” said Paul Deane, a principal research scientist.
“E-Rater doesn’t appreciate poetry,” Mr. Williamson added.
They say Mr. Perelman is setting a false premise when he treats e-Rater as if it is supposed to substitute for human scorers. In high stakes testing where e-Rater has been used, like grading the Graduate Record Exam, the writing samples are also scored by a human, they point out. And if there is a discrepancy between man and machine, a second human is summoned.
Mr. Foltz said that 90 percent of the time, Pearson’s Intelligent Essay Assessor is used by classroom teachers as a learning aid. The software gives students immediate feedback to improve their writing, which they can revise and resubmit, Mr. Foltz said. “They may do five drafts,” he said, “and then give it to the teacher to read.”
As for good writing being long writing, Mr. Deane said there was a correlation. Good writers have internalized the skills that give them better fluency, he said, enabling them to write more in a limited time.
Mr. Perelman takes great pleasure in fooling e-Rater. He has written an essay, then randomly cut a sentence from the middle of each paragraph and has still gotten a 6.
Two former students who are computer science majors told him that they could design an Android app to generate essays that would receive 6’s from e-Rater. He says the nice thing about that is that smartphones would be able to submit essays directly to computer graders, and humans wouldn’t have to get involved.
In conclusion, to paraphrase the late, great Abraham Lincoln: Mares eat oats and does eat oats, but little lambs eat ivy.
A kiddley divey too, he added, wouldn’t you?
For an Old Italian Game, a Crescendo of Sorts
There was one corner of Woodlawn that seemed as if it would always remain stubbornly Italian: the bocce courts in Van Cortlandt Park.
But as older Italian men died or moved away from this north Bronx neighborhood, the nightly bocce games stopped. Weeds sprouted. Children mistook the rectangular courts for sandboxes. Dogs ran loose on them. Eventually park officials considered razing them to make way for more benches.
Then came the unexpected. As the ground thawed in late March, new players surfaced, with shovels and rakes to pull out the weeds before starting games again. Only these were not the men of old — they were not men at all. “Now it’s a new age,” declared Maria Maksym, 67, one of the new players. “It’s old women.”
Though a few men appeared, they have watched curiously from the sidelines.
“I think they’re waiting for the women to do the cleanup, and then they’ll join,” said Josephine M. Bastone, founder of the newly formed Bastone Bocce League, which is tossing around team names like “Bocce Babes.”
The bocce revival has happened all over the country as a dusty old game favored by Italian old-timers has evolved into a trendy social sport — one largely without taxing physical demands— played out on neighborhood courts as well as in more glamorous bocce halls complete with bars and bands. The goal of the game is for players to toss a ball closest to a smaller ball — called a pallino — that serves as a target.
In New York, where bocce has long been found in Italian enclaves like Little Italy, the game has increasingly spread to other neighborhoods and been embraced by a new generation of players from hipsters in Brooklyn attracted by its throwback appeal to gray-haired ladies in the Bronx eager to reconnect over the slower rhythms of an earlier time.
The growing interest in bocce has spurred the city’s parks department to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix up more than a dozen bocce courts that had been neglected or all but abandoned. Some were even upgraded with unheard-of amenities like awnings to protect players from the sun’s glare.
Bocce, perhaps more than any other game, tells the history of Italian immigrants in New York City. It was Fiorello H. La Guardia, the first Italian-American mayor, who within weeks of taking office in 1934 requested that public bocce courts be installed in Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem, which was then heavily Italian, “in order to furnish his former neighbors an opportunity of playing the popular Italian game,” according to a press release at the time.
Dozens more followed over the years, including courts in Ciccarone Park on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx and in William F. Moore Park in Corona, Queens. The two courts in Van Cortlandt Park were built in 1982, when Italian-Americans accounted for 27 percent of the surrounding Woodlawn and Wakefield neighborhoods, compared with just 3.4 percent today, according to an analysis by Queens College. Citywide during that period, the Italian-American population has dropped to 7.7 percent from 14.2 percent.
Danny Passaglia, president of the United States Bocce Federation, said that New York has been one of its fastest growing areas in the last five years. “There was a time when the New York area was nonexistent,” said Mr. Passaglia, who handed out free bocce balls at Grand Central Terminal a decade ago to generate interest. “This year, the first two teams to sign up for the national tournament were from New York.”
Under rainy skies Wednesday night, a dozen older women stepped onto the Van Cortlandt bocce courts, which resemble double-wide bowling lanes enclosed by freshly painted wooden planks to prevent balls from rolling away. Two brought along their 40-something daughters. A woman with a bad back came to cheer.
There was some gentle boasting. But there was no cursing, spitting, or yelling.
“This is more ladylike,” said Ms. Maksym, a retired court clerk who grew up watching men play bocce. “We don’t go: ‘What’s the matter with you? Pay attention.’ And there’s no ‘We can do it better than you.’ ”
The scene attracted Kerry Gynegrowski, 9, who lives nearby and had just learned of bocce in a schoolbook about Italian immigrants. “I thought it was an old game and they didn’t play it anymore,” she said.
Today, a total of 54 bocce courts survive in parks and playgrounds across the city. Queens has the heaviest concentration with 18 courts, followed by Brooklyn (17), and the Bronx (10). While park officials do not track use — there are no bocce permits — they said about one-fifth of the courts are dormant.
The parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said that while a few unused courts were planted over with grass, or converted to flower beds, most were simply left alone. “They’re less than 20 feet wide,” Mr. Benepe said. “You won’t gain much space if you remove them.”
After years of hearing other residents ask what happened to bocce, Ms. Bastone, a lawyer who referees foreclosure cases, decided it was time to bring the game back to Woodlawn.
Ms. Bastone enlisted friends and neighbors to clean up the courts, and persuaded parks officials to buy bocce balls to get them started. An expert player from Yonkers came to give pointers on where to stand and how to throw the ball.
Louisa Lanzana, 68, said it was a chance for her to spend time with her neighbors and her daughter, Renata. “It’s nice to see people getting together again in the neighborhood, because everybody leads such busy lives. It’s not like years ago when we had Sunday dinners.”
Her daughter, who as a teenager used to hang out at these benches and watch the old Italian men, agreed.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” she said. “We’re all connected.”
The Spirit of Sisterhood Is in the Air and on the Air
When first we meet Hannah, the wondrously mopey mid-20s heroine of HBO’s new hit series “Girls,” she seems to have more strikes against her than a bowling alley at Fenway Park. Her parents have cut off her monthly stipend. Her literary-magazine boss refuses to turn her unpaid internship into a real job. Her atonal lover explores his sex fantasies on her awkwardly untitillated body. She lives in New York City. She majored in English.
Yet offsetting all those slings and risk factors is a powerful defense system: girlfriends. Hannah has a tight-knit network of three female confederates, one best friend and two sturdy runners-up; and while none of the girl-women can offer much material support, no spare bedroom in a rent-controlled apartment, they are each other’s emotional tourniquets. You, fat? Don’t make me laugh. An unpleasant doctor’s appointment? We’re going too. Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the series, has said that while her titular characters may all date men, female friendship is “the true romance of the show.”
As in urban jungles, so too in jungle jungles. Researchers have lately gathered abundant evidence that female friendship is one of nature’s preferred narrative tools.
In animals as diverse as African elephants and barnyard mice, blue monkeys of Kenya and feral horses of New Zealand, affiliative, longlasting and mutually beneficial relationships between females turn out to be the basic unit of social life, the force that not only binds existing groups together but explains why the animals’ ancestors bothered going herd in the first place.
Scientists are moving beyond the observational stage — watching as a couple of female monkeys groom each other into a state of hedonic near-liquefaction — to quantifying the benefits of that well-groomed friendship to both picking partners. Researchers have discovered that female chacma baboons with strong sororal bonds have lower levels of stress hormones, live significantly longer and rear a greater number of offspring to independence than do their less socialized peers.
Similarly, wild mares with female friends are harassed less often by stallions and have more surviving foals than do mares that lack social ties. Female mice allowed to choose a friend as a nesting partner will bear more pups than females forced to share straw space with a mouse they dislike.
And female elephants keep in touch with their chums through frequent exchanges of low-pitched vocalizations called rumbles. “We liken it to an elephant cellphone,” said Joseph Soltis, a research scientist who works with elephants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. “They’re texting each other, I’m over here. Where are you?”
Hannah may even be onto something primal, or at least primate, in setting the size of her inner circle of friends. Researchers have determined that a female baboon with a small but devoted core of grooming companions will be less prone to jagged spikes of the stress hormone cortisol than a female who casts her social net wide but not deep.
The ideal buddy count? “To have a top three seems to be what’s important here,” said Joan B. Silk, a primatologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. With a trio to lean on, she added, “you see the kind of strong, stable relationships that help females cope better with stress.”
Some signs of female camaraderie are easy to spot. Lionesses suckle each other’s cubs. Female spotted hyenas greet each other through elaborate ceremonies of mutual trust, lifting a leg and exposing their famously penislike genitals to their snuffling sisters and their bone-crushing jaws.
Elephants touch trunks, share food, play lifeguard for the day. Dr. Soltis cited the time a female elephant rescue the wayward baby of her closest friend after it stumbled headlong into the elephant submersion pool, by hauling the panicked calf out with her trunk. Hey Hortense where RU? Got Dumbo. Bring towel.
Sometimes displays of female friendship become heated, hyperbolic, a monkey chant for the home team. Marina Cords of Columbia University has spent more than 30 years studying the blue monkeys of Kenya, 10-pound primates that, their name notwithstanding, are really charcoal gray.
She has seen many violent territorial disputes between neighboring monkey groups, in which the adult females line up to fight in the treetops, the adult males mostly hang back to watch, and the young monkeys scamper obliviously below. The females scream, lunge, bite, rip the flesh of an enemy’s calf down to a bloody frill round the ankle. And when the battle ends, the salon sessions begin.
“There’s a frenzy of grooming among the females in the same group,” Dr. Cords said. “You see them huddling together in clusters, with individuals scooting from one huddle to another, as though everybody is trying to groom as many individuals as possible.” They comb and pluck with their fingers, soothe scabs and wounds with their lips.
Through grooming, the monkeys decompress, and remind one another that their fates are still linked. After all, should a group of blue monkeys grow too large it will split into factions, and the sisterly comrades of today may be flaying you a new pair of anklets tomorrow. Shall we groom?
In other cases, affiliative behaviors are subtle and difficult to track. For years female chimpanzees were viewed as asocial, content to forage alone or with dependent offspring while largely ignoring other females of their group. The males may be legendary kin-based allies, born and reared together and wedded to their natal turf. But as the so-called dispersing sex, female chimpanzees must leave their birthplace at puberty and seek asylum in another group, which means being surrounded by unrelated females all competing for the same goods. What’s to like about that?
In a 10-year study of West African chimpanzees, however, Julia Lehmann of Roehampton University in London discovered that at least for her population, the stereotype of the standoffish female was wrong. Her adult females were cultivating friendships and expressing their affections in myriad ways — staying within eye contact as they foraged by day, resting back to back while relaxing at home.
“Most of the females in my study have at least one close associate with whom they always hang out,” Dr. Lehmann said. Coalitions between the males may be showier, she said, but female friendships appear more resilient, lasting until one member of the bonded pair dies.
Dr. Lehmann does not yet know why female chimpanzees seek female friends. But it’s not as a deterrent to male aggression. “Male chimpanzees are so dominant that even two females can’t do much against them,” Dr. Lehmann said.
Instead, Dr. Lehmann and others suspect that the story for chimpanzees will turn out to be similar to what’s been shown in female baboons. For baboons, friendship is not about extra weaponry. It’s about biochemistry and predictability.
According to Robert M. Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania, who with his colleague Dorothy L. Cheney, recently reported in the Annual Review of Psychology on the evolutionary origins of friendship, baboon life is extremely stressful, especially for females.
Male baboons are comparatively huge and nasty. The ones you know boss you around and bite off the tip of your ear. The ones you don’t are infanticidal. Leopards are always leaping. Food is scarce.
“You have to have somebody to hang onto,” Dr. Seyfarth said. “A friend gives you an element of predictability and certainty, and you can use that to buffer you against all the things you don’t have control over. There’s a biochemical component to this.”
A familiar friend calms and equilibrates, mops up the cortisol spills that can weaken the immune system, and in so doing may help lengthen life — in baboons, humans and other group-minded kinds. “Yes, having coffee with friends is good for you,” Dr. Silk said, “and we should all do it often.”
You look gorgeous. Have a cookie. Now tell me what’s on your mind.
NYC Cracks Down on Birdbaths to Fight West Nile Virus
Imagine Joseph Pomares’s surprise when he went to his local post office in Long Island City, Queens, one Saturday last summer to collect a certified letter. He had no idea what awaited him, but the last thing he expected to find was a summons from the city’s health department.
The summons referred to a two-story brick house in Astoria that Mr. Pomares, a 53-year-old home renovation contractor, had recently refurbished and rented to tenants. Titled “vector control inspection work order,” the citation accused him of violating what appeared to be a paradoxical imperative: “standing water” in a birdbath. The violation of Article 151 of the city’s health code could subject him to a $2,000 fine.
“I bought the birdbath brand new. I thought I was doing something good, and I changed the water every other day,” Mr. Pomares recalled. “I had beautiful birds.”
Mr. Pomares was one of 699 New Yorkers who learned last year that April showers can bring a lot more than May flowers. They can also deliver property owners a summons. Most of those issued in 2011 were for poorly maintained swimming pools and standing water at construction sites. Even an ordinary puddle can lead to a violation. So can a birdbath, as four surprised New Yorkers found out.
During mosquito-breeding season, from April to October, standing water on the ground, in roof gutters, on swimming pool covers and in discarded tires, among other places, can violate Article 151, which covers pest prevention and management. Health officials said the 699 summonses issued last year was about average.
In a city where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has all but banned smoking and waged war on soda and trans fats, some New Yorkers may complain that the crackdown on birdbaths is yet another intrusion by the nanny state or a ruse to raise more money for municipal coffers.
Actually, a regulation against stagnant water has been on the books for more than a decade, but in the battle against West Nile virus, the health code was amended last year. It explicitly made landlords liable and applied the rule, apparently more broadly, to “standing water” rather than “stagnant water” and further empowered the department not only to prevent “the breeding or harborage” of mosquitoes, but also to prevent “conditions conducive” to their breeding or harborage.
As a result, one creature’s beverage can be another’s breeding ground. Dimitri Gatanas, an owner of the Urban Garden Center in East Harlem, said, “When there’s a mosquito issue, someone gets nervous and files a complaint.”
One solution is to buy a birdbath that circulates the water. Some nurseries sell pellets that John Razzano of Market Garden Center in Brooklyn says “kill the mosquito larvae, but don’t hurt the birds.”
Mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus lay their eggs in standing water, although exactly what constitutes standing water is ambiguous. Asked to explain the difference between standing and stagnant, a department spokeswoman, Chanel Caraway, gamely said: “Standing waters become increasingly stagnant with time as they become more and more concentrated with decomposing organic material, which is food for the mosquito larvae.”
Ms. Caraway emphasized that the agency is not necessarily anti-birdbath. “The health department will issue a notice of violation for standing water in a birdbath only if that water is stagnant, not simply for having water in a birdbath,” she said. “The decomposed organic matter found in stagnant water is the food for mosquito larvae. The department recommends replacing the water in the birdbath every two to three days to prevent mosquito breeding.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends that homeowners “replace the water in birdbaths weekly.”
Last year, the city’s health department recorded 11 cases of West Nile virus, including one death, of a Queens resident.
“Enforcing the health code sections that do not allow for standing water is key to preventing the spread of this disease in the city,” said Waheed I. Bajwa, executive director of the vector surveillance and control office. “The standing water violations are issued during the mosquito season to property owners whose property has amounts of standing water and decomposing matter.”
Health officials say they take reports (calls to 311 or through nyc.gov/health/wnv) “to track significant problem areas,” although the department’s Web site does not encourage New Yorkers to turn in their neighbors.
Robert G. Materson of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, believes a neighbor did just that. A 76-year-old retired psychologist, he was penalized with a violation for a birdbath in his backyard that, he insists, he fills with fresh water every few days.
“Between the birds and the evaporation, there’s no water in that sucker after a couple of days,” Mr. Materson said. “I get four blackbirds splashing out all the water to three-quarters of an inch and then the sparrows show up.”
The violation he received, however, said his property was “not kept free of conditions conducive to the breeding of mosquitoes in that murky standing water was observed in a birdbath in the rear yard.”
Last December, a hearing examiner for the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings weighed the inspector’s testimony and photographs against Mr. Materson’s claim that “the water was neither stagnant nor murky.” The examiner ruled against Mr. Materson, explaining that no matter how conscientious he was ordinarily, he was not present during the inspection and “therefore, he could not have observed what the inspector claims to have observed.”
Mr. Materson is appealing his $350 fine (he successfully appealed an earlier violation after a hearing examiner agreed that the birdbath itself was brown, not the water). “I sent pictures of manhole covers outside the 94th Precinct that have as much water as I do,” he said. Meanwhile, the offending birdbath is still there.
“That’s my mother’s birdbath,” he said. “That’s going to stay.”
One of the other four New Yorkers whose birdbaths ran afoul of Article 151 left the country before her case could be heard. Another has a hearing next month.
Last September, Mr. Pomares received a lesser fine, $300, from another hearing examiner who said the “penalty reflects prompt correction.” Mr. Pomares said that after he got the violation, he drilled holes in the $120 concrete birdbath to be sure that it drained and filled it with gravel. That should keep inspectors away, but also the robins and sparrows that used to splash in the bath.
“Mine was clean; I was a fanatic,” he said. “But I learned my lesson. If I had known about the law, I never would have bought it."