Sunday, December 19, 2004

Avian Ambassadors

Conservation is sometimes perceived as stopping everything cold, as holding whooping cranes in higher esteem than people. It is up to science to spread the understanding that the choice is not between wild places or people, it is between a rich or an impoverished existence for man.

- Thomas E. Lovejoy


It was barely controlled chaos. We stood, 300 and more of us, in the cold wind with our backs to the nearly naked trees in Central Park. Taxis, busses and cars slowed in the avenue before us, creating a chorus of honking horns, punctuated with whooping sirens from passing police vehicles, ambulances and fire trucks. Several people wandered through the crowd, passing out homemade cookies with mittened hands. It was such a festive atmosphere that one might believe this gathering was a celebration rather than the front lines of a nationwide protest.

"Aaaah, tourists ... " grinned a tall thin man next to me as he hoisted a large cardboard sign over his head that proclaimed in big green letters; "927 = money without morals!" Two people who were camouflaged as oversized Northern Cardinals pirouetted out of the street and back into the crowd after the traffic began to advance. Moments later, a loud roar from the crowd greeted a scarlet double-decked tourist bus that snailed along in front of us, honking spasmodically.

Barely visible behind a huddle of adults and children clad in dark lumpy coats was a telescope and large TV monitor standing on the uneven cobblestone sidewalk. The commanding silhouette of a Red-tailed Hawk slid across the monitor and soared into an orange Manhattan sunset.

This bird was Pale Male, the Central Park Red-tailed Hawk. As his name implies, his plumage is unusually pale for a Red-tailed Hawk. For this reason, Pale Male is easily distinguished from other Red-tailed Hawks in the area, even by novice bird watchers. Throughout the years, this hawk has convinced four different females to join him in his unconventional nest at different times. Together, Pale Male and his consorts raised 23 chicks to independence, which is an unusually high reproductive success for any wild animal. Pale Male and his current mate, the chocolate-colored Lola, have been raising their chicks in his 12-year-old nest during the past three years.

But suddenly and without warning, Pale Male's nest had been removed from its home on the cream-colored stone building that loomed across the street from us. Before its removal, the nest was located on the 12th floor stone cornice that curved gently over the large centrally located windows. But several days ago, at the request of the building's Co-op Board members and residents, contract workers unceremoniously stuffed the stick nest into several large black garbage bags. It seems that the building residents were annoyed by the flocks of telescopes, video equipment, cameras and binoculars daily pointed at their building, upset to step over the occasional pigeon bone on the sidewalk and disgusted by the hawk poop that decorated the green awning above their front door. But the residents of the building apparently never expected that destruction of this nest would trigger such a commotion, that it could provoke a tremendous cry of protest that grew to a nearly deafening crescendo as it echoed across the country and even overseas.

The resulting astonishment of the building's human residents at the magnitude of this protest was simply beyond belief. Even though Red-tailed Hawks are not an endangered species and in fact, there are more of them alive now than at any time in recent memory, Pale Male is exceptional. In fact, Pale Male is the most famous wild Red-tailed Hawk who ever lived. Without the assistance of a real estate agent, the wild-born Pale Male chose to live in an urban area and to nest on one of the most exclusive and expensive buildings in all of New York City. The location of his nest allowed latte sipping crowds to lounge on benches in Central Park while watching each chapter of this hawk's life unfold before their eyes. Thus, we ended up knowing more about these birds than we know about our own neighbors. Pale Male's dedication to his families attracted local affection but with our first glimpse of a fluffy dark-eyed chick peering over the edge of his nest, we all fell deeply, madly in love. Our intense fondness for these birds was easily translated into something much bigger by the media who serves a public hungry for good news: at least two documentaries and one book have been published about this particular bird in the past ten years.

In contrast, none of the residents of this building have enjoyed anything even vaguely resembling this sort of public affection, and for good reasons. Pale Male and his mates have freely given far more pleasure to the residents and visitors of New York City than all of his Co-op neighbors, these so-called "Masters of the Universe", combined. While the building residents are widely viewed as epitomizing social plasticity, rampant greed and unmitigated ruthlessness, Pale Male and his families daily reveal the quiet beauty of every day life while teaching us the value of persistence and instilling in us a profound respect and love for nature and her wild citizens. Even though Pale Male and his families are common birds, their significance to us is uncommon. The sight of these birds soaring above New York City's concrete canyons makes us lift our eyes to the heavens and gently reminds us of our spiritual connection to the natural world. For all these reasons, Pale Male and his families are precious. As Baba Dioum once said, In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught. Pale Male and his families still have many lessons to teach us.

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This essay was written about the gathering in honor of Pale Male and Lola that took place on Sunday 12 December.

Photographs from the Gathering, courtesy of NYC Audubon Society.

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5 Peer Reviews:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your essay, and yes it was beautifully written, but I was disappointed to realize that it recounted events of last week. I had turned to your page looking for current news. Please let us know what is going on today. (It was scary to think even for a moment that the telescope might have been out today, risking much too much).

I do like the quote you have used to head the column. It is indeed appropriate.

Good luck and thanks for sharing the news of the hawks with the world.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Dani said...

This was a very beautiful and poignant entry.
::clapping::

11:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful essay. The fact that so many people have turned out to protest on behalf of the hawks is a hopeful sign. There's a lot wrong with the world but as long as somebody still cares about such things, all is possible.

- Werewolf32

10:44 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks, WW32. I hope this is true!

6:06 PM  
Blogger Batya said...

Not as poetic, but look at the NY bird I found:
http://shilohpics.blogspot.com/2005/08/new-york-again.html

1:23 AM  

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