Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Cathedral Hawks, past and present

Two chicks in Divine nest!

Divine Mom and chick
Photos by Bruce Yolton - May 21, 2006

Since there is now a successful nest on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I dug up an old article I wrote for the Wall St. Journal quite a number of years ago. It mentions a long-ago nesting attempt on the Cathedral and also speculates [as I did yesterday] about a relationship between the Cathedral hawks and Pale Male.


Sing, O Muse, of the celebrated red-tailed hawks of Central Park. Sing of twice-widowed Pale Male, the unusually light-colored bird who came to stay in the winter of ‘91, the park’s first resident hawk in more than a century. Sing of his first love and how he wooed her on the Great Lawn with love offerings of disemboweled rats and pigeons. Do not withhold her dismal fate [a crash and a broken wing]. Then tell us, immortal one, what happened the next year. Though redtails are supposed to nest in trees, Pale Male and his second mate confounded the rules by building a stick palace above a 12th floor window of a building on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street. And there, in 1995, the Fifth Avenue hawks raised their first family of Fifth Avenue hawklets.

So catch us up, O daughter of Zeus. Tell us this year’s news. How many chicks did Pale Male and his latest consort, Blue, raise this year in their historic pad four floors above Mary Tyler Moore’s apartment? And tell us, if you can, where are the chicks of yesteryear? Surely, O clear-eyed Goddess, you have more of a clue to their various fates than we mortals do.


This year’s hawk drama began on February 5. That afternoon Anne Shanahan, a long-time hawk watcher, made an eagerly anticipated notation in the Bird Register, a log of bird and nature observations kept in the park’s Loeb Boathouse. “Pale Male and Blue MATED on antenna of bldg. on 79th and 5th,” it read, the first of many such entries. Since the sight of large birds of prey consummating their union atop a Fifth Avenue rooftop, antenna or water tower is hardly an everyday experience, the hawk watchers should be forgiven for forgetting themselves on occasion and loudly exclaiming “They’re doing it!” while bystanders cast them disapproving looks.

During all of February the hawks worked on home improvement, bringing fresh sticks to the nest and rearranging old ones. Incubation began on March 8: from that day forth the nest was never unattended. Hatch Day was April 12th, when Pale Male was first observed bringing food to the nest – a mouse. Blue tore it into bits for the yet unseen nestlings. On April 22 a fuzzy white chick head popped up briefly above the nest’s high rim; shortly thereafter, two more. There had also been three chicks in 1995, that first successful year, and three in ’96. Two hatched in ‘97, three in ’98 and two in ’99. The three millennial chicks brought the grand total of Fifth Avenue offspring to sixteen. Sixteen!

On May 24 the nestlings, by size clearly discernable as two females and a male (female hawks are significantly bigger than males), were almost full grown. That evening the regular hawk watchers held a party at the once glistening model-boat pond, now drained for repairs. Charles Kennedy, a haiku poet and wildlife photographer, had ordered a Bohemian Walnut cake from the Cupcake Café for the occasion. It was decorated with a pale-headed red-tailed hawk surrounded by ten small candles..

As dusk was falling, 54 hawk addicts gathered beside the statue of Hans Christian Andersen. They faced the nest building at 74th and 5th, raised their glasses of sparkling cider and sang the birthday song to Pale Male. But how did they figure his age?

Elementary, my dear Watson. The hawk fans knew that the eponymous red tail of Buteo jamaicensis is only attained at the end of a bird’s second year. Since Pale Male was a brown-tail when first sighted in the winter of 1991, but gained his bright russet tail feathers the following spring, it is likely that he was a second-year bird that year, hatched in the spring of 1990. This would make him a ten-year-old today.

The climax of the Hawk Show is always the first flight of the chicks, commonly known as fledging. By the time they are ready to go they’re as big as their parents – only plumage and behavior reveal their immaturity. This year it happened on June 3rd .

As usual, the boy hawk was the first to go, flying from the nest at 6:58 a.m. and heading directly into the park. He landed on a pin-oak at Pilgrim Hill and hung on for dear life as the earth swayed beneath his feet for the first time in his life. A perfect flight , five sleep-deprived but elated witnesses agreed. The girls both took their maiden voyages on June 5, one at 11:10 a.m., the other at 11:22 a.m.

Frederic Lilien, a Belgian film-maker, had been camping on the terrace of a nearby high rise for more than a week. For three years he’d been trying to capture a fledge on videotape for his documentary about the Fifth Avenue hawks. But the light was never right, or he missed it by a split second. He finally got it down perfectly with this year’s third fledge.

As usual, there were huge crowds witnessing these events. The Fledging Pool was won this year by Brigid O’Donnell, who had first watched hawks in County Donegal, Ireland. She had paid $1.00 for her half-hour slot, and won a book about red-tailed hawks. The rest of the proceeds went to the Raptor Trust, a noted rehabilitation center in New Jersey. That’s where Pale Male’s first two mates had been banded and restored to health after separate traumas. They came to bad ends anyhow: one ate a poisoned pigeon, and the other was run over on the New Jersey Turnpike, not far from where she had sustained her first injury. Blue is Pale Male’s third mate and the mother of eight of the chicks.

The Hawk Show does not end when the babies leave the nest. They remain dependent on their parents for food and instruction during the next month or more. This year the hawk kids first settled into a shady grove at the north end of the model-boat pond . There they flew from tree to tree, trying to deflect the blows delivered by local bluejays and robins trying to inspire these undesirables to move out of their neighborhood.

Most of the time the hawklets sat on branches and emitted pathetic cries as they begged for food: Kleek, kleek, kleek -- they sounded like gulls. Eventually a parent hawks would arrive with lunch or dinner and the big babies would dig in lustily, devouring their freshly-killed rodent or pigeon before large crowds of ecstatic (or revolted) observers.

The young hawks learned quickly. On June 29 Charles Kennedy saw, and photographed, one of the girls with a big fat rat in her talons, and by early July each of the others had accomplished their first kill. Yet the hawk teenagers were not quite ready for separation. Long after they could hunt for themselves you could hear them begging throughout the park: Kleek, kleek, kleek.

If this year’s hawk family follows past patterns, by mid- August the three youngsters will have moved to outlying parts of the park. By the end of winter they’ll be gone.

Where do they go next? That’s the tantalizing question. The peregrine falcon is an endangered species. Its nests are carefully monitored, its chicks are all banded. But nobody bands redtails, America’s most common birds of prey. Consequently, there is no way to positively identify the former Fifth Avenue chicks once they’ve left the park.

Yet there are a couple of strong clues to their whereabouts. Ever since 1998, a pair of redtails have been trying to nest, unsuccessfully, so far, on a high ledge of Mt. Sinai Hospital’s Annenberg Building on Fifth Avenue and 100 St. Since this is a highly unusual nest site for this species, it seems reasonable to speculate that these birds are former Fifth Avenue offspring trying to recreate their childhood home in a new location. (Late this season a pair of peregrines -- birds that are supposed to nest on ledges -- took over the spot).

Similarly, for the last two years a pair of red-tailed hawks have been trying to nest on the north face of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, at Amsterdam Avenue and 113th St. This February the Cathedral Hawks wedged sticks into a well-protected, basin-like ornament between two high spires, a propitious site for a nest. Incubation was well under way by the middle of March. . Alas, the female of the pair was found dead on a nearby rooftop on April 3rd. Ward Stone, a wildlife pathologist for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany, performed a necropsy and found evidence of Trichomonas gallinae, a protozoan parasite transmitted to hawks by infected pigeons they eat as prey. Bad luck.

The male of that nest, an unusually light-colored hawk, is still seen in the neighborhood. He often perches atop the large bronze statue of the angel Gabriel that stands on the roof of the Cathedral’s choir. The statue faces east. So, invariably, does the hawk, looking towards Fifth Avenue, looking homeward, perhaps.