Saturday, June 10, 2006

Orange-chested in Hartford

Another picturesque redtail nesting site, almost as glamorous as the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. This one is on the north side of the Hartford, CT Superior Courthouse, where a redtail family nested [and sat for photos] in 2000. This nestling was named Justy by the local Hawkwatchers.

A Pale Male relative? Until recently I would have thought so, because of the orange chest. Now, after the discussion has taken so many odd twists and turns, I'm not so sure.

Don't read on if you hate puns

I wish I could take credit --I love puns-- but Stella, a Hawkwatcher from early Pale Male days, was the one who came out with it as we watched one of the Divine nestlings take this position on Friday evening [6/9/06]:

A bird in the hand

By the way, the splendid photo is by Bruce Yolton.

Chris Lyons reports and speculates on orange chests

The three Fordham nestlings --two orange and one white

White-chested Fordham nestling
Photos by Chris Lyons

Chris Lyons reports on the Fordham University redtail family, whose nest is reminiscent of Pale Male's on Fifth Avenue , from the architectural ornamentation in the background to the anti-pigeon spikes at its base. He also casts new light on the mystery of the orange-chested nestlings.


It's been an exciting week at the Fordham nest. The first fledge of the year took place on Thursday evening (6/8), around 5:35pm, and I was actually there to see it. I didn't expect fledging to happen quite that soon, and the reason I hung around after work was to try and photograph all three chicks together on the nest, which I just barely managed to do before the coming out party.

And as you'll see from the photograph I took of the trio, plus an earlier photograph of one of the chicks in particular, two of them have orangey chests, and one decidedly does NOT. I had noticed this difference a week or so ago, but I wasn't sure if the pale-chested eyass was just a late bloomer, so to speak. In some light, you can see a little color here and there, but the difference is obvious in any light, and if he doesn't have an orangey chest by now, I doubt he ever will. And his sister (the largest, and first to fledge) has something of a pale spot in the midst of her otherwise orangey chest. The third eyass just has a regular orangey chest of the type that has become familiar to all NYC Red-Tail fans. I never anticipated I'd ever have occasion to type the words 'orangey chest' so many times in one paragraph, but there you have it.

So what to make of this? Hawkeye and Rose had two orangey-chested chicks last year. The year before that, I firmly believe, they built a nest on a nearby fire escape on Creston Avenue, which produced two chicks, both of which were removed from the nest when they were still too small and fluffy to have developed orangey chests.

They were taken to an upstate raptor rehabilitation facility, where they were successfully reared and released by Paul Kupchok. Who, when I spoke to him, was fairly certain they both developed that familiar chest pigmentation. But who stated quite definitely that both orangey-chested and pale-chested eyasses were commonly brought to him from all parts of New York State. We didn't get into the matter of whether you could have both in the same clutch. But self-evidently, you can.

We all know that the genetic lottery is a funny thing. You only have to look at a litter of mixed-breed puppies to know that, and even pampered purebreds produce their share of oddities, which is how we created so many breeds of dog to begin with--by breeding animals with rare but desired traits with others having the same traits, until the type breeds true. With humans, a red-haired child can be born to a family of blondes or brunettes, a living reminder of some forgotten forebear, perhaps from an Irish bog, or a Polish shtetl.

Red-Tails move around. The young fledged from one area are forced to leave their parents' territory, and while they may settle nearby, they may also end up very far away. Red-Tails that don't have territories as bounteous as Pale Male and Lola's may migrate many hundreds or thousands of miles to find a good wintering spot. We see many more Red-Tails in NYC in the wintertime, because birds from up north have come to feast on our teeming population of rodents (and increasingly, pigeons), in an effort to survive until the spring, at which time birds with established territories may head back north, but those without may sometimes hang around and mingle. Local talent meets out-of-towners, and birds from different areas end up producing young together, rolling the genetic dice again. As John Blakeman has pointed out, this is the key to longterm genetic fitness and adaptability for this species, and many others. The greater the genetic variety, the better.

So the pale-chested eyass gene (pity there's no Red-Tail Genome project) is commonly found among Red-Tails in the areas surrounding NYC, but for whatever reason, it's been either rare or recessive in the urban-nesting birds we've been observing--and even looking at online photos of eyasses from other parts of the country, Boston, Hartford, and even California, one keeps seeing those orangey chests--even though there seems to be no mention of this chest coloration in the literature compiled by scientists who have studied this species. The one thing that all these nests seem to have in common is that they aren't out in the wilderness--they're all close to human habitations, and easily observed by nature enthusiasts. So they may give a skewed idea of how common this trait really is. Or they may not.

Maybe the orangey-chested eyass gene is the dominant gene--that's certainly the case with human pigmentation. Where a Red-Tail carrying the pale-chested gene mates with a Red-Tail that has the orangey-chested gene, the offspring usually (but not always) develop the orangey chests. But of course, the chicks normally don't keep their orangey chests--in these parts at least, they start turning pale again, in the months following fledging. So what on earth are these orangey chests FOR? Why did eyasses start developing them in the first place?

Well, I might as well throw a theory out there to get shot down--just to get the ball rolling.

It's well known that birds are highly sensitive to color--all birds have excellent color vision, whereas very few mammals do. They can probably see color better than we can, and perhaps color 'wavelengths' that we can't detect at all. Nestlings of many bird species display brightly colored gapes in their early stages of development, that scientists believe may help stimulate their parents to feed them (the stimulus is so strong that a Robin was once photographed feeding goldfish in a pond, whose orange gaping mouths at the surface triggered his powerful feeding impulse). Even the dark-hued Raven, when young, has bright orange coloration around the beak--I've seen Ravens chicks being fed on a nest high up on the Palisades, near Nyack--and the gape color is visible from a great distance.

Now, it makes no sense that this chest coloration exists to stimulate Red-Tail parents to feed their nestlings, because the nestlings don't HAVE this color for most of the time they are on the nest. Hints of it may be seen in otherwise pale fluffy chicks, but it reaches its peak not long before fledging, and fades not long after. So in fact, it's at its peak during the time when the eyasses are still highly dependent on their parents for food, but no longer in a single convenient location. They may band together at times, but at other times, they'll be scattered, perched on trees or human structures, vying for the increasingly divided attention of their parents, competing for the food they need to finish maturing. By the time the color fades, the young have probably started hunting for themselves, and the pigmentation is just a waste of resources now needed for the young bird to develop its first adult plumage, and (of course) the famous brick red tail.

So just for the hell of it, I'm going to speculate that the orangey chests found on so many Red-Tail eyasses are a relatively new adaptation (which would explain why they have not been more remarked upon by past observers), and give those chicks having them a slight edge over pale-chested siblings in terms of attracting their parents to come feed them. I don't think it makes them more visible, necessarily, but it may make them more attractive, in a sense--the color may stimulate their parents to come to them just a BIT more often. If it gives them any edge at all, it's probably a tiny one at best. But in the genetic sweepstakes, a tiny edge can be significant over the long run. The trait is probably more common in some areas than others, but may be spreading through the normal process of young hawks striking out on their own across great distances, to find food, a mate, and a territory of their own. It's conceivable that someday, pale-chested eyasses may become as rare across much or all of the enormous range of this species as they are in New York City.

But as the little guy flapping his wings at us in the photo seems to be signaling, the pale-chests aren't finished yet. Maybe if we look harder, we'll find more of them. And maybe we can find a better theory too, but I just thought I'd take a shot at it. Anyone want to take a shot at my theory?

Central Park's agressive butterflies

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Photo by Lloyd Spitalnik

I've heard of songbirds mobbing hawks and owls. This is the first time I've heard of a butterfly mobbing anything besides a flower. I would discount this report if it weren't from Ben Cacace, a meticulous reporter. It was part of his complete bird report posted on e-birds yesterday. You might enjoy checking out Ben's blog at

DATE: Friday, 9 June 2006
LOCATION: Central Park

The most interesting sight was the mobbing of a male Mallard by a butterfly that appeared to be an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The Mallard would duck as the butterfly struck its head. After quite a few strikes both the male & female headed into the water which ended the attack. The Mallards were resting on the east edge of the reservoir.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Squirrel Prey

Cathedral Mom and bushy-tailed prey -- 6/5/06
Photo Bruce Yolton

On Monday evening, 6/5/06, I was up at the Cathedral hawkwatching, along with Bruce Yolton, Noreen O'Rourke, Chris Lyons, Yolanda Garcia, and a few others. Larry Curtis was filming the action for Frederic Lilien's film-in-progress.
Towards the end of the evening we all witnessed a breathtaking event: The adult female, [Divine Mom] who had been perched atop St. Lukes hospital, across the street from the Cathedral, suddenly made a dive directly towards the Cathedral wall. We heard the sound of impact -- I thought she was engaged in some sort of kamikazi dive --- and then she quickly returned to the top of St. Luke's again. But this time she looked different. A bushy tail was hanging down beneath her own tail as she flew. She sat on the hospital for a few minutes, mantling her prey. Then she flew off with it towards Morningside Park, perhaps to share with her mate. Bruce captured the event with his camera and titled the photo above Two Tails in the City. You may be wondering what a squirrel was doing on the actual building of the Cathedral. Well, I'm here to tell you that city squirrels clamber over buildings all the time. There is a squirrel that regularly appears on my 4th floor window-sill looking for a hand-out. The window is not attached to any fire-escape. The squirrel has to climb sheer wall.
PS Do I give the hand-out? Yes I'm afraid I do. And since a family member is allergic to peanuts, I am forced to provide hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds. These squirrels have a tough life...

I 'm re-posting an interesting note about squirrels as redtail prey that John Blakeman wrote almost a year ago\. Note his comment about females catching squirrels more frequently than males. That was underlined last Monday at the Cathedral.

About squirrels: In rural areas, these arboreal rodents are marginal and infrequent red-tail fare, especially the larger fox squirrel. The squirrels of Central Park, I believe, are all the slightly smaller gray squirrels. Nonetheless, each species can be challenging prey, even for the muscular red-tail. Squirrels are hard to kill. They have lightning-fast, extremely powerful, and agile teeth and jaws. Unless a hawk can instantly grab the head of a squirrel and restrain its biting, the bird is likely to encounter a vicious bite that can severe a tendon or split a bone.
Additionally, squirrels have skin that is almost impervious to the penetration of the hawk's needle-sharp talons. It is difficult for a red-tail to sink a talon or two into a vital organ. And since most of those are in the thoracic (chest) cavity, the squirrel's head may be free to fling about and render multiple bites on the toes and tarsus (ankle) of the hawk.
Although squirrels appear to be readily available hawk food, these rodents are formidable prey. In the experiences of most falconers who pursue squirrels with red-tails, the smaller tiercels (males) just don't much like to take on squirrels The big hens will, from time to time.
Having watched red-tails hunt, I'd stay away from squirrels if I were a red-tail. They are dangerous, difficult to kill, and hard to rip open for the underlying flesh. Squirrels are formidable. A wise red-tail stays away from them except only when it knows it has the upper hand.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

There should be a new word for dumb besides bird-brained.

I nominate Daily News-brained.

This is from yesterday's paper. The story was also on TV news all day. Guess we should be glad there's nothing better [i.e. more horrible] to write about.

New York Daily News -
What is deal with these hawks?
Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

Jerry Seinfeld has a new bird-brained neighbor - and it ain't Kramer.

The city's most famous red-tail hawks, Pale Male and his main chick, Lola, have apparently left their upper East Side roost for a fancy new perch atop the Beresford on the upper West Side.

"I love the hawks!" Seinfeld told the Daily News yesterday as he left his Beresford co-op and got into his silver Mercedes-Benz M350. "I can't get enough of the hawks."

Pale Male and Lola could be seen yesterday flying to and from their new address overlooking Central Park in the 22-story building's rococo southeast tower. One of the birds appeared to have twigs in its beak, leading observers to believe they are building a nest.

Actress Glenn Close, who lives in the tony building on Central Park West, was surprised to learn of her new neighbors upstairs.

"What hawks?" Close asked The News. "I love hawks."

Photographer Lincoln Karim, who has been following the lovebirds' saga for six years, first noticed they were on the move about three months ago.

He said that when he started snapping pictures of them with his 800-mm. lens some Beresford residents mistook him for a paparazzo looking for Seinfeld.

Karim said he doesn't have a clue why the high-style hawks decided to move, but noted they've failed to produce any offspring in their upper East Side digs over the past two mating seasons.

"What I find admirable is that after two failures they're still courting, still dancing together," Karim said.

But the hawks have ruffled a few feathers in the home of the original Cosmo girl, Helen Gurley Brown, 84.

The famed magazine editor said she's "honored and flattered" to have the birds nesting just above her apartment, but her husband, film and Broadway producer David Brown, is not happy about it.

"They do nothing for me," David Brown said. "I'll tell you, my wife is insane about birds."

At the hawks' old haven at 927 Fifth Ave., where their neighbors included Mary Tyler Moore and CNN newscaster Paula Zahn, local residents were sorry to hear they had left their 12th floor ledge.

"I'm disappointed," said fashion designer Michael Latschison, 40, who lives in the neighborhood. "But who says a hawk is loyal."

It was actually a landlord-tenant dispute at the Fifth Ave. building in December 2004 that made the hawks famous. Some residents briefly got Pale Male and Lola evicted after complaining about having to step over the birds' leftover meals.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A ridiculous rumor

Pale Male with twig--June 1, 2006
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Now that Pale Male is as famous as Brad and Angelina, he is just as likely to be the subject of bizarre rumors. The latest, on the news last night and in several newspapers this morning [Daily News, AM New York] is that he and Lola are building a new nest on the Beresford, a building on Central Park West and 81st St..

Reality: Pale Male and Lola have been spending time at the Beresford for years. They like the afternoon sun there. It may also be a good hunting perch at certain times. Their favorite spot happens to be right outside the tower apartment of another celebrity, Helen Gurley Brown. This has gotten the interest of the press, somehow. Also, photos and sightings of each of the pair bringing twigs to the Beresford.

Question: So why are they bringing twigs to the Beresford now?
Answer: They bring twigs to various perches all the time. This is the home-decorating instinct, not the house-building instinct. The hormones that trigger real nest-building are not activated until the breeding season--it happens in February, not in June

Summary: Pale Male and Lola are NOT building a new nest on the Beresford. They are NOT moving to the West Side, even though I, as a staunch West Sider, think they'd be happy there. They're just hanging out, having an easier life these days than they might be having if their eggs had hatched.

PS If you're interested in seeing the Cathedral chicks, the best viewing spot is on 113th Street, between Amsterdam Ave and Morningside Ave, almost at the Morningside corner. Better hurry. The chicks are growing fast. They might fledge before June 15th.

The City Hawklet vs.The Country Hawklet

A well-fed City Hawklet at the Cathedral of St John the Divine
Photo by Bruce Yolton

Click below for many more photos of the Cathedral Hawks

John Blakeman argues that our inner city hawklets will have poor survival skills when forced to face life in the boondocks. Margie Siegal of Oakland California brings up a good point in the following letter:

Far be it from me to second guess the experts, but I think they are wrong with regards to the survival of Pale Male’s offspring. These fledglings have excellent CITY survival skills; why should they migrate to the country, as Blakeman keeps insisting? There is plenty of territory from Baltimore to Portland where the kids would have an edge- an ability to catch pigeons and starlings and rats and deal with cars and people. I think that most have simply moved to suburbia, where they are unobtrusively hanging around bird feeders (which often attract rats to eat spilled seed) and shopping malls.

However, I concur with Blakeman et al with regards to the fecundity of the second generation. The problem is that suitable nesting sites are scarce in cities and towns. Check out New York: there are five male hawks (which I think are all Pale Male offspring) making a fine living in the inner city. Four of these hawks have found mates. However, aside from Pale Male, none have been able to consistently hatch eggs. Pale Male Jr. has only be able to fledge two in several years of trying, as has Pale Male III. The Divine pair has only been successful this season.

Margie Siegal

Losing feathers - a question for Blakeman

Lola missing feathers -- 6/4/06 from Http://
Photo by Lincoln Karim

Referring to the photo above, Karen Ann Kolling of Rhode Island writes:
Noting Lola's feather situation on Lincoln's web site and having seen PM with a similar thing going on, it might be interesting to post about how and how often feathers are replaced, for those of us ignorami out in the boonies...

I sent her note to John Blakeman and he responded obligingly:

Red-tails (and most other raptors) have standard molting patterns, dropping feathers in distinct sequences.
The molt usually begins with the dropping of the inner-most pair of primaries. As new feathers come down, adjacent feathers are dropped, with primaries dropping in an outward direction, secondaries in an inward one.
Nearly at the same time of the dropping of the first primaries (within a week or two), the dropping of a tail feather begins, starting with one of the two center feathers. A second central tail feather is often quickly lost, leaving a hole of the two missing central tail feathers.
Tail feathers are dropped in pairs from the center outward.
Growth of the missing long flight feathers can take 10 to 14 days or so. When the new feathers attain full length, adjacent flight feathers will be dropped.
When new feathers reach full length, they are still "in the blood," soft, with interior blood flow. The feather is not fully functional and strong until the interior blood vessels dry up, which can be a few days after the feather are fully extended. Feathers still in the blood can be easily bent or injured and such damage is permanent. But red-tails are particularly attentive in not engaging in combative killing events that could permanently damage new, still-soft feathers.
That's a major reason the molt occurs in the summer, when there is plenty of easy-to-catch food. In winter, when prey can be hard to find, the hawk's feathers are usually able to withstand a good deal of bending. One seldom sees a wild red-tail with damaged feathers. During the molt, they are very attentive to feather care.
Injured raptor feathers should never be plucked. Falconers "imp" the permanently bend feathers, inserting and gluing in slivers of bamboo or plastic in the straightened, hollow feather shaft. We usually snip off the damaged outer length and imp on a new feather length from a formerly molted feather held for this purpose. Federal falconry regulations allow falconers to keep their molted feathers for just this (and no other) purpose. We aren't allowed to stick a fine red tail feather in our hat.
And for the public's information, no one is permitted to pick up a molted hawk feather (of any size or condition) and take it home. All migratory bird feathers are prohibited from possession for any reason not specifically included in Migratory Bird Treaty Regulations.
If anyone sees a red-tail feather on the ground, leave it lie. It is illegal to pick one up and walk away with it. If, however, one might see a feather being plucked and dropped by a known Central Park red-tail, it would be acceptable to pick it up and store it in a plastic bag for DNA analysis. If we had a fresh feather from every CP red-tail, DNA analysis could create the missing genealogy.
Species in other hawk genera, such as falcons and accipiters, have different molting patterns.
Occasionally, a wild red-tail will "over molt," dropping a new feather in September or October that was newly grown at the beginning of the season. We falconers see this sometimes with our captive birds, and there is every indication that this occurs because the bird has an abundance of food.
Large raptors such as eagles often fail to molt out all of their feathers in single season. Red-tails and smaller raptors usually have a complete molt each year.
The start of the molt can vary markedly. I've had my birds drop long flight feathers as early as April, while the same birds began the molt in other years in late May or even early June. I've never been able to determine what starts the molt. I think it's just a bit random.
One of the pictures of Lola by Lincoln Karim shows the recent loss of the first primary on each wing. I'd say that she dropped the feathers about a week before the photo. She will drop one of the two center tail feather soon.
None of this describes the molting of the smaller body ("covert") feathers, or the interior down feathers, another detailed topic.
--John Blakeman

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Bicknell's Thrush [possibly]

Since I can't seem to post photos [temporarily, I hope] I'm trying a different approach. If you click on the link, you may [possibly] come up with Lloyd's photo of the singing Bicknell's Thrush. This is an experiment.

[I'll know if it works as soon as I post this.]


PS Just checked. It works!!! I'll be doing this more often.

Still a few problems, but in the meanwhile...

Thanks to everyone who wrote in with comments and suggestions while this page was acting up. Something is still not working smoothly. It's very hard to get pictures to upload. I was planning to post a good number of Lloyd' Spitalnik's latest photos
but couldn't transfer most of them. Miraculously, the 2 above came on screen. I'm most disappointed to be unable to post a great picture of a Bicknell's Thrush Lloyd caught in the act of singing on May 18th. He listened to him sing for 1/2 an hour, and thus could be 150% certain the bird was a Bicknell's and not a Gray-cheeked thrush. The two species are almost identical in appearance [though the bill color can often be used for ID purposes]. But the songs of the two birds are different. Thus, no mistakes if you find a singing bird.

The first photo is not a bird. It is a Nessus Sphinx, a day-flying moth. [It wasn't taken in Central Park, but one was seen there a week ago.]
The second picture is an ovenbird. But check out Lloyd's website. They're all there.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Having trouble getting this page?

Many people are writing to say my Nature News page freezes. Please let me know if the problem persists.

[I guess if you can't get the page you won't get this message. But just in case...]