Wednesday, April 04, 2007

At the Hawk Bench -- year unknown

Pale Male, Superstar

Celebrity worship is not a recent phenomenon. “There’s always been a cult of celebrity,” Joyce Carol Oates once noted. “The instinct to worship is so deeply embedded in the human soul, we naturally look to individuals elevated above the masses, however minimally they might be elevated, and temporarily.”

It was only a matter of time before one of those individuals proved to be elevated above the masses quite literally: Pale Male, the first avian superstar, pursuing a flock of pigeons above the Model-boat Pond, or making lazy circles in the sky with his true love Lola.

After the nest-removal and ensuing hue and cry, Pale Male Superstar moments began happening throughout Central Park. You’d see a few strollers ambling along, tourists, perhaps or New Yorkers taking a shortcut to get to their destination.

Someone would suddenly look up and scream “It’s Pale Male! Look, it’s him!” and begin to jump up and down like a contestant on Jeopardy. It was a celebrity sighting like any other, something to tell the family at home, as you’d do if you spotted Meryl Streep shopping at Zabars, or Johnny Depp getting into a taxi.

The name Pale Male was a crucial ingredient in creating the hawk’s celebrity. You can’t have celebrity without a name. Doubtless the fact that the Fifth Avenue Hawks had names was an important part of the overwhelming public response to the nest-removal crisis. People who knew and cared nothing about birds were able to anthropomorphize them into a humanoid couple whose "love nest" had been torn down by a wicked landlord.

But it was not just the fact that the hawk had a name, assigned to it long ago , as it happens, for birdwatchers’ convenience. The name itself -- Pale Male -- had a particularly engaging sound—it pronounced trippingly on the tongue. Even the echo of Pall Mall , either pronounced as Americans do, to rhyme with ball, or with the upper class British pronunciation, Pell Mell , gave the name a special charisma, a zing. People liked to say it—Pale Male. Pale Male and Lola. The names could pull the emotion lever all by themselves, even without the pathos of the nest removal..

People wept when they heard that Pale Male and Lola’s nest had been destroyed. What could be worse than having your home destroyed after ten idyllic years and 23 children? But that certainly was not the way the birds perceived it. They had no understanding of the machinations of a privacy-minded Board of Directors who hated the public attention these famous hawks focused on their building. From the birds’ point of view it was all much simpler.

As John Blakeman explained it, redtail nests are destroyed by natural forces all the time, by storms, winds, torrential rains. The birds don't "suffer" when this happens. They are hard-wired to deal with it. They'll just build a new nest when the next breeding season begins. They often build a new nest even if an old one is not destroyed. Indeed, according to Blakeman, a single nest having a ten-year run is rare indeed

Though the nest-removal crisis was a perfect media event, though people loved to read about how the billionaires repented of their sins, hired an architect and spent big bucks putting up a new structure for the bereft hawk couple, the outcome was almost certainly not advantageous for the hawks. Instead of building an expensive stainless-steel structure on the ledge it would have been better to keep them off the site somehow. Then they might have built a nest in a tree somewhere in the park—it was still early in the season -- and the whole story might have had a happier ending: chicks in the nest for the tenth year in a row.

Instead, nest failure for two years in a row after the nest-removal crisis.

Now we've paid our dues for all the human foolishness that interrupted the hawks' long and successful run on Fifth Avenue. This may be the year for chicks in the nest again.