Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sad news about the Riverside Park redtail family; Blakeman's comments

The Riverside male on Feb. 25, 2008, as nest-building was in progress
Photo by Bruce Yolton

As some of you already know, there is sad news about the Riverside Park redtail nest. The three fluffy white chicks were last seen alive before the severe rainstorm on Friday, May 9, 2008. Observers at the nest the next day saw no evidence of chicks' heads popping up, though the parents were sighted trying to feed sdomething within the nest. Early Sunday morning three bodies were found, and one was sent to Ward Stone, the DEC pathologist, for analysis as to the cause of death..

I wrote John Blakeman yesterday, asking if he had heard the sad news. He replied:


Yes, I regretfully learned of the deaths of the three, otherwise thriving eyasses. Quite sad.
But not entirely unexpected. I privately pondered such a possiblity when I first saw the photo of the yellow eyes of one of adults of this pair, indicating that the bird had never bred before. This lethal happenstance is not so infrequent among new, inexperienced pairs. In recalling a few of these incidents, I think they seem to occur most often as this one, when the eyasses are late in the downy stages, before the third week.

I was not aware of the rainy storm event, but that almost surely was the eyass's undoing, hypothermia from getting wet. The inexperienced mother certainly would have attempted to keep her offspring dry and warm, but like ambling human toddlers, they were at an age where they began to have a bit of ambulatory capability. They could start to push themselves around the bottom of the nest and most likely got themselves out into the rain. The inexperienced mother may not have known just how to curtail these lethal wanderings, or to keep the eyasses entirely dry. With her first brood, the attending mother does everything only by instinct; pretty well, at that. But instinct alone isn't always sufficient. The mother will have learned from this and will be more attentive and effective in protecting future eyasses. Nesting failures like this are not uncommon among young, inexperienced Red-tails (as with many other species, too).

Nature (to be teleological -- I cringe at putting it in these easily-understood but not altogether accurate terms) isn't so "concerned" about the survival of every egg laid or eyass hatched. The survival of the species (or population) depends upon the collective success of all of the breeding birds, not any single nest. If a large percent of first-timers are unsuccessful and a bunch of hapless eyasses die, while at the same time experienced adults have high rates of success, the population succeeds. Although each of us lament the loss of the Riverside eyasses, "nature" does not. These deaths may well provide for many years of future breeding successes of this pair.

So yes, this occurs more often than we'd prefer. This is neither rare nor aberrant.
Of course, there is an outside chance that the eyasses were fed a poisoned animal, perhaps a rat. The chances are pretty low for that, however. Poisoned rats generally crawl back into a dark recess and curl up and die there. And most industrial rat poisons (not all, in all cases) are not so lethal to a consuming predator.

Dealing with the loss of the Riverside Park eyasses, along with the disconcerting failure of the 927 nest this year, are things raptor lovers and students must get used to. Only (and properly) among humans should we hope, pray, and expect every offspring to survive and thrive. 'Tis never the case among wild animals, forcing us to intelligently reconcile these disheartening events with the way things really happen in nature.

As much as we all lament these eyass deaths, have any of us taken so much as a pondered breath concerning the multiple deaths of the rats, pigeons, squirrels, and other prey sacrificed to support these hawks? In natural ecosystems, death and suffering are frequent. Only we, as intelligent, pondering, sentient beings can begin to contemplate the "amoral" intricacies of all of this. But whatever personal explanations or understandings finally come to us, there is simply nothing we can do to change any of it.

The ecological intricacies of the lives of all animals are ponderous. But those of creatures as regal the Red-tailed Hawk are particularly deep -- and now in New York City, wonderfully visible. That's why I'm a falconer and a student of wild raptors. Just as with so many now in New York, I've been privileged to personally witness the lives of Red-tailed Hawks, in ways not available to incidental bird watchers and passers by.

I thank all who have so generously contributed photos and stories of the NYC Red-tails, allowing everyone who chooses to see these birds so "up-close and personal." The loss of the Riverside Park eyasses are but a short scene in the entire story. In the manner of "Nature," take no concern. Red-tailed Hawk life in NYC will very well go on. The parents of the lost eyasses will not lament. They haven't the parts of the brain that would allow that. We do, but in this case we shouldn't dwell on the deaths any more than the parents do.

--John Blakeman