Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What's in a name

Pale Male in Central Park - fall 2009

With Pale Male and his new mate making love in plain sight on rooftops near the nest building [ 5th Ave and 74th Street] the hawkwatching season of 2011 has joyfully begun. There will be eggs in the nest any day now; the clock will start ticking for the 28-32 day incubation period. It is high time to settle on a name for the handsome female red-tailed hawk Pale Male has paired up with this year.

Why name these hawks at all? Obviously it doesn't matter to the hawks themselves; it is entirely for the hawkwatchers' convenience. In November, 1991, when a light-colored red-tailed hawk began to hang around Central Park's Ramble, the park's birdwatchers took notice; hawks of any species were rare visitors to the park then. Soon, however, it became cumbersome to keep referring to the bird as "the light-colored male red-tailed hawk." When someone simplified things by referring to the bird as Pale Male, the name stuck. A perfect name, focusing as it did on a physical attribute of the bird -- his unusually light color. And by choosing a descriptive name rather than a "people name" such as Henry or Robert , the hawkwatchers avoided being scorned for anthropomorphism, the much reviled attribution of human characteristics to things or animals.

Central Park hawkwatchers have continued to avoid anthropomorphism in the names they've assigned subsequent females at the Fifth Avenue nest, by using a physical attribute [Chocolate, Blue] or a time reference [First Love] for each of Pale Male's mates. Even the seemingly non-descriptive name of Lola, the reigning female at the nest from 2002 to 2010, has an explanation. When Lola first showed up in Central Park she still had some juvenile plumage. This suggested that she might be too young for breeding: hence she was called Lolita [after Nabokov's underaged heroine]. She soon proved to be old enough. As she matured the name was shortened to Lola.

We need a name for the new female Pale Male has been courting so conspicuously on the rooftops and TV antennas of Fifth Avenue. But assigning her an arbitrary human name [like Paula] is not in keeping with the historic naming patterns Central Park hawkwatchers have always followed.

We need another descriptive name. Since Pale Male's new mate [see, it's too long to keep saying!] is notably light in color - -as light, indeed, as Pale Male himself -- I once suggested Pale Beauty--it also happens to be the name of a beautiful moth. But lots of other names denoting lightness in color fall more trippingly on the tongue: Blanche, Pearl, Honey, Lily, Snow White -- that's off the top of my head. There's a better name somewhere, I'm sure of it.

Any ideas, anyone?