— It was a sad weekend for Pale Male, the world’s most famous urban bird, or at least for his many admirers.
The red-tailed hawk, widely celebrated for his long and tumultuous love-life, lost his most recent mate Sunday just as their mating season appeared to be in full swing. The female red-tail, who was called Lima, was found dead under a tree in Central Park Sunday just a day after she was seen mating repeatedly with Pale Male, reported a wildlife photographer who has been observing the hawks for years and writes a blog about the raptors.
The discovery was upsetting to many in the park’s birdwatching community, some of whom placed flowers on the spot where the bird’s body was found, according to one blogger .
“This was not some ordinary bird, some random animal, some wild creature, some un-named thing — this was my friend,” photographer Lincoln Karim wrote on his website, where he also posted a photo of the dead bird.
Because there was no visible sign of injury, and Lima had appeared healthy, Karim speculated that she had eaten a poisoned animal.
During his last observations of her, Karim saw the bird throw up a “pellet,” or undigested food, which appeared to be a rat. Toxicology tests, which he said will be performed on the bird’s body by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, could provide more answers.
On Monday, Karim was reportedly arrested after taking the hawk's body home overnight before turning it over to the state agency. According to The New York Times , the photographer was concerned that the body would not receive the promised testing. He was charged with illegal possession of a raptor and released Tuesday morning.
As for Pale Male, the hawk appeared to take the death in stride and was immediately spotted with a new female, dubbed Zena by bird-watching fans, near his nest above Fifth Avenue.
Urban hawk's rise to fame
In the years since he first arrived in the city, Pale Male’s love life has been chronicled with the kind of intensity usually reserved for A-list celebrities. In the early 1990s, he and his first-known mate made hawk history by building a nest on a ledge of a luxury Fifth Avenue apartment building with an excellent view of Central Park. Prime real estate by any standard, this spot was also one of the first urban buildings known to be used as a nesting ground for red-tails.
The hawks attracted a passionate following of birdwatchers and eventually became a national obsession after the publication of Marie Winn’s 1998 book “Red-Tails in Love,” which recounted the turmoil of Pale Male’s attempts to raise a family in the heart of the bustling city. The bird has since been the subject of much media coverage, a documentary feature and several children’s books, and he has occasionally appeared, in puppet form, on Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show.
Pale Male briefly lost and then reconnected with First Love, as his initial mate was dubbed, before losing her for good, and over the years had mated with several other females while siring a small dynasty of urban hawks, all from the Fifth Avenue aerie.
For eight years he was seen about town with a hawk named Lola, with whom he fathered seven eyases, as baby hawks are called.
The pair were abruptly, and notoriously, evicted from their home in 2004 by the building’s co-op board, which objected to the remains of prey strewing the sidewalk where celebrity residents such as Paula Zahn entered and exited the building. But protests from the bird community, including pressure from another resident Mary Tyler Moore, prompted the board to restore the spikes that supported the nest. The birds rebuilt, but apparently never succeeded in raising a new brood there.
When Lola finally disappeared in 2010, Pale Male created another minor scandal by immediately gallivanting about with a string of new females. New York Magazine proclaimed him “kind of a slut,” while The New York Times compared him to Hugh Hefner.
Life can be short and brutal
To hawk experts, though, his ability to rebound quickly is not surprising. Red-tailed hawks do typically mate for life, but “life” can be short and brutal. A red-tail can live 25 years or more, but many don’t make it more than a year, says Tim Gallagher, a longtime falconer, author of the book “Falcon Fever,” and editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird magazine.
Once a hawk loses a mate, particularly during mating season, it will immediately seek another – and usually find one. There will often be a roster of single mates waiting in the wings.
“It’s tough out there. You know, these hawks, there’s no one taking care of them. They’re just freelancers,” Gallagher said. “So maybe they just have to get back to the business of surviving.”
Hawks have flourished in New York City and other urban areas largely because of the ready availability of prey, such as pigeons and rats fattened on human leftovers. There are 30 or 40 pairs of nesting red-tails in the city, a dramatic increase from 20 years ago, according to New York City Audubon. But humans are also the greatest threat to hawks, which are especially vulnerable during breeding season when a male hawk is hunting for two and is more likely to eat a dead or dying rodent from poison.
Urban bird advocates were outraged last summer when a closely watched red-tailed hawk, a new father, died after consuming a poisoned animal in another uptown Manhattan park. Fearing that the widowed female would not be able to survive without a male to hunt while she sat on the nest, park rangers placed dead, unpoisoned rats near the nest. The family pulled through, and she has since found a new mate.
'A charmed life'
Rat poison is the second leading cause of death for hawks in New York City, after car collisions, and it accounts for about three or four hawk deaths a year, says Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon. The primary culprit is an anticoagulant called brodifacoum, the main ingredient in the rat poison d-Con. The EPA restricted its use in 2008, but a pending lawsuit has kept the chemical widely available.
In the meantime, said Phillips, the New York City Parks Department has ceased using the product and has agreed not to use any poisons in known raptor hunting grounds during the mating season of March to August. Most of the poisoned rats that are still killing birds are likely poisoned by private citizens or other organizations at the edges of parks, Phillips said. If people knew this, he believes, they would use something else.
“The bottom line with rat control is that no amount of poison will ever control rats. The only way to control them is by reducing their food source,” Phillips said. In a city rife with open garbage cans, and other waste disposal issues, this is a tough challenge.
“It’s certainly one of the many risks that these birds are facing living in close proximity to humans,” said Lauren Butcher, education director of The Raptor Trust in Millington, New Jersey, which rehabilitates injured or sick birds and once treated one of Pale Male’s mates.
In general, she noted, life is a dangerous proposition for any hawk, and Pale Male is one of the lucky ones.
“The history of Pale Male’s many subsequent mates gives a really good indication of the risks that these birds face, that he faces, living near humans,” Butcher said. “He’s led a charmed life.”
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