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Redtails in Love

March is courtship time for red-tailed hawks. Most have spent their winters farther south, but for over a decade we have had at least one in residence throughout the winter months. We’re liable to hear its piercing whistle on even the coldest winter days or watch it being harassed by the local crow gang. Often it sits for hours on a branch overlooking First Field and watches for prey.

Once the March winds pick up, though, a pair of redtails appears over First Field and for days we watch as they soar and dive, strengthening their pair bonds and defending their territory from interlopers. This part of their lives is performed out in the open, and birdwatchers are liable to be treated to breathtaking aerial displays throughout the month of March.

Several years ago, on March 7, I sat on our veranda in late afternoon. It was 57 degrees, the March wind was blowing, and the yard birds were in a frenzy of joy–calling, singing, and chasing. A pair of redtails, sounding to my ears like tin horns, emitted what the experts refer to as their chwirk calls, as they circled above Sapsucker Ridge.

Then one alighted on the remnants of an old nest while the other flew above it, circling, calling, and landing in nearby treetops, its legs extended downward. I was watching the so-called “talon-drop” display that red-tails perform to defend their territory or in courtship. Because they eventually flew off together, instead of one routing the other, they were probably a mated pair and not two males fighting over territory.

Last March 24 the redtails used our First Field, yard, and wooded ridgetops for even more elaborate courtship rites. I had been away for most of the day, but what a homecoming I received. Our son Dave announced that redtails had been courting for hours above the field. When I stepped outside to put on my hiking boots, the redtails flew low over our yard chwirking and performing talon drop. Then the female flew to a tall white pine on the far side of our powerline right-of-way, and the male streaked after her.

Because of the distance, we were not positive that they mated, but the male did appear to land briefly on the female’s back. According to ornithologists, the female leans forward with her wings dangling loosely at her sides, inviting the male to mate. Copulation lasts from five to ten seconds.

Eager to make the best of the beautiful day, I hiked along Sapsucker Ridge Trail and watched the first turkey vultures of the year soaring overhead. The redtails also continued to fly up and down the ridgetop, giving both their piercing whistles and their chwirk calls. I sat against the largest oak tree on our property and watched as the male red-tail sailed over First Field chwirking. Then, he flew straight down and up and down again, like an airplane caught in extreme turbulence, before disappearing from view. Although this so-called “undulatory flight” is thought to be a territorial display, he appeared to be using it in courtship because only a couple seconds later the female skimmed through the woods seven feet from the ground and a mere 30 feet from where I sat undetected by the courting pair. The male zipped past after her and both disappeared over the side of the mountain toward the valley. I followed their path on slow, earthbound feet, stumbling over rocks and fallen limbs. By the time I made it to the edge of the ridgetop, they had disappeared for the day.

Redtails are faithful to each other and their territory for as long as they live. If one dies the survivor will hold on to the territory until another mate appears. The territory itself ranges from half a square mile to over two square miles, depending on the abundance of food, nesting and perching sites.

Our open home grounds and First Field, tucked below and between two wooded ridgetops, seems to be ideal habitat for redtails. We also have plenty of tall trees overlooking the surrounding countryside for both nesting and perching. I suspect that they nest at the end of Sapsucker Ridge because we usually see a redtail family flying and calling in the area in early summer.

But much of the redtails’ home life is difficult to observe. “Nest-building is a very deliberate process,” Arthur Cleveland Bent once wrote in his Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey. “The birds visit the nest at very infrequent intervals and are very cautious about it. If they suspect that the nest is watched they will not come near it.”

Donald and Lillian Stokes in A Guide to Bird Behavior caution, “It prefers to nest in rural or wild areas and at this time is easily disturbed, often abandoning its nest during nest building or incubation phases if humans approach too closely.” Taking this advice to heart, I have not tried to find the redtails’ nest but have been content to watch only what they are willing to share.

That is to say, I was content until I read Marie Winn’s charming book Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. For seven years a male redtail has not only courted over Central Park in the heart of New York City but has nested on the facade of an apartment house on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street in clear view of a growing number of Fifth Avenue Hawkwatchers. Named Pale Male because his head is almost white and his white breast lacks the usual red-tail dark belly band, he and a succession of mates have successfully raised 12 chicks from 1995 to 1999. His first mate, called First Love, ate a poisoned pigeon and died on a ledge of the Metropolitan Museum. His second mate–Chocolate–collided with a car on the nearby New Jersey turnpike. Both were victims of city living. But Blue, a dark-headed female, has so far lasted three years.

Winn, a nature columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of The Plug-In Drug (about television), is also an avid birdwatcher. Beginning in 1991 she joined the Regulars, as they call themselves, who not only watch birds but record their observations of all wild creatures in the park in the Central Park Bird Register and Nature Notes at the Loeb Boathouse. The Regulars, she writes, “notice what others have long learned to ignore: the sights and sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of the world around them. [They] forget the self and its hungry needs. [They] pay attention to tiny details.” One Regular even had his own obituary in the New York Times–Lambert Pohner–“an elf of a man, with a white beard and a bush hat….who watched over the birds and butterflies of Central Park for more than 40 years.”

For those of us who might think that a nature lover in New York City is an oxymoron, this tale of Central Park and its human and natural inhabitants is inspiring. Central Park, designed to be a manicured garden, has become a wilder place mostly due to lack of funds to keep it as spiffy as its designers intended. Bird diversity has increased from 121 species in 1886 to 275 species by 1996. It is, Winn says, “a green oasis in the concrete desert.” It is also on the Eastern Flyway and so is one of the birding hotspots during migration.

Still, a nesting redtail seemed beyond the bounds of belief at first. Ornithologist Dean Amadon summed up the general feeling that “that male must have a screw loose somewhere.” But Charles R. Preston, an expert on red-tailed hawks, was a bit more temperate in his remarks. “Red-tailed hawks are an amazingly adaptable species,” he told Winn, “and they have been known to use various other man-made structures for nesting.”

Winn and the other Hawkwatchers realized that much is yet to be learned about redtails and they hoped to add to the scientific literature about them. Day after day, from dawn until sometimes long after dark, and year after year, situated on a bench in Central Park, they have trained their binoculars and spotting scopes on the apartment facade, keeping meticulous notes on the annual ritual of Pale Male and his mate’s courtship, nest building, egg laying, hatching, raising and fledging of their family.

They too watch talon-drop and they discovered that Pale Male usually presents his mate with a rat or pigeon before mating on roof ornaments, television antennas, balconies and railings for precisely five seconds. To build their nest, which is refurbished every year, the hawks pluck live twigs from red maple and London plane trees in the park and line it with bark stripped from park linden trees. Their permanent nest is on a curved ledge above the middle of three 12th floor windows, behind spokes of anti-pigeon wire. It is protected from the weather by an overhanging cornice and is oriented southwest just as most red-tail nests are in the wild.

The Hawkwatchers have also documented that Pale Male incubates the eggs a third as much as the female, a higher than usual time for male red-tails, according to scientists.

Fledging is a particularly exciting time as most of the chicks fly awkwardly from building to building and practice by taking short, flying jumps from one level of a building to another before launching out across the street and into the park. This often drawn-out, bumbling process keeps the Hawkwatchers in a state of suspense for days.

Winn makes it clear that the Hawkwatchers come from all walks of life–an advertising consultant, artists, a Jehovah’s Witness minister, a newspaper vendor, dog-walkers (for the rich residents of the area), a Hollywood producer, and numerous retirees. The apartments, themselves, are part of what is called the Gold Coast because of the wealthy occupants. One apartment dweller and champion of the hawks is Mary Tyler Moore. Other well-heeled, but less well known, occupants send Winn detailed descriptions on watching the hawks plucking and eating birds on their window ledges and at least one has invited the Hawkwatchers to come up to her apartment for a closer look.

Woody Allen’s balcony is directly across the street from the nest, and Winn is not above commenting somewhat facetiously that after timing the hawks’ sex act, they watched, with interest (through their binoculars) Allen and his stepdaughter/lover Soon-Yi Previn as they strolled on their balcony. Allen, she knew, was not a nature lover because he once said, “I am two with Nature.” But through the grapevine she learned that the great man noticed the absence of pigeons in his rooftop garden, attributed it to the hawks’ hunting prowess, and tried to entice them to nest on his terrace by building a hawk nesting platform.

But Pale Male has remained faithful to his original nest. So famous has he become that sightseeing tours make stops at the park to show tourists the nest. “The Fifth Avenue hawks,” Winn says in a recent Wall Street Journal column, “had become New York superstars,…the most famous hawks in the world.”

Perhaps writer Barbara Ascher, another Hawkwatcher, best summed up what the hawks have meant to countless New Yorkers over the years in a prayer she wrote:

“Dear God, Thank you for hawks

That have made us more than we were.

Thank you for opening our hearts.

As their shells opened, so did ours.”

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