WEEKEND COLUMN: OUR RED-TAILED ROMANCE IS OVER

Eyas '14
A red-tailed hawk eyas outside the author’s window last year. Photo by Ginger Blake.

By Dennis Paoli

My wife and I woke up on a bright winter morning in 2013, and there he was: a hawk, perched on the top rail of the fire escape outside our west-looking window. His broad back was to us, and we could see his rust-colored tail. He sat statue-still, and so did we, watching from our bed, in awe of his self-possession. A hawk, a Red-tail, right outside our window!

And then he was gone. I have a memory, more subliminal than certain, of his wings opening, impressively wide, his head dipping, one powerful flap, and the morning was empty again, like every morning. Except we saw a hawk hunt from our fire escape. Ginger and I smiled at each other, the sleep swept from our eyes by our good fortune, granted a gift only New York can give.

And then, a couple of days later, there were two—two hawks on the top rail of the fire escape, side by side. We thought we recognized the slightly smaller of the two, but really, it was less a positive identification than a likelihood. So now there was an us—the hawk came back to our window, to us. And he brought, we guessed, his mate.

paoli hawks3We rose and stepped toward the window, angling our approach to try to see their profiles. Foolish us. Before we got near, their heads sprung on their bodies—their necks can rotate almost 180 degrees—to stare at us, full on, their eyes stern, stark, expressing threat. Our threat to them, theirs to us. But in that shared sense of danger was a moment of widened awareness, peering through that window, across those few feet of fire escape, from the West Side into the wild.

We watched them for a week, “our” hawks, catch the city’s thermals and soar past our 15th floor (14th actually—real estate superstition) windows at 84th and West End Avenue, makin’ lazy circles in the sky. The male regularly landed atop a nearby building’s water tower, watching over the neighborhood like a superhero, a heartless hunter, Manhattan’s hood ornament.

Then came the sticks. They appeared one day lying on the fire escape, bigger than twigs, smaller than branches, bare of foliage, as you would expect in late winter. Hmmmmm. hawks and sticks—and chicks better scurry. The next day there were more, and some string, and a strip of silver gaffer’s tape. Then green-needled pine sprays and dead vines were added to the pile. And one day it wasn’t a pile anymore, but a structure, a half-foot high, roughly round, and solid, the sticks and string and vines arranged, woven, the gaffer’s tape flapping from what looked like a small wall, around a bed of pine and leaves. A nest.

Our relationship had attained a new level: we were sharing an apartment. One of them, usually the female, sat the nest, night and day, huddled up against the building in sun and sleet and raw wind. The other would sit on the rail for motionless hours, on sentry duty. But it also seemed, to our anthropomorphizing minds, that the guard-bird was not just standing watch but keeping faith, demonstrating its commitment to its mate, to surviving together, in the crucible of creation they had entered. Pretty sure that’s a lot of hooey and that it’s all instinct, but once in a while, during the long twilights we would sit on the end of our bed and watch them, Ginger and I would hold hands.

And sometimes one tended the nest while the other hunted and ate and sustained itself for the coming trial. And once, the female sat alone through a wind-storm of “wintry mix” that turned in the night to seed-sized hail that pelted its poor wet head as it narrowed itself along our apartment’s outer wall. It looked so helpless, helpless to escape the worst of it, to escape the necessity of its own nature. It made us, in our warm interior, feel helpless to help it.

paoli hawks5But while our hearts went out to the poor, stoic creature, we were certainly not going to put our hands out there. Since the nesting had begun, our guests had become particularly proprietary. Any abrupt movement at the window—a wave to come watch them, an attempt to prune a houseplant, a stray flap of a towel—would bring the watch-hawk hurtling, talons first, from the rail right at us, into the glass pane with the force of a punch. Once, when the nesting bird was alone, the other off hunting (we thought), Ginger slowly, carefully—yes, gingerly—lifted the screen and stuck out a camera. The female stood, wings spread wide, staring balefully at her, puffed up for effect: a perfect shot. When out of the sky dove the male, just missing Ginger’s hand. It had been watching from a nearby water tower and luckily had a bad angle in its approach, or she would have had scars, besides the photo, to illustrate the story.

So we took care at our window and gave the nervous couple as wide a berth as the path from our bed to the bathroom allowed. And then there were eggs. Peeking stealthily, still as we could manage, when the nesting bird changed position or the couple swapped roles, you could see the round top of a dun white shell—and another behind it—and there, was that blob a third? Yes, three eggs, and Spring was in the air.

Our feathered flat-mates were really touchy now, flaring their wings and attacking our windows with slighter and slighter provocation. But we weren’t the only vexing pests they had to deal with. A racket of rasping cries and squawking woke us in the morning twilight. The male stood guard on the rail, hunched and muscle-bound, while swift shadows flew by past, close and at crazy angles. Jays. We used to have a bird feeder on the fire escape, thinking how pleasant it would be to be wakened by bird song. Once the jays—large and aggressively disagreeable—found the feeder, they chased the other birds off, and waking to their hacking screech is akin to being roused by Con Ed cutting up the street. We got rid of the feeder.

Now they were harassing our hawks. Dangerous behavior, we thought, and rude. The male stood stalwart, unmoving, as the jays, like Indian warriors, taunted their foe with mocking cries—a jay can mimic a hawk’s call—and physical threats. In one swooping attack, a jay hit the hawk, but it barely budged. Corvids, the family of crows and jays, can prey on eggs and nestlings. We had grown afraid of the hawks, but now we were afraid for them. Humans are such saps. Jays, among the smartest animals on the planet—like us they use tools and like shiny things—regularly mob predators, hawks and owls, who, besides eating their eggs and young, eat them. In a few days, the jay raids stopped; their own eggs had probably hatched, and their juveniles, being altricial (hosting the hawks had expanded our vocabulary) needed feeding.

paoli hawks4When the hawks’ eggs hatched, we could hear the eyases (more vocab) before we could see them; their hungry shriek would be our morning alarm for the next six weeks, a full hour before the one we set.  They were, when we saw them, raw little heads, with dark begging beaks, two of them. Nature, through one of its myriad miseries, had denied the third egg life (or more life; we won’t have that debate here). Then began the hunt-and-feed shuttle. One adult hunted while the other guarded, fiercely, the nest. When the hunter returned, it fed the little beggars, and the guard turned hunter. We can sit on our couch and watch the lights of the planes lining up over the Hudson on their landing paths to LaGuardia; the hawks, a few hundred feet below them, did the park-to-nest run with a tireless regularity and on-time record that put the airlines to shame.

Spring warmed, the eyases grew, and word got out. “Did you see the hawk?” neighbors would ask in the elevator. Someone we didn’t know who lived down the block called to ask if there was a nest on our roof and if she could come see it; God knows how she got our names and number. Finally, we put a note in our lobby inviting people to call if they wanted to make an appointment to see our glamour predators. For a month we had four or five or more guest viewers a week. Birders came, with knowledge and, probably from habit, binoculars; neighbors who’d seen one of the hawks on their fire escape and thought it was “theirs”; parents and their children for a close-up real-life nature lesson. They all brought cameras.

We welcomed most the families. The kids, cautioned, would creep toward the window, and “ooh” and “ahh” to their parents’ delight at the sight of an eyas straining its neck to look back at them, or cringe and cry “Gross!” at an eyas straining its neck to accept a piece of mouse-meat from an adult’s beak. Now that’s parenting. A houseguest saw what she thought was one of the “chicks” and was distressed because it wasn’t moving. No fear; it was half a dead pigeon. Somehow that didn’t make her feel better.

But one of the young did die. You could see its still, twisted body for a couple of days before it sunk into the nest-stuff. Then there was one, and it grew, to stand, to walk around the nest, then around the fire escape, awkwardly flapping its wings and falling. It was strange to see a bird so unsure of its movements. They can land on wires, perch on pointed objects—hell, they can fly. But not ‘til they learn how. I’m a teacher, and that made me feel proud. It was early summer now, the nest wall was trampled down, and the parents had all but disappeared, leaving the juvenile to fledge and figure out this flying thing for himself. So much for teaching: hawks are autodidacts.

paoli hawks2Someone told us hawks can’t fly until their head is feathered, and our juvenile’s face was absurdly mottled and incongruent with its full-fledged body, kind of like a teenager. It flapped and flopped across the narrow slats of the fire escape landing, only able to “fly” a foot or two before stumbling into the vertical bars. We worried. If a fledgling tries to fly from a tree and fails, it lands on grassy earth and probably survives to try again, and probably ultimately succeeds. If it falls from the top floor of a high-rise to the street, probably not so much. In a few days, though, its head was dark, its flapping more coordinated, and one day it was gone. We found no evidence of a crash landing, and a few days later, it landed, still a bit wobbly, on the fire escape. We exulted; we had seen it through, from nest to test flight. We felt like proud parents ourselves. It flew off, and that was the last we saw of the hawks.

Fifth Avenue had its Pale Male, but we had a family right outside our window. Friends asked if we named the hawks, but we never considered it. It wasn’t for us to name them, like pets or possessions. They shared with us who they were, the full range of their behavior; that was their language, and in it they announced and named themselves.

We contacted authorities who confirmed that we had to leave, and shouldn’t disturb, the nesting materials. Hawks can return to a chosen nesting site for any number of years. And we’d heard of the Eagle Feather Law, which protected, in deference to Native American sacred beliefs, even a single raptor feather. The law seemed no deterrent, though, to the sparrows and starlings who rummaged through the sticks and string for leaves and, yes, feathers to furnish their own nests. Hawks clean their nests, so, except for a few small bones, there was no evidence of their career of carnage. In the dog days of the summer we cleaned the hawk droppings from our fire escape and replaced the window screen, which had talon tears across most of it and was useless. Mornings were quiet; we sat at the window and watched sunsets. The experience of a lifetime was over.

Until, when the last snow melted in the center of the broken down nest the following March, they returned. No proclaiming visit, perching majestically on the rail. They just flew onto the fire escape like they owned it. The nest was up and sturdy overnight, and the program began as before. But this time, from their first appearance, the mature hawks were more aggressive, almost as if they were angry. They watched us like, well, hawks. Mere movement in the bedroom caused an attack on the window. Hey! Those screens cost fifty bucks! We lowered the shade to give them more privacy, and what had been an adventure the year before was now an ordeal. The daylight, the sunset, the world went away.

Except for the incessant morning screech for food, the squawk-filled days of jay attacks, the buzzing of flies and the stench of rotting rodent. Word got around about their boorish behavior and guests were fewer. When the male flew in the window of the apartment below and attacked the super as he was replacing an air conditioner, their truculence trumped their novelty, their beauty, their majesty: “our” hawks were a menace. Then we got an email from a friend with a link to a hawk-watch web site and the query, “Are these your hawks?” The link led to a video of, indeed, “our” hawks strutting and preening right under our bathroom window. We step out of the shower right in front of that window. What gives these prying perverts the right to train a camera on our apartment? The hawks.

Only one of the eyases made it out of the nest, again. We’re pretty sure the survivor bullied its sibling out of the nourishment necessary to thrive, or killed its competitor outright. Survival of the thuggish. Wouldn’t be surprised if the parents were complicit. The ruffian fledged and flew, and we were relieved. We raised the shade, scrubbed away the droppings, patched the screen, and sent an angry email to the hawk-watcher site.

The snow has only recently, it seems, melted into the nest. We watch for flying terrors and listen for clattering talons outside our bedroom window. If the hawks return, will we feel welcoming, or ambivalent? No, we’ll feel invaded. Aggravated. Exasperated, at another season of lockdown, of threat, of eviscerated mice and dismembered smaller birds. Of nature red in tooth and claw, in your face, all the time. Watching them soar on thermals through binoculars or feed their young on video does not do justice to the relentless violence and pitiless vigilance of hawks’ lives. Share an apartment with them; see what it’s like.

But I guess it would be okay if one came back, to perch on the fire escape rail, stare into the distance, then turn its head to make eye contact one last time, and dive off, wings wide, away—for good.

Dennis Paoli is a screenwriter, Coordinator of the Hunter College Reading/Writing Center, and an Upper West Sider for over 40 years.

Photos by Ginger Blake.

COLUMNS, OUTDOORS | 28 comments | permalink
    1. Bob Lamm says:

      Great piece. Wonderful!

    2. Roy says:

      Thank you for a very well written piece. I really enjoyed it.

    3. Karen says:

      Great hawk story! Thanks for sharing. Now I have a little more sympathy for the humans behind the screens.

    4. Lois says:

      Great article, and about one of my favorite topics, the west side hawk population. If they don’t come back this year, does that mean they are dead?

    5. Linda says:

      this is a beautiful story, and harrowing.
      Great photos, too.
      Thanks you for sharing it with us.

    6. roseann says:

      Well written, Dennis Paoli.

      Thank you.

    7. Nelson says:

      I’m your neighbor down the street & I’ve been observing this with interest…thank you for the richly detailed story! The “Parrot Lady” made her first appearance in recent memory yesterday…maybe she thinks the coast is finally clear!

    8. Nora says:

      This must be the hawk I see perched on the water tower of the building on the NW corner of 83rd and WEA scoping out which pigeon to eat for breakfast. I’m so glad to know about his family life. Thanks for the story

    9. Dan says:

      Abbott and Costello (yes we named them) are our two ducks. They are both drakes (males) and visit our pond (pool) in Encino, CA every February – July. They too are vicious, but only when fighting over a hen in the backyard. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful tale! It was a terrific read.

    10. miss flite says:

      Yeah, I was loving the hawks (“Red-tails In Love” and all) until about three years ago. I had a constant chain of mourning doves moving in and out of my fire escape to rear their chicks. Eventually, we put a rattan box there, cleaning it between each pair, as watching them build flimsy nests on the slats was too harrowing. As soon as one set of chicks would fledge, the next pair of parents would line up to move in (sometimes taping on the window to alert us that they needed their room cleaned). A hawk got one of the doves, I believe the male, leaving portions of the shredded carcass behind. In addition to the mess, the female now haunts the fire escape, cooing over her lost mate (they mate for life). It’s heartbreaking.

    11. Elizabeth Sachs says:

      Wonderful story, Dennis!

    12. Ellen says:

      Dennis: What a great story. Nothing beats being in the middle of it. Your words are made so illlustrative by Ginger’s photos.
      Bravi! E

    13. UWSider says:

      Wonderful! And knowing this is happening in Manhattan, NYC, just adds to this fabulous story.

    14. lauren Lese says:

      Fantastic piece, brought to vivid life the beauty and wonder of “living with” a magnificent predator but also the reality that Hawks and people are not natural or even appropriate co-habitants. Thank you Mr. Paoli!

    15. Roz Goldfarb says:

      Of course you are reading or have read the recent book “H is for Hawk”?

    16. lisa says:

      I live on 85th street perpendicular to your building, and I watch the hawks on your fire escape from my window. It’s great to know your experience (and see the pics), because I love to watch them myself, even though from a bit farther way. It’s so beautiful to watch them swoop around the buildings.

    17. Judy Hole says:

      Fabulous story. And while the West Side Rag is unparalleled in its local coverage, this should be submitted to the New Yorker or NY Magazine so folks other than upper west-siders can read it.

    18. Jodie says:

      Loved this story. The New York Times might like this piece as well for he Metropolitan section! We had a grown hawk take refuge on our window sill for a few hours and we were transfixed. I can’t imagine having a family of hawks as sillmates for so long!

    19. renee says:

      I can totally sympathize. As much as I like the red-tailed hawks and their appetite for urban pests (rats and pigeons!), I suffer from bird phobia and would freak out if they perched outside my window for months at a time!

    20. Bruce Bernstein says:

      Dennis and Ginger, many thanks. This story was not only entertaining but educational as well.

    21. Mary says:

      Carman (your building neighbor) is my friend at the West Milford stable where we keep our horses. At my home in Pompton Plains, N.J., “our” red tails stalk our chickens. One year they nested in a friends yard and traumatized their children by tearing their prey (squirrels mostly) to pieces on their deck. Yet, what a unique tale we all have to tell, even with its drawbacks. Thankfully they are not the size of an ostrich. Enjoy your summer. Thanks for sharing.

    22. Terri says:

      Thank you for sharing this well-written and engrossing story. I have been watching Peregrine falcon nests in Omaha and Illinois for a few weeks now on my Earthcam smartphone app, and they are indeed fascinating.

    23. innerspacegirl says:

      Nature is a lot messier and more inconvenient than we city folk tend to realize.

    24. lyla ward says:

      What a wonderful article–so well written and so realistic I looked at my screen this morning to see if it was intact–Thanks for letting me share the experience.

    25. Roberta says:

      It took me a while to figure out that the scrap of gray fur and other gross stuff out on the terrace of my apartment were the remains of a hawk meal: what was left of a squirrel or rat… a first for me! There are plenty of hawks visible from my window so I’m fairly certain that that was what I cleaned up out there.

    26. Sharon says:

      Beautifully told, Dennis and great pictures, Ginger. Thanks.