Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Hawk and Its Prey Visit Harlem by Anemona Hartocollis - City Room Blog -

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“Is that a hawk?” my husband called from the kitchen of our Harlem brownstone the other morning, as I ran to the third-floor window to see.

From my study window, I was about even with a magnificent white and caramel-feathered bird wearing fuzzy pantaloons and perched on a high branch of our towering 100-year-old tulip tree, leafless in the winter. The presumed hawk was ripping beak-fulls of red meat out of what appeared to be a pigeon swooning across the branch, belly up, its little claws sticking straight out like a corpse in the morgue.

Animal visits occasionally make headlines in New York City. A few years ago, a clucking chicken appeared in the Queens backyard of a colleague, William Grimes. More recently, chickens have appeared on 125th Street. But this was not a chicken, it was a hawk.

We live in Hamilton Heights, the West 140s, not too far from Central Park in one direction and the Hudson River and New Jersey in the other, but hardly Hawk Central. Sometimes we get police helicopters buzzing overhead, often I hear a distinctive cheeping and run to the window to see blue jays and cardinals, other times the air vibrates with a popular Dominican ballad. We have squirrels, of course, and a diminishing number of predatory feral cats, sadly because they kept the block rat-free. Of course, the feral cats are declining at Kennedy Airport, too, but more intentionally.

But this week, here was a hawk — filling an ecological niche left by the cats, maybe? — among the small cliffs of red-brick brownstone rear walls, chimneys and urban vegetation, not an ordinary accompaniment to our morning coffee. Hawks have their following in New York, most recently drawing an audience at Riverside Park.

Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon, said that red-tailed hawks are on the upswing in the city, partly because they adapt well to the savanna conditions and because people don’t kill them so much anymore.

Mr. Phillips said:

It wasn’t that long ago that there were bounties on hawks and people killed them just because they were afraid of them. They didn’t like them. They thought they were going to eat their chickens — not that a red-tail hawk wouldn’t eat a chicken.

He added that he had heard such complaints from the Prospect Park Zoo.

Bird watchers have tracked up to eight pairs nesting in the city, Mr. Phillips said. There was a nest on Shepard Hall at City College, just a few blocks from my house, but this year, Bruce Yolton, a hawk watcher, reported no sign of nesting there. So my hawk might be the City College hawk, or maybe not.

Pigeons are a favorite food, Mr. Phillips said, though they carry a disease, frounce, that has killed several chicks. Squirrels and rats are good too, and Audbon is planning a spring project to teach building owners to use rat poisons that are safe for birds. A hawk once picked up a small dog in Bryant Park, he said, but generally speaking, pets are not in danger, since dogs and cats are also predators.

As I watched, the hawk remained calm, alternately ripping, swallowing, then showing me its profile, fixing me with its sharp eye. If it could spot a rat or a pigeon from the sky, I was pretty sure it could see me behind the glass. But it didn’t mind. My husband thought the sacrificial pigeon was being eaten alive. I think that was just a breeze ruffing its pigeon feathers. (Among the other sad endings that pigeons face: pigeon-napping.)

I was flattered that the hawk liked our tree, awed by its savagery.

After maybe 10 minutes, it opened its surprisingly large wings and flew away in the direction of the Hudson River, gripping what was left of the pigeon in its talons. A gift for its mate?

I’m waiting for the hawk to come back, but after five days, it hasn’t returned. (The chicken disappeared from Mr. Grimes’s backyard, too.)

Where did it come from? Where did it go?

Pale Male, if that was you, forget that snooty co-op on Fifth Avenue. You and Lola could find happiness in Harlem.