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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Central Park Hawks

Air Date: Week of

New Yorkers are marveling at the pair of red-tailed hawks which set up housekeeping just above the 12th floor window of a fancy Central Park apartment building. Marie Winn, who writes about nature for the Wall Street Journal, discusses her book, Red Tails in Love, with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Okay, for wildlife in Manhattan you'd expect squirrels, robins, and maybe some enterprising raccoons. But consider the odds of spying a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks. Well, if you saunter over to Fifth Avenue along Central Park near 74th Street and you bring your binoculars, you can see the nest and maybe mom and dad hawk and their baby just above the 12th floor window of a fancy apartment building. Central Park is their hunting ground. After all, the park is prime bird-watching territory, being home to about 275 different species. But the showy and dramatic hawks get the most attention. The birds have even prompted a book by Wall Street Journal columnist Marie Winn. She writes about nature for the Journal, and she called her new book "Red Tails in Love." It's just out now in paperback. I asked her if it's the same family of hawks that comes each year to Fifth Avenue.

WINN: There's been one male, and he arrived in 1991 and he's been around ever since. So he's our main man, or as one of the regulars call him, His Guyness.

CURWOOD: Marie Winn, I've been out hawk watching, and I have to tell you that, you know, red tails aren't all that common to see and certainly I don't think I've ever seen any one near a city. At all. I mean, they're pretty shy birds. Do you have any explanation as to why these particular hawks are so willing to live in the city? I mean, right there on Fifth Avenue.

WINN: Well, red-tailed hawks appear to be a species that is on the increase and that are taking advantage of some of the circumstances of contemporary life that are damaging the chances of other birds.


WINN: And my story is a perfect example of this. Since this book has come out, or in fact, since the first column that told the story of these nesting red-tailed hawks on the building on Fifth Avenue, news has filtered out of several other such nests. This is a bird that in books of the past has been described just as you've said, as a shy bird, nests in the deep forest, in very rural areas. And as Arthur Cleveland Bent, a writer of the past, described, if you come anywhere near to a red tail nest it might even abandon the nest. Well, this ain't so for our birds that we've been watching. And it seems to be decreasingly so for red-tailed hawks in general.

CURWOOD: I guess the lure of those nice fat and juicy pigeons and those rotund rats down there is just too much for a red tail to pass up. It's good hunting, huh?

WINN: Oh, I think that's exactly the case.

CURWOOD: Maybe you remember a particular siting that you thought was just incredible.

WINN: I do remember one. This was one when I was sitting next to the statue of Hans Christian Anderson, which is right by what we call the Hawk Bench, where we spent all our hundreds and probably thousands of hours observing the red-tailed hawks nesting on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street. I was watching with my binoculars, and on the edge of the nest up there was the hero of my story, and all of a sudden he was gone and I would say 4 seconds later there was a tremendous commotion right by my foot. And he had spotted a rat and zoomed and caught it, and I just couldn't believe my eyes. There's this huge thing right by me, and he takes off for a branch right by me and proceeds to eviscerate it. And this was pretty far out.

CURWOOD: I guess so. Now, why would Central Park be such a popular place for birds? I mean, it's in the middle of this asphalt jungle, as you describe it. Why do birds want to come to New York City?

WINN: Well, just like there are residents of New York and there are lots of tourists in New York, we've got our resident birds and we've got our tourists. And actually, the tourists are the ones that make Central Park an officially great bird-watching spot.

CURWOOD: Officially great? I mean --

WINN: Officially great. There was a list by the well-known ornithologist Roger Pasquier that actually placed Central Park among the top 15 bird-watching spots in America, and that included Yosemite and Cape May and all sorts of very famous places.

CURWOOD: In your book you have one of the regular bird-watchers saying that the whole experience of watching the hawks following their daily trials was like being in love, in fact perhaps better than being in love. It seems that for some of you there in New York, these red-tailed hawks have become, well, an obsession. Can you say why people feel so strongly about these hawks?

WINN: I'm not sure I would say that it's better, but it is like being in love. There is an obsessive aspect to it. You -- you feel sort of lucky and privileged that this has happened to you. And certainly, we all felt this way. It just amazed us that we were able to get involved with these creatures that normally we would never, that are so other than we are. Normally, you'd have no entry into their lives, and all of a sudden we could see everything. We could see how they courted each other, how the male always brought the female a gift before they mated, and she accepted it, and without that gift uh uh, baby, back into the woods. (Curwood laughs.) I don't know. I like getting gifts, and it's not that I demand them, but there's something about this kind of behavior that I think one could compare. And being able to just comfortably sit there on our hawk bench and watch all this is just fantastic. You should come, Steve, come and watch with us. (Curwood laughs.)

CURWOOD: I will. The hawk bench is at what corner?

WINN: It's right by the model boat pond.


WINN: And on weekends there are people with telescopes, very eager to let people have a look. And the excitement is beginning since the 1998 red tails seem to have hatched, and by the beginning of June when they'll be ready to take their first flight, there's going to be hundreds and hundreds of people up there lining up for the telescopes and saying, "Oh my God, I don't believe this!" and et cetera, or "Oh wow!" or "C'est merveilleux!" In every language they express their disbelief and amazement.

CURWOOD: Marie Winn is a nature columnist with the Wall Street Journal. Her book is called Red Tails In Love. Thank you.

WINN: Thank you.



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