Picture this: you’re walking in a New York City park on a sunny summer day, and suddenly a big shadow moves over and past you. You look up and see a large, heavy-bodied bird as it slowly glides over the trees and out of sight. You may catch a glimpse of a burnt orange-colored tail. Or perhaps not. But the bird was obviously too thick and compact to be a heron or egret, and too colorful to be a crow, the other likely suspects you’ve already seen flying by this morning. And then you hear blue jays shrieking. Aha! You were lucky enough have been in the company of a red-tailed hawk.
Odds are there’s a story behind that bird, and that you can find out about that bird’s parents, its past and perhaps even the nest it’s returning to with that squirrel you didn’t see clutched in its talons. We’re lucky enough to be living in a city where we don’t have to rely on serendipity to experience and enjoy these magnificent creatures.
Red-tailed hawks can be found throughout the city all year long. Some are resident, some are just passing through. But each spring, in each borough, a total of a dozen or so pairs will begin nesting. The most famous nest in the city is on 5th Avenue on the Upper East Side and belongs, of course, to Pale Male and his current mate Lima. The extraordinary Pale Male, hatched in 1990, not only pre-dates the internet, which is amazing in itself, but was one of the first red-tailed hawks ever to have been observed nesting on a building. This celebrated raptor’s story has been told in print (Marie Winn’s excellent Red-tails in Love is the place to start) and film (The Legend of Pale Male) and his ongoing exploits (and those of his mate and offspring) are faithfully chronicled and illustrated on blogs across the web.
In the years since Pale Male put his mark on the city and history, numerous other red-tailed hawks have taken to raising their young in similarly unlikely locations. And some have been drawing very large crowds. In spring 2011, Bobby and Violet gained legions of fans across the nation when their nest at New York University was captured via webcam and streamed on the New York Times City Room blog. The story was loaded with twists and turns which delivered a great payoff: Pip, the first Washington Square red-tail. Sadly we lost Violet in December 2011. Bobby returned to the same site in both 2012 and 2013, however, and nested successfully with his new mate Rosie. The New York Times City Room blog has been following the story, and you can view the blog and live webcam here.
Another couple, "Mama and Papa," have been nesting for many years in Queens. To read about the history of Mama and Papa, click here.
As you might imagine, the web has become a great place to become acquainted with and learn more about these raptors. Just search “red-tailed hawk New York City” and begin. But don’t stop there. Because as compelling as they are in two dimensions, being in the shadow of the bird eclipses the glare of the screen.
Take a look at our 2008 study of all raptor species in the city, including buteos, falcons, accipiters, and owls:
Click here to view the 2008 Raptor Census
All photographs on this page are courtesy of Francois Portmann