High in the air, swirling above the grand riv-vu buildings of the Upper West Side, they were birds of prey: part of nature but not part of us. Closer to the ground, they might as well have been human. Perhaps that was because they were living a familiar New York real-estate story. Like many couples, this pair of red-tailed hawks, even in their first season together, knew where they wanted to be. The way the Upper East Side or Tribeca call out to some, Riverside Park called out to them. Or did it only call to her, and he simply went along? It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing was observed in nature. After all, she was older, by a few years; he still had the bright eyes and playful habits of the adoring younger male.
But she was all business. She would have understood that the neighborhood was far enough from kin and competitors to suggest they could make it their own. It featured unimpeded Hudson vistas, fine dining, and protected areas that seemed perfect for raising a family. That was important: February was almost over, and in April, if all went well, they would be parents. How could they foresee, with brains smaller than their eyes, that the needs of other parents in the neighborhood, other offspring, would come to trump theirs?
Work began on the nest at once. You might charitably have called it a fixer-upper, even though it was new construction. It was too far out, some said, on a too-low branch of a honey-locust tree, overhanging the northbound on-ramp of the West Side Highway at what would be 81st Street. Cars zoomed almost directly underneath, belching fumes. Wind and rain set it swaying.
Still, this was an idyllic time for the airborne pair, and also for the cooing and clucking humans below. The birds’ arrival in Riverside Park came at a moment when life was full of promise for urban raptors. Their population had never seemed greater. After the disturbing saga of Pale Male and Lola—those alpha red-tails of Manhattan society, whose twelfth-floor nest at 927 Fifth Avenue was removed by the building’s co-op board in 2004—this felt like a fresh start. That pair had become a cause célèbre, complete with tabloids, tragedy, and Mary Tyler Moore. This new pair, younger and closer to the ground, was a simpler gift, seemingly without history.
And so they immediately attracted the city’s most avid citizen-scientists. Those who led the welcome wagon in Riverside Park were themselves a taxonomy of types: the white woman with the flame-red hair and pooch on a leash, the older woman with the big glasses, the black man with the telescopic lenses on his camera. Here they hovered, sometimes several hours at a time or several times a day, watching, photographing, giving impromptu seminars to Sunday parents and excitable children, then e-mailing and blogging the latest news deep into the evening.
At first, nest-building was their main topic of interest. Each time the male arrived with a beakload of twigs, as if from Home Depot, there were pictures and descriptions of the event. When the female wove those twigs into the nest, that was an opportunity to reflect on the pair’s uncanny cooperation. To the red-tail groupies, it was almost as if a constant stream of interpretation were necessary to the project’s success. They were not just observing but in a way creating a dramatic serial, like Meerkat Manor, only right here in our backyard. They were telling a story of life as it should be—not that they would express it that way. To them, it was unfathomable that everybody didn’t rush out to witness the existence of creatures so innately wondrous. Grandeur was a word often heard in the park.
But except for their enormous wingspan, red-tails aren’t actually very big: only two feet long, three or four pounds, the females somewhat larger than the males. And they’re not all that colorful despite their taxi-yellow feet and namesake tail feathers, brick from above, pinkish from underneath. Though gargoyle-impressive when perched on a lamppost, magnificent in combat, they would seem unripe for anthropomorphizing, lacking as they do all softness and facial expression. Mostly they look like Botoxed party ladies, keeping an eye on the door: grand, yes, but in the beady manner of Elaine Stritch. Still, the tilt of their prehistoric heads, the ruffle and soar of their flight, the daredevilry of their 100-mph dives all imply, to those susceptible, feelings if not emotions. Not to mention their unexpected, precarious presence in the city, which makes those feelings seem familiar. We are all unexpected and precarious in New York.