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The Hudsons

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If such projections disturb you, don’t even think about the names. Back in spring, when weekend mornings near the nest were sometimes like press conferences, the Riverside Park Fund ran a contest to christen the hawks. It might have been a contest to christen puppies. Among the 68 entries there were no Killers or Blitzers or Bunyanesque Eat-or-Be-Eatens. Rather, entrants gravitated toward the comfort of inevitable pairings and unlikely reconciliations. Ozzie and Harriet. Peanut Butter and Jelly. Jerry and Elaine. Hillary and Obama.

Some of the Riverside observers favored Henry and Katherine Hudson to win, though this made the hawks sound less like birds than Wasps. Or perhaps that was the point. Names given to other red-tail pairs around the city were a bit too fragrant: Athena and Atlas near Astoria, Alice and Ralph in Prospect Park, Big Mama and Junior in Green-Wood Cemetery, Tristan and Isolde at St. John the Divine. The new pair, whose domain covered the far West Side from about 72nd Street to 125th, abutting Tristan and Isolde’s, deserved something more classic, befitting local royalty, which is to say celebrity. After all, as Lincoln Karim—the Trinidadian with the telescopic lens—was the first to identify, one of them was a descendant of Pale Male himself.

Of course, Karim might have been wrong. There are ways to differentiate individual red-tails by feather pattern, size, and coloration, but even experienced observers may have trouble doing it, let alone fixing bloodlines. And Karim, normally sweet and soft-spoken, is excitable. During the Pale Male Passion Play, he was arrested (and briefly suspended from his job as a television-broadcast engineer at the Associated Press) for allegedly stalking Paula Zahn, a resident of 927 Fifth, and scaring her children by shouting, “House of shame! Bring back the nest!” Though the charges were dropped and the birds eventually allowed to rebuild, the new nest has not succeeded in the four years since, as Karim frequently laments on his Website.

His crush on Pale Male may have clouded Karim’s thinking about other hawks. To his embarrassment, the Riverside red-tail he at first proclaimed as The Great One’s son turned out to be female. He realized this one day in early March, when amid the usual steam-whistle shrieking and aerial display, she got mounted by her mate.

Anyway, it made a better story: the sympathetic daughter, or granddaughter, of the patriarch, now striking out on her own. Katherine (as we might as well call her) became a local holy, the raptor Caroline Kennedy.

Their sexes and lineage agreed upon, the Hudsons spent the rest of March mating and decorating. More time was spent on the latter. Copulation, though frequent, was over almost before it began, as some observers noted with disappointment. Hard to make that ten-second act—Katherine tilting down as if looking for a contact lens, Henry standing on her back, clawing her shoulders—seem noble, though at least hawks are, like some humans, monogamous. Nor was the nest everything it might be; seeming to lack a sense of proportion, the pair didn’t stop until it was almost three feet wide and listing. But no one cared about that once Katherine, over the course of a few days near the end of the month, produced her eggs. One, two, three.

Not that any humans yet knew that; from the ground, the eggs were impossible to see. Nor could photographers find a perch high and unobstructed enough to let them spy into the shadowy nest. Still, the reaction among the hawk-lovers was not unlike that among grandparents of a fetus recently detected in a sonogram. Everyone understood what it meant that Katherine sat there continuously, shifting and checking beneath her, occasionally spelled by Henry when she needed to stretch her wings. The naturalists among the crowd knew further that the timing was right. This was when most New York City red-tails laid eggs; four or five weeks later, they sometimes hatched.

It wasn’t a lot to go on, but even that much natural history was remarkable. Before Pale Male began roosting on buildings around Central Park in the early nineties, no other red-tailed hawks were known to have made the human architecture of the city their home. There was no record of their urban habits because they had none, even though they thrived nearly everywhere else in North America. To New Yorkers, a red-tailed hawk might as well have been a thing of the primordial past or sylvan distance, and possibly better that way.

But Pale Male, born who knows where around 1990, changed all that. From 1995 to 2001, with serial mates named First Love, Chocolate, and Blue, who each predeceased him, he sired twenty eyases (as raptor chicks are called) and then another seven with Lola before the ruckus of 2004 ended his streak. Some attribute the failure of his fecundity to the spikes installed by the repentant co-op to stabilize the new nest he and Lola built. Or the culprit may simply be age. At 18, Pale Male has reached the average life span of red-tails in the wild, though no one knows how long they might survive in the city, where there is so much food available year-round: squirrels, pigeons, robins, and of course mice and rats. Already, having no need to winter elsewhere, many have stopped migrating.


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