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The Hudsons

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In any case, Pale Male had done his part: Last year, the Audubon Society counted 32 nesting pairs around the city, many of them presumably his descendants. And by this spring, with at least eight viable nests in Manhattan alone, his line seemed set to flourish further.

Parenthood, even someone else’s, does strange things to people. More than a few humans have been humanized by it. Animal parenting, if cute enough, ups the ante, making the alien normal, what was disgusting delightful. Wildlife and our life are briefly synonymous. Because they’d been told of eggs in the nest, children with nannies and visitors en route to the Boat Basin Café watched with strangely equal pleasure as the Hudsons bathed in morning puddles or gobbled bloody bits of rat.

Leslie Day, with the flame-red hair, knew all about this. There are 70 animals in her classroom at the Elisabeth Morrow School across the river in Englewood, New Jersey, where she teaches fifth-grade and eighth-grade life science. Three more (if you don’t count her husband, a biology professor) live with her on the Sanibel, a cramped but cozy 43-foot houseboat moored at the 79th Street Boat Basin. There’s Sadie, a terrier-schnauzer mix, who first led Day to the Hudsons’ nest. There’s Paulie, a cockatiel. And there’s Woody, a cat who is now in mourning for a recently deceased companion named Cosmo. Woody hangs on to anyone, even visitors. For Day, it’s a given that warm-blooded animals, whether cats or hawks, have feelings—if caring for something, mourning its loss, is a feeling.

Day is certainly warm-blooded. Her passion for wildlife, which culminated in her Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, can be traced to the early eighties, when a female northern cardinal befriended her, and thence to childhood Sundays in Central Park with her grandmother. But the red-tail saga seemed to reveal significant blood-temperature variation among humans. Some rooted for the breed as if their enthusiasm could influence the outcome. Others found the intruders an unmitigated nuisance. Most, perhaps, fell in between. But none could be pigeonholed by external markers like wealth or vegetarianism. As a group, those who treasure the birds do share certain traits: all gentle, most liberal, some childless—but that is another nest we cannot spy into.

It’s not just humans who benefit from public invisibility. Despite sidewalk vigils, the date of the Hudsons’ blessed event can only be estimated, because, unlike some celebrity couples, they kept their newborns away from prying eyes. It was instinct, not propriety, if those things are different, that prompted their reserve; hawks are altricial, born helpless in trees, nearly naked of feathers, eyes fast shut. If nothing can see them, nothing can eat them.

What could be seen, starting around Earth Day, April 22, was the obvious parental behavior. Every few hours, Henry, after eating in a nearby tree, delivered leftover chunks of meat to Katherine in the nest; she tore the meal into smaller bits with her beak and gently dropped them within. (The inedible remains, often dumped near Riverside Drive, looked to one observer like old fur coats with legs.) Surely there were eyases, but how many? Even the Riverside regulars couldn’t say.

And then, one day at the end of April, an eyas now old enough to work its neck popped its head briefly over the lip of the nest. Soon a second followed and, after a few days of uncertainty and careful photo research, a documented third. If the anthropomorphosis of the birds had bordered on extreme before, the establishment of a family unit inflated it to Greek proportions. The eyases’ fuzzy Q-tip heads, perched atop silly llama necks, would defeat even Disney in a contest for heart-pulling cuteness. Though it takes many weeks for red-tails to fledge fully, they are quite active once they open their eyes; soon after their public debut, the baby Hudsons were walking around the nest, jumping up and down, testing their as-yet-useless wings.

The effect was hypnotic. Karim posted daily updates on his Website. Day ran from her houseboat to see them even in the rain. Beth Bergman, of the big glasses—a freelance photographer who for 40 years has documented divas and dramas at the Metropolitan Opera—took a thousand frames of the happy nest. She was stunned by the tenderness of what she thought of as gentle giants: the way the mother looked right into her babies’ eyes while feeding them, the sensitivity and integrity of their domestic arrangements. Yes, they occasionally pooped all over while she set up a shot, but, all things considered, they did not suffer by comparison with her usual quarry.


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