If this were indeed an opera it would be La Bohème, its first two acts bursting with high-spirited scrappers making their way in the city. But Puccini also wrote Acts III and IV.
The nest started to droop after a heavy rain on Friday, May 9. On Saturday, Bergman spent five hours watching in vain for any sign of the babies. Karim did see Henry drop two rats into the nest, but not the subsequent feeding frenzy. Henry’s behavior was odd in general. He delivered branches randomly to other trees. At one point he walked right onto the highway on-ramp to gather twigs; Karim leaped over the railing to chase him from danger. Meanwhile, Katherine kept looking into the nest, then flying away. Her posture, Karim thought, could only be described as sad.
The next morning—Mother’s Day, it would turn out—Katherine flew from the nest as she had often done after feeding, to remove a carcass and keep her home clean. Only this time it was not the remains of a rat but one of her eyases she bore limp to the ground. Presumably during the night it had died. Did she have what Day would call feelings? Did some avian version of the concept of good-bye pass through her tiny circuitry? Or just the instinct to go on? I will put this down over here. Now I will return. The result was the same, either way. She went on.
Meanwhile, a dog-walker, fearing one of her charges might get at the body, put the eyas in a brown paper bag and left it in a nearby trash can. Day recovered the dead bird later, holding it gently in her palms and crying: a trans-species Pietà. It was perfectly formed, not yet stiff, the size of a chicken, and very soft, its pinfeathers just beginning to grow in. Following Karim’s instructions, she brought it home to the boat and kept it in the refrigerator overnight.
If she was crestfallen, nature itself was blasé. On Monday, Karim took the eyas’s body to the state Wildlife Pathology Unit near Albany; the next day the Hudsons’ nest plummeted to the ground, the other two eyases dead within it. They too were collected for testing, while Day studied the scattered basketwork. Was Friday’s storm to blame? Poor construction? Or was it grief? Karim believed that Katherine had stopped covering the nest once her babies died, letting the rain fill it up like a sink until it collapsed.
Whatever Katherine and Henry felt, they never returned to the site of the nest. But for the humans the deaths were clearly a tragedy, requiring explanation and resolution. The toxicology report on the first eyas concluded that its body contained lethal levels of the rat poisons brodifacoum and bromadiolene. And yet that explanation led to a mystery: A Riverside Park official told Karim that brodifacoum and bromadiolene were not being used within its grounds. A different rat poison, difethialone, also potentially lethal to hawks, is used instead, in baiting stations disguised as rocks.
But just beyond the park’s perimeter, in the moats and planting areas of buildings on 78th and 79th Streets, Karim discovered four black triangular boxes not trying to pass as nature. An official notice advised that these baiting stations had been placed on March 27 by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and contained Talon G—a commercial rat poison containing brodifacoum. It had only been a month before, according to minutes of a February cabinet meeting of Community Board 7, that residents complained of a rat resurgence. Presumably Henry brought Katherine one or more animals that had visited these stations. Katherine in turn gave them to her eyases, who were too young to withstand the poison’s anticoagulant effect and so bled to death internally. Surely one of the blessings of a small brain is that, whatever else she feels, she will never know she fed them their death.
If, as Karim believes, the Talon G was used in a manner inconsistent with the manufacturer’s label, which prohibits placement in locations accessible to nontarget wildlife, that use may have been illegal. But it’s a hard case to make. What does “accessible” mean? In any event, while some people like and want to protect hawks, few feel the same way about rats, which fall decisively on the wrong end of the grandeur scale. Not that hawks are inherently more cosmopolitan. Each violently defends its territory from other raptors—and from humans. Earlier this year, Isolde attacked construction workers who came too close to her nest at St. John the Divine, sending them to the hospital.
That humans do the same thing—kill to survive, as a Department of Health doctor told Karim—is an equivalence he does not endorse. To him, the hawks are finer, deeper than that. He knows it’s the kind of argument scientists ridicule, but he watched Henry, he says, with his heart: saw him grieve, ripping twigs out of trees as if to exorcise pain. Whereas human beings, smoking, fighting, sticking gum anywhere? Even pigeons are better. Karim watches how bird parents take care of their babies; then he watches human parents.