the most important birds in the world

Point-Counterpoint: Should We Care About the Hawks?

In recent years, the arrival of spring has also brought with it the return of Hawk Cam, the New York Times’ livestream footage of hawks in Washington Square Park, and obsessive coverage online. Why are New Yorkers so collectively fascinated with what Intel Dan referred to in a recent gauntlet-throwing tweet as “just intense pigeons?” Below, an argument between our resident hawker and resident hater.

Hawks Are Fascinating

By Intel Noreen

Photo: U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region

Dan, you asked recently “Are there any hawks in NYC that people just don’t give a shit about?” Yes. There is a distinct lack of interest in outer-borough hawks. According to a 2011 estimate, there were an estimated eight active red-tail hawk nests in Manhattan versus ten in Queens, four in Brooklyn, six in the Bronx, and seven on Staten Island. And yet it’s the relatively small population in Manhattan that gets all the copious media attention. Sound familiar? It’s one of many ways hawks are the perfect animal-world point of reference for New Yorkers.

They’re not cute and cuddly, like most of the animals that enjoy national Internet popularity. Red-tailed hawks are majestic, stately. They are the birds used for falconry: Medieval lords and barons knew instinctively that not even being constantly swathed in velvet and basically owning the lives of everyone who lived within five miles of their ginormous estate made them look as powerful as being in proximity to a hawk.  They are fierce. They will cut a bitch when necessary. They are actual predators — just as certain of the New-Yorkiest New Yorkers like to fancy themselves. Hawks would probably secretly take the description “really intense pigeons” as a compliment, just as New Yorkers are secretly pleased to complain about how much they work and how challenging it is to live here. Who wants to be an ordinary, indistinct pigeon living a pleasant life far from the spotlight? New York pigeons probably want to be hawks, that’s why they moved here; pigeons who are happy with themselves live in Portland.

Then, of course, there is the tabloid factor. How could you not be fascinated by the many mysterious deaths and love triangles of Manhattan’s red-tailed hawks, much of it centering around the famous Pale Male, the A-Rod of the bird world? The drama is, as Jesse Greene described it in a beautifully-written 2008 New York report on Riverside Park’s hawks, positively operatic.Would anyone get arrested multiple times over a random pigeon?

Lately, though, much like our real-life celebrities who are Just Like Us, thanks to the Times’ reality-hawk-TV gambit, we get to see the softer, ordinary side of hawks. They are just hardworking parents trying to make things work in a tough city! Consider this description, from NYU’s Colin Jerolmack, an assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at NYU, who named the pair of hawks nesting in Washington Square Park last year.

While we may look askance at Bobby and Violet’s choice of “unnatural” nesting material — a plastic bag, some tinsel, a dish rag, and some wrappers line the interior — the birds pay no heed to what is “natural” or “unnatural.” This is perhaps one of the greatest lessons they can teach us. Nature is resilient and adaptive; and it makes do with the materials at hand.

Violet, presumably, isn’t spending much time on UrbanBaby’s message boards talking about whether that dish rag is made from organic fibers. 

There’s also the sorta sublime notion that these certifiably wild creatures have decided to make their home in one of the most built-up cities in the world. It’s textbook eighth-grade English class Man vs. Nature stuff, which we don’t get a ton of around here — or not that we think of in those terms, anyway.  The recent autopsy results from the latest round of hawk deaths, which showed rat poison as the cause of death, reminded us that actually, it’s always happening. It’s just that normally we don’t want nature to win. With hawks, we do.

Hawks Are Not That Interesting

By Intel Dan

Photo: Mario Tama/2004 Getty Images

Look, I’m not saying that hawks are not cooler and more majestic than pigeons. But the level of attention and affection they receive from certain people and media outlets in this city is nuts. Who are the hawks dating? When are the hawks giving birth? What is the hawk eating? Who are the hawks voting for? The hawks are missing. Where are the hawks!?! Oh, here they are. Who cares! They’re just birds, doing normal bird things!

I like animals as much as the next guy, particularly animals that ride on top of other animals. If I saw a hawk, I would go, “Oh look, a hawk,” and point to the hawk. But I’m no more interested in what the hawks are doing on a day-to-day basis any more than I am about what the wild turkeys of Staten Island are up to.

Point-Counterpoint: Hawks