Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hawks on the Wing . 1 | Bird News

High over the city a pair of hawks is circling, riding a thermal rising from the sun-baked buildings and streets. Their cries are primal and unearthly, their flight effortless and elegant. These Red-tails are the king and queen of all that they survey. This is their private territory for hunting, breeding and raising a dynastic brood. They will vigorously defend their domain against usurpers.

A third hawk appears to disturb this aerial mating dance. The male dives to drive off the intruder, accelerating to 120 mph, then feints to avoid a possibly fatal mid-air collision.

The interloper is no romantic rival, however, but one of their young adult children asking to return home following yet another failure to launch. He endures a little more of dad's tough love until he realizes that the answer is NO, then flaps off to once again try to find his own territory.

Hawks are wonderful to watch. They seem to soar effortlessly over the city, both playthings and masters of the wind. They perch in trees, on the pediments and fire escapes of apartment and office buildings, streetlights and telephone poles, or hover on strong winds ... waiting ... patiently watching like a hawk for prey.

A rat scurries through the grass in a garden. The hawk jumps up off his perch, silently swoops down in an accelerating power glide, stuns it's quarry with the force of its 1.5 to 3 pounds traveling at up to 120 mph, digs its long sharp talons into the body of its victim and flies off for a leisurely lunch in a nearby treetop.

Hawlks, however, have terrible table manners. They perch somewhere high up with their meal, the better to keep an eye out for the next course, tear the prey apart with their powerful hooked beaks and spit the bloody bits that they don't like onto the ground - or whoever's walking down below at the time.

This disgusting habit is what got the Red-tailed couple Pale Male and Lola evicted from their nesting site over the entrance to a tony Upper East Side cooperative building in Manhattan. This landed them as causes celebres in the pages of the New York Times and instantly made them world famous celebrities. All because someone - obviously not a nature lover - took exception to picking bleeding rat guts off his handmade suits. Other celebrities and bird lovers, including Mary Tyler Moore, banded together in several passionate protests and eventually the hawks were allowed to return and rebuild their nest.

Hawks lead harried lives and are often harassed by other birds, but seldom by humans. In fact, we should welcome them. Besides being inspiring presences, these hungry raptors really keep the rat population down within their hunting territories.

Hawks are frequently seen being followed and sniped at by several to a flock of dozens of birds. Mobbing, as this behavior is called, is done by blue jays, crows, grackles, mockingbirds and starlings to drive hawks off the territories they share. It's most often seen in the spring when the birds are nesting and hawks will swoop in to steal a tender nestling or the eggs.

Image ... Red-tailed Hawks in mating flight. Malden, Mass., Boston skyline in the background. By Gouldingken.