If any bird can be considered an iconic New Yorker, he’s it. At 24, a venerable age for a hawk, Pale Male has lived the lyrics of the famous song–he’s done it his way.
By Vicki Croke
If any bird can be considered an iconic New Yorker, I’d say he’s it. Handsome. Successful. Tough, yet caring. Widowed several times. Willing to love again. A pioneer: the first red-tailed hawk known to nest in NYC. Too cool to notice admirers who gawk at him. Prestigious address on Fifth Ave. with park views. Past neighbors: Mary Tyler Moore, Woody Allen, and Paula Zahn. Disagreements with his building’s Co-op board have been headline news. Tabloid nickname: the “Aging Stud.”
Vicki talks with Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about this extraordinary bird:
He’s Pale Male, ruling the skies over Central Park for the last 23 years.
I’ve been intrigued by him since reading Marie Winn’s magical book “Red-Tails in Love” in 1998. No one knows Pale Male like Winn, who has chronicled his life and even named the “exceptionally light” hawk in 1991.
“Red-Tails” is one of my all-time favorite books, a kind of fable for adults. And I’ve always wanted to take Winn up on an invitation at the book’s start.
“Red Tails” begins like a fairytale with these once-upon-a-time lines:
It’s taken me 15 years, but that’s what I did. I wanted to check in on Pale Male, to see his huge 400-pound nest on that fancy building at 927 Fifth Ave., and to go birding with Marie Winn in Central Park.
Producer Christen Goguen and I packed our binoculars and traveled to New York City. At Central Park West and 77 St., on a damp, overcast afternoon, we met up with Marie and her birding sidekick Ken Chaya, a gifted naturalist, recently mapped every single tree in Central Park–his beautiful “Central Park Entire” folding map identifies trails and nearly 20,000 trees. Ken was not one of “the Regulars,” the eclectic and eccentric band of birders Marie featured in ‘Red-Tails.” But, “Having Ken with us is so exciting,” Marie says, “because he knows everything.”
The four of us wandered “the Ramble,” the “37-acre wilderness in the heart of the park,” as Marie describes it. We talked about birds and life, and, as we strolled, we constantly stopped at the sound of every birdcall, pivoting in unison to train our binoculars up, down, left or right. We heard “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” (white-throated sparrow), wik-wik-wik-wik (northern flicker), or “Thief-thief-thief!” (blue jay).
In between sightings, the talk was all Pale Male.
“He’s a venerable guy but somehow this does not stunt his sex life,” Marie tells me. “Pale Male, our hero goes on forever,” she says. “He’s still around, he’s still fathering young hawks… I don’t imagine he will ever leave.” He has become almost like a mythical figure, she says.
He does seem immortal. At 24, he’s lived longer than most red-tails ever do. In the wild, about 75 percent of red-tails don’t make it past their first year.
And we know from one bird banding study, that tracked about 5,000 wild red-tails, only 11 made it the age of 20.
That high mortality rate is just among your average hawks. Pale Male, you would think, has been enjoying the riskiest of lifestyles. Think of the dramas and hazards he’s faced in his urban life.
Kamikaze crows once drove him head first into the side of the building, from which he suffered a concussion.
While other hawks around him have died from eating poisoned pigeons or rats, he’s never appeared to have indigestion.
His famous, huge, and messy nest—carried and built twig by twig by Pale Male and a mate—has twice been ripped down by misguided humans.
Luck? Fate? Skill? Who knows why Pale Male is such a survivor.
We know he’s got charm going for him: As a young hawk he wooed a beautiful older female, not with a box of chocolates, but with a dead pigeon.
And his charisma doesn’t stop there. In fact, it’s not species specific. Marie’s birding “Regulars” fell in love with Pale Male and soon, it seems, so did all of New York.
They’ve seen him through the disappearances and deaths of 7 mates. (He’s on his 8th, aptly named “Octavia,” and has likely sired about 38 chicks.)
A few of the red-tailed hawks seen in Central Park. Some are the offspring of Pale Male. (Murray Head).
Everyone has become so attached to this bird that when Pale Male’s nest was removed by the wealthy board members of 927 Fifth Ave. for the second time, in 2004, the world came after them.
The story was covered by the network news, Vanity Fair magazine, The New York Post, and by international news agencies. Protesters, who included Marie Winn, wearing a red cardinal costume, kept a vigil. Cars, taxis, even police cars blew horns in solidarity. Thousands signed a petition. And even the New York Times wrote an editorial in support of Pale Male.
His nest was put back in place.
Pale Male in the nest with offspring. (Lincoln Karim/Palemale.com)
On our day in New York, as we walk, Marie recounts some of the Pale Male highlights. The bar mitzvah the Regulars staged on the bird’s behalf, for instance. And the days when filmmaker Nora Ephron joined the birders because she was interested in making a movie out of Marie’s book. “Hollywood knows no limits,” Marie says, shaking her head. The excess that stunned her isn’t of the champagne-and-caviar-and-orgy variety, it’s that Ephron’s crew sported new bird-watching clothes and carried new, top-of-the-line binoculars.
The number of times Pale Male has been spotted “making out on TV antennas,” she says, made him “the Elvis Presley of Central Park.”
This is the first time Marie’s been back in the park since breaking her foot weeks ago. She hasn’t seen Pale Male in a while, but Ken has.
“I was in the Conservatory Garden uptown and there was a lot of red-tailed hawk activity. I heard several calling and saw four red-tails…and suddenly there was Pale Male soaring. Just keeping his eye on things. This is his territory—up and down Fifth Avenue. It’s always great to see him over the Park.”
So, I wonder, even if we don’t catch Pale Male, can we see his nest? “Let’s head there!” Marie says. And Ken adds, “We’re not far away!”
Of course, this being the nature lovers’ tour, we stop at one corner of the Park where Ken identifies and recites the Latin names of the nine species of oak in front of us.
But when we get to the model boat pond, Marie points straight across the water to the line of buildings rising above the trees. “Look straight ahead,” she instructs, and I see a relatively narrow building with just three windows across on each floor. “That’s The Hawk Building.”
I look up and there it is. A pile of sticks above the middle window in a set of three. Wouldn’t you know, he’s not home.
It’s not mating season. He’s not building the nest or in it. Still, he could be around. This is his territory. Marie and Ken assure me there’s a good chance we’ll spot him perched on one of the buildings. But we don’t. It’s OK, for me, Pale Male will just have to remain something of a mythical figure.
We end our visit in much the same way it began. With the fairy tale. I ask Marie if visitors to New York should make time to go birding. “Yes! Yes!,” Marie says, “invite people to Central Park. Find your way to the Ramble and get lost there for a little while. It’s the most beautiful place in the world to get lost in. Magical things happen here…”
Produced by Christen Goguen. Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life.