Little Naturalists: Tragedy for Red Tailed Hawks

new hawk nest.jpg

Mom in New Nest

This year, as Mother’s Day dawned I awoke with a sense of anxiety. The red-tail hawk babies had not been seen in the nest for 2 days. I received email after email Saturday afternoon and evening from hawk-watching friends that the parents were bringing food into the nest, but no little white heads popped up; no perfect little hawk-shaped beaks opened. I emailed my friends Lincoln Karim and Beth Bergman, both professional photographers and passionate hawk and nature watchers, saying that I would run to the nest early Sunday morning. At 7am I raced out of the boat with my binoculars and up to Riverside Park to the nest tree, a honey locust standing along the on-ramp to the northbound West Side Highway. There I ran into Cal Vornberger, a renowned urban wildlife photographer (The Birds of Central Park). Together we looked up and saw the mother hawk but no babies.

A dogwalker told us that she had seen the mother carry a dead baby out of the nest and drop it on the lawn. She had picked it up, put it in a plastic bag and into a trash can. I retrieved the bag and there inside was one of the beautiful eyasses (baby hawks). As I held it in my hands, Cal took a photo that to this day I find difficult to look at. It was heartbreaking. All three babies had died. Cal called Lincoln and Lincoln told me to refrigerate it and he would pick up the carcass that evening and drive it up to Ward Stone, forensic biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Two days later the entire nest fell down and the other two bodies were recovered. Again Lincoln made sure they were sent to Dr. Stone. Last week we received the first results: the babies were fed a poisoned rat. Lincoln’s website is viewed by thousands of readers and one of the readers was a woman who lived along Riverside Drive and had seen a rat poison sign. She contacted Lincoln and he removed the sign and the canister of rat poison. The building had put out the poison illegally. Pesticides, pigeon poison and rat poisons are dangerous not only to humans and their pets, but also to “non-target” animals – wildlife living alongside us in the city. I am sure that the person who put that poison out had no idea that it would end up killing three baby hawks that were loved by the upper West Side community. This is the perfect opportunity to let people know how dangerous poisons are in our environment. Red-tail hawks feed many rats to their babies, helping to control the rat population in our city.

For ten days I avoided my dog-walking route that took me past the former nest site. Then last Tuesday, my dog Sadie pulled me north along a path in the lower level of Riverside Park, not far from the 79th Street Boat Basin where I live. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the hawks land high up in a tree. My eye moved to the left, to a massive London plane tree (interestingly, the leaf of this tree is the symbol of the New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation) , and there, in the crook of 5 enormous branches and trunk, was a huge hawk nest. The parents apparently had started to rebuild immediately after the catastrophe. Lincoln and others had seen them mating a day after the babies died.

According to John Blakeman a red-tail hawk expert and biologist who responds to readers’ questions about red-tails on Marie Winn’s (Red-Tails In Love) website, these magnificent birds never gave up. They also learned from their first nest. Now, instead of building it out on a limb, they built the nest close to the trunk. Instead of building their nest over a major road, they built it over a pedestrian path. Blakeman believes that it is likely that the mother hawk will lay eggs again. We are all so hopeful, so relieved, and so thankful that the parents did not die and that they continue to want to raise a family in our beautiful Riverside Park.

Leslie Day is an environmental and life science educator at The Elisabeth Morrow School and an adjunct faculty member at Bank Street College of Education. Leslie created and taught the City Naturalists Institute for Teachers program for the Central Park Conservancy. She has a doctorate in science education from Teachers College Columbia University. Leslie Day is author of the Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City and writes a monthly column for Mommy Poppins educating families about the natural and wild life in New York. Leslie and her husband live in a houseboat on the Hudson River in Manhattan.