Thursday, October 21, 2010

Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park

By Marie Winn
New York, Vintage Departures, 1999
Week 43    Non-Fiction
For those of us who live in areas where nature surrounds us, the thought of “nature” in New York City’s Central Park seems a bit absurd. Marie Winn’s Red-Tails in Love was my first exposure to the magnitude of nature that can be found in that urban oasis.

Specifically, the book tells the ongoing saga of “Pale Male,” a red-tail hawk that arrived with a mate in Central Park in the mid-1990s. He mated with a much larger female, and a bird-watching, binocular and telescope frenzy arose among the Central Park bird watchers. The frenzy spilled over into the community at large. Multiple efforts ensued to protect the birds, and as the story continued into the second and third years, Fifth Avenue residents such as Woody Allen, Mary Tyler Moore, and Glenn Close became involved.

The birds defied all nest building logic and built their nest year after year on a building across Fifth Avenue from the park. Watchers had a regular bench at the edge of the park, and during the nesting season, the “regulars” as they were called manned the bench during all the daylight hours every day. Marie Winn, whose career has been primarily as a nature writer, joined naturalists from the Museum of Natural History, ornithologists, photographers, and others from all over the city who became enthralled with the bird’s love story. Jaded city dwellers and tourists alike clambered to look through the telescope an astronomer set up.

I was fascinated not just by the story of the birds but by the community of bird watchers that emerges from the tale, as well. People who don’t really know each other except for their love of birds form alliances to take care of the birds. Winn doesn’t waste time telling about the personal histories of the watchers; it isn’t important, and my guess is that she probably didn’t know much personal history. What is important is the mutual love for nature and birds.

Winn includes descriptions of all the various aspects of nature watching in Central Park. Who would believe that Central Park remains a major migratory path for dozens of types of birds and waterfowl? Additionally, how did the raccoons and other larger mammals (we know how the rats got there!) find this oasis in the midst of the urban wilderness?

This is a book that I would never have picked up on my own; thank goodness a book club member chose it for our October read. We all loved it, and the discussion flowed easily. Be sure to find the 10th anniversary edition, because it contains an update on Pale Male. Also, there is an entire Pale Male website with daily images of Pale Male. I couldn’t tell if this was the original Pale Male or one of his descendents. I have included October 20’s photo.
As a book side note, a young movie maker arrived in New York at about the same time as Pale Male. He was searching for a movie idea, and wandered into Central Park on one of the first nesting days. AHA! He had his idea, and on November 24, his movie, The Legend of Pale Male, opens in New York City. Here is the movie’s website:

Following my usual website listings, I have included an experience that I had with cardinals. I remembered the experience as I was reading Red-Tails in Love and was inspired to write it down as a way of retaining it. Please indulge me in this.
A review in the Smithsonian Magazine. I have followed the url with a quote from that article.
"Between the lines, this melodrama about nesting hawks is really about how wildness persists, even amid concrete and glass and jackhammering. It is about a tough town’s politesse, giving the winged newcomers space, not getting in their face. And so it is a hopeful book. We learn that even urban sophisticates will trudge into the park in midwinter to put out seeds and suet. As one Regular said of the hawks, “Aren’t we luck to see this.”

Marie Winn’s website:

A transcript of a PBS show:

A cardinal moment. (2002)

A pair of cardinals made a nest in the cedar tree beside the pool on the patio. All that spring, we watched as the cardinals made the nest and the female laid three eggs. After several weeks of tending the nest, three little heads were visible poking out of the top of the nest.

One day during the second week of June, I was in the swimming pool in the late afternoon when I heard a great commotion and looked over at the nest. All three hatchlings were out on a branch of the cedar tree, hopping around and chirping. They seemed to be signaling that they were ready to move.

On the other side of the pool the mother cardinal perched on a branch of the white pine tree calling to her young. The hatchlings called back. The mother flew back to them, pushed each of them gently to the end of the branch, and then flew over to her original perch. The hatchlings continued their hopping and chirping. The mother acted in the same way several times, flying back and forth over the pool, calling to her young encouragingly. It became obvious that all the birds were quite anxious—why wouldn’t these birds fly like their mother wanted? It appeared to me that the hatchlings were afraid to fly over the water.

Mother Cardinal came up with another plan. She started making a different call, more shrill and persistent. Before long, another female cardinal arrived on the scene. She replaced the mother cardinal on the white pine, and the mother crossed the pool to her three hatchlings in the cedar tree. On one side of the pool, the surrogate mother called while the real mother tried to move the birds. The hatchlings were having none of it. They continued their agitated hopping and chirping, but they would not budge from the protection of the cedar tree.

Enter the cat. While I had been trying to make myself as inconspicuous as possible at the corner of the pool, Meezer, the cat, had been asleep under a nearby bush. He had awakened from his afternoon nap to a cacophony of bird calls. He stretched, yawned, and made his way across the lawn to the pool.

In the next instant, a huge outcry arose. The female cardinals began squawking in unison and flapping their wings. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two male cardinals swooped down and began dive-bombing the cat, flapping their wings, and shrieking their warnings. I watched for a moment, then scrambled out of the pool, gathered up the cat and went into the house, removing the immediate danger.

I changed into my clothes and went back outside. The nest and the branches of the cedar tree were empty as were the branches of the white pine. The scene was serene and quiet. The cardinal’s mission had been accomplished.

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