My wife and I had returned home from our regular Saturday afternoon walk with our Havanese pup — inexplicably, but luckily for us in this snow-laden winter, she, a dog bred for the heat of Havanna, revels in the cold and snow more delightedly than even our neighborhood Huskies — when she began loudly barking and deep-grumbling and running around crazily in circles — behavior usually displayed only when confronted with the Infernal Vacuum Cleaner or some bizarre phenomenon wholly new to her — say, a ball of yarn left carelessly on the coffee table. As Susan and I continued shedding our winter-wear, Sadie led us to the source of her concern and discomfort: A Red-tail Hawk, banging its wings against our glass-enclosed Romeo and Juliet balcony, in a futile attempt to escape.
(Although he was quite relaxed at this point!)
I have been running into this (I think) same Hawk or, as I like to think of it, my Red-tail, several times since early Spring this year in Riverside Park. The first time I saw him — for my Hawk is, to my mind at least, a male — it was, to borrow an over-used but in this case quite appropriate marketing meme, “up-close-and-personal”: He’s standing fearlessly and unconcernedly, like a small statue or a taxidermed specimen left there by some jokester, no more than three or four feet away from me, as I stopped dead in my tracks along the Hudson River promenade. This is just not something you expect to see along this route (or any other route in NYC that I can think of). He made no more movement than a couple of barely perceptible jerks of his head before I could think of what to do: Okay, stare for a while, but I guess you just better move on. This is a raptor, after all, a fierce and amoral murdering machine, though normally only of rats, pigeons, and the occasional sparrow. Would it attack? Seemed pretty unlikely, but still… Or was it already so habituated to people that it no longer feared humans, even at this very close quarters? I’m not at all superstitious so I certainly didn’t take this sighting as any kind of omen; rather, it seemed only a case of pure dumb luck, something I had never even really wished for since I didn’t think it possible.
Only a week later I saw him again, in pretty much the same spot, but this time directly under the tree nest that a female Hawk (his mother?) had built and from which she fell last summer, dead after one too many poisoned rats. (We do our best here to poison our rats, which are feasted on by our raptors, so in effect we poison our raptors in the bargain. They are of course subject to other dangers and mishaps, but I believe this is mostly how they come to untimely deaths.) This was an even closer encounter, for now my Red-tail was perched under the tree on the back of a bench. At this point we were maybe two feet apart. Once again we simply looked over one another until eventually I went on my way. It’s still quite rare to even catch a glimpse of these raptors, and then it’s almost always at a great distance. (The only other time for me, before this year, was a brief glimpse of that female soon to meet her poisoned fate, through a birder’s binoculars, as she sat on the top of one of the Normandy’s two towers.) And now I had stood no more than a few feet away from this Red-tail, for the second time in a week, as he gazed placidly back at me.
Since then I seemed to run into him every third or fifth walk I took in the Park, though never as closely as on those first two occsions. I’ve observed him several times just swooping around — and, my, that sight is always spectacular — and at least five or six more times in the near distance on lower tree branches, once with what appeared to be the head of a pigeon in his beak, and once when he raised his tail feathers — ah, still white, still a juvenile — to take a poop. He’s a beautiful and fearsome creature, oddly (so it seems) unafraid of people and perhaps even curious about them.
And now here he is, trapped on my minuscule balcony, having really and truly become, for these moments at least, MY Red-tail. What to do? No way would either I or my wife open the balcony door to try to shoo him away; banging his wings against the glass railing, he certainly didn’t need any shoo-ing, certainly was trying to escape. Our first thought was to call a friend of ours who has some birding experience; he told us not to worry, “he’ll eventually figure it out and fly away.” Well, that certainly seemed plausible, even likely, but it was cold comfort as we watched the poor thing struggle, trying apparently to go through the glass rather than up and over it. How much of this thrashing around before he finally injures himself?
No, helpless as we felt, helpless as we truly were, we had to help him somehow, so, quick, let’s call 311. Answering promptly, 311 suggested calling Animal Control. They too picked up right away but, great, said “no, we don’t handle wild animals” — a most-unexpected answer from an organization named Animal Control. Then we thought of the Wild Bird Fund — they rehabilitate injured wild birds — they’ll know what to do. And maybe they would have, if they’d only been around to pick up the phone; we left a frantic message. The next thought was to call Animal Medical Center, since we knew they did at least some rehabilitation work with the Wild Bird Fund guys. Again we got a live person, but “we have no one in our Avian section on the weekends.” Then the phone rings, hurray, it’s the Wild Bird Fund! Disappointment again, however, because “we have no funding to be able to send anyone out on rescue missions.” I donate to this group regularly and would gladly have done so again on the spot, but what good would that do now?
At this point, a good 20, 25 minutes into it, the Raptor still flailing on the balcony, I decided to try Twitter, posting a frantic “Please Help” tweet along with a pic of OUR frightened Red-tail — truly, he belonged now to the both of us — to show that, yes, there really is a Red-tail Hawk stuck on our balcony.
Less than a minute later an acquaintance of mine replied with a link to a Web page listing a host of prospective helpers, the first of which Susan called immediately after skipping past the previous candidates: the Central Park Urban Rangers. This seemed like a bit of a long shot, but we had already exhausted the more obvious alternatives. Lo and behold, though, self-designated “Ranger Rob” answered the phone and with no hesitation said he’d be right over to help. “I’m just getting off work now, but I can be at your place in 10 minutes. Do you have a big towel or a small blanket I can use? Cool, how about a big cardboard box? No? No problem, I can pick one up from a bodega on my way over. Oh, and I’m off work so I won’t be wearing my Ranger uniform.” Ranger Rob could have come over in The Dress for all we cared. We called down then to the doorman to let him know that a guy would be coming in with a big cardboard box and please let him up as soon as possible. Good Lord, what a relief.
Well, maybe Ranger Rob had a more difficult time getting across town (and picking up a box) then he had estimated, because it was more like 15 or 20 minutes before he arrived, although he did give us a call, mid-trip, when he hit Columbus Ave. In normal circumstances, who would even recognize the difference between 10 and 15 or even 20 minutes? But a Raptor on the balcony is not normal circumstances. (Nor was it normal circumstances to have Sadie closed up in the study all this time, to prevent her from giving the Hawk — and herself — and us — a heart attack from her frenzied circling and barking and grumbling.)
Spoiler Alert: There’s an Anti-Climax immediately ahead. Finally, finally, we got the call from the desk, “Your guy is here, with a box, and he’s on the elevator up now.” Thirty seconds later, sure enough, here’s Ranger Rob at the door. I took a quick glance to make sure that our Red-tail was still there — yep, still there, seemingly calm now — and waited to greet Ranger Rob and thank him, effusively, for coming to our, and our raptor’s, aid. “Not a problem, not a problem at all, I’m happy to help out. Got that blanket?” Sure, let’s go the balcony, wait, he must have moved, he’s been in this corner, he must have moved over to the other side — Good Lord, I just saw him a second ago, he was right here!
Well, as I warned, here’s the anticlimax: The damn bird had finally figured it out! We agreed with Ranger Rob’s “best guess” that Red-tail had probably jumped atop one of flower pots on the other side of the balcony and from there jumped again, high enough to escape the glass railing and fly off to freedom. What a disappointment, and what an embarrassment, although of course on reflection we knew we had nothing to be embarrassed about. At the time, however, it took us only a couple of seconds to start showing Ranger Rob pictures we had taken of Red-tail on the balcony: See, really, he was really there! We didn’t get you up here for nothing!
From the pictures, Ranger Rob confirmed our inuition — well, our simple guess, based on no knowledge of Raptors whatsoever — that our bird was a male juvenile.
Moral of the story: When in doubt, when in any strange “crisis,” take to Twitter first. So thank you Twitter, thank you guy-who-tweeted-back-the-Web page, thank you Central Park Urban Rangers, thanks above all to the fearless and conscientious Ranger Rob!
Update: A few days ago I ran into one of Riverside Park’s Hawk devotees, just across from the 72nd St. Dog Runs, who pointed out a juvenile male hawk, sitting in a nearby tree and contentedly consuming a rat he had captured minutes ago. I told him, the birder that is, my balcony story and he replied that this Red-tail was most likely my hawk’s brother, and that he lives and roams mostly around the 70s, whereas my hawk lives in a tree on 84th St. — where I’ve seen no evidence of a nest, however — and hunts the 80s and lower 90s. (That at least makes sense given his appearance on my balcony.) There’s also an adult female currently building a nest at St. John’s Cathedral; she’s at least one of the so-called Morningside Hawks. Obviously, and thankfully, we’ve come a long ways since the first illustreous days of Pale Male.
Okay, one last pic of our Romeo and Juliet raptor: