Love, and Death, Is in the Air
ROB JETT, a 51-year-old Brooklyn birdwatcher who maintains a blog called Citybirder, has long been fascinated by the red-tailed hawks living in Prospect Park.
On a bright, crisp day in February 2002, he set out for the park’s Third Street playground to investigate a tip that one had been seen in the area. As it turned out, his task was easier than expected: there, just 60 feet above a crosswalk over the park’s main pathway, he discovered where the hawk had built its nest.
The hawk, which Mr. Jett soon named Big Mama because of her prodigious size (she weighed an estimated 3½ to 4 pounds, compared with a typical 1½ to 3 pounds for her species), was on the ground gathering twigs for her nest and appeared utterly indifferent to the whirl of pedestrians, joggers and cyclists around her. For their part, the people, too, seemed equally oblivious to Big Mama.
During the next four years, Big Mama happily made the most of her 585-acre fief, successfully raising two young with her mate, Split-tail, so called because his central tail feather is molted every year. Then, one day last year, she disappeared.
Typically, the 2004 eviction of Pale Male and Lola, the red-tailed hawks cast out from their nest on the cornice of a fancy Fifth Avenue co-op, was attended by a media outcry and overnight vigils by New York City chapter of the Audubon Society. Big Mama’s disappearance two years later, however, was noted only by a few dedicated birdwatchers. But while her tale lacks the news media glare of Pale Male and Lola’s, it is no less dramatic, full of love and death, loss and triumph.
Despite raising two chicks in this nest above the crosswalk, Big Mama had been too exposed. In 2003, the year after Mr. Jett first spotted her, she flew east to woods near Prospect Park Zoo, where she built a home in a beech tree close to Flatbush Avenue.
There, however, two of her three chicks fell from the nest; they were suffering from frounce, an infection that causes a blockage in the throat. The nestlings were taken to the Prospect Park Zoo, where one died but the other, despite facial bone loss, recovered. Staff members at the zoo gave him the American Indian name Manipi, which means Walking Wonder, and he lives in an enclosure safely tucked away from public view. Only the third chick, which was discovered hunting in the woods a few days later, survived in the wild.
Probably because of the loss of two of her chicks, Big Mama left her nest site again, making for a wooded hilltop southwest of the zoo known as Payne Hill. About 100 feet up a majestic tulip tree, she set up a home once more.
A hawk’s nest is more a place to protect eggs and to rear young than a year-round dwelling, but if chicks survive, the hawk will return to the same spot each year. Big Mama and Split-tail went on to successfully raise two young in the tulip tree in 2004, and by January the next year, three hawks could be seen adding twigs to the nest: Big Mama, Split-tail and an unknown juvenile hawk, the offspring of another resident pair of hawks in the park.
Soon, this juvenile and Split-tail began competing for Big Mama’s attention. The two male hawks would soar above each other, and occasionally the lower hawk would flip on his back to display his talons. Other times they would dive bomb their rival. A few weeks later, after the fighting was all over, Split-tail had disappeared, and before long Big Mama and the young male hawk were gone, too.
Today, a pair of red-tailed hawks remain in Prospect Park, but they lack Big Mama’s brazen disregard for people and, barring the odd glimpse, stay hidden deep within the park’s most wooded areas.
So where did Big Mama end up? Not so far away, it turned out, in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, a slightly smaller fief at 478 acres, but with the advantage of being the highest point in the borough, with commanding views of the ridges and valleys in the cemetery grounds below. It was the perfect hunting ground for a hawk.
Indeed, red-tailed hawks had nested in the cemetery every year since at least 1989 in an oak tree close to the hillside mausoleum, on the southeast side of the cemetery. Within six months of Big Mama’s disappearance from Prospect Park, a female hawk was found dead in a pond called the Dell Water. And soon afterward a male hawk was found dead in the same place.
WHETHER or not Big Mama and Junior had a hand in the deaths, they wasted no time in moving into the vacant nest. Not only did the nest have a track record of producing young for the past dozen or more years, but it was in prime hunting ground — and close to two fast food restaurants, which provided a plentiful supply of rats and mice.
Big Mama and Junior promptly went on to produce a chick, an enormous bird that another birder called Huey, after Baby Huey, the huge cartoon duck of the 1950s. In June, Huey successfully flew the nest and began hunting for himself. All seemed well with the cemetery’s hawk population, until suddenly, last September, birders at the cemetery arrived to discover the remains of Big Mama’s nest lying smashed in pieces on the ground — a result of a storm or possibly an inquisitive raccoon.
Birders are now worried that Big Mama may disappear from the area for good. She is accustomed to starting from scratch.
Yet the fact that she successfully raised a chick in the cemetery last year offers hope she will build again there as the nesting season begins this winter. While red-tailed hawks can easily find another mate, finding a successful, safe nesting site with easy access to food is a much harder thing to do.
No protest was organized, and no architect stepped forward for this hawk, as one did in the case of Pale Male and Lola, to design a stainless steel cradle on which a new nest could be built. Nevertheless, some people are trying to coax Big Mama back; a number of birders, in conjunction with the cemetery’s grounds superintendent, Art Presson, have discussed placing branches or lumber in the tree where her nest was, to create a platform upon which Big Mama can build again; nothing has yet been agreed upon.
Meanwhile, Big Mama continues to use the cemetery as her personal hunting ground, swooping over the mausoleums and gravestones like a puppet on a string, with Junior and Huey, their brilliant white wings outstretched, soaring nearby.
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