It was breathtaking. There I was, sitting on a bench at the top of Riverside Park conversing with a colleague, when the sky darkened , and a great swoosh of wings swept up a swirl of dust and leaves, and suddenly, we were in a scene from Jurassic Park. Or perhaps it was a post apocalyptic angel-of-death moment. Anyway, my heart stopped. Any minute now, I thought, I’ll be grabbed by giant talons, carried away and gone in an instant.
I gathered my courage, looked up, and sure enough, there they were, directly overhead: two giant birds – great red-tail hawks – the larger in the lead, her wings stretching over four feet from tip to tip, her sharp claws pointing downward.
“Wow,” was all either of us could say as the birds flew away.
After a moment, when the wind had settled, and the sun had regained its prominence in the sky, was once more dappling the sidewalk through the leafy gobos, my friend sighed and said, “They’re all over the place all of a sudden. It’s amazing.”
I nodded. “It always surprises me that we are surprised. After all, reclamation is what nature does best.”
“But it feels like it’s happening all of a sudden. I mean, they’re taking over the parks. They didn’t used to be so commonplace, did then? Remember when everyone got excited about Pale Male and Lola, back in the late nineties?”
She was referring to a lone pair of hawks who famously chose a controversial nesting spot in a decorative neo-classical sculpture niche high atop a tony Fifth Avenue apartment house. Today Lola is long since dead, and Pale Male is twenty-four years old, a stalwart survivor, who has outlived at least eleven post-Lola mates, and he is no longer unique in the City. Which leaves city dwellers continually scratching their heads in wonder.
Or quaking in fear.
My daughter has an adopted apple head Chihuahua named Madhu. Though he is just simple enough to greet a falcon diving at him as a welcome invitation to play, he wouldn’t last long, as he weighs less than six pounds and would be easily transported to an urban aerie. My daughter, like her fellow small dog parents, will readily recount a tale, which may or may not be true, about a woman who was picnicking in a park near 125th Street when she looked up and saw a hawk carrying off a wailing, terrified Chihuahua. No protective screaming or rock throwing or batting away at the bird by the horrified pet’s family loosed the predator’s grip. They watched along with that woman and horrified onlookers as the great wings flapped, and the little dog’s pink leash, dangling from its already limp body, trailed off out of sight.
Story from Out Walking the Dog, illustration by Charlotte Hildebrand
The woman is reported to have famously said, “I hate those birds, all birds of prey. If I had a rifle, I’d shoot them whenever I see them.”
Small pet people share this story with one another wherever they gather, warning one another to stay away from Riverside Park and Central Park and St. Nicholas Park and all the other parks in the city and to keep their guard up even on busy sidewalks – a small dog was nearly snatched from the sidewalk in midtown last week. “What do you do if one attacks?” They ask each other, never sure there is a right answer.
Just yesterday, while walking with Madhu on our residential street, near the local elementary school, my daughter looked up in a tree and saw two hawks peering down. “I swear they were going to attack,” she averred. “I felt them staring.” She scooped Madhu into her arms and scurried home, grateful she had seen them in time.
Madhu notwithstanding, the birds are a miracle. Back in the 1980s, when populations of rats, pigeons and squirrels threatened to force humanity out of the city, poisons became ineffective in keeping populations down because the rapid evolution of the species enabled even more rapid mutations that rendered the rodents and pigeons impervious to the formulae. Birds of prey were introduced, but it was touch and go for a long time. Their sensitive systems were vulnerable to the potions their meals were ingesting, and because the poisons affected their abilities to reproduce, the birds’ evolution was slow.
Today the hunters are beginning to thrive. Not just hawks but also peregrine falcons, eagles, and other birds of prey. They are taking back the treetops, much the way coyotes and raccoons are taking back the bushes. Nature is reminding us she never went away, and we have to learn to live with all her creatures.
But being human, we don’t believe it. Or we choose to deny it. We expect, as we always have with all indigenous beings that we can tame them, bend them to our will, round them up and put them in zoos and make them stay in their place. If they don’t, we can kill them. After all, we carry guns, and that gives us license to eliminate those we perceive as intruders.
But nature’s not lying down for us, and her minions are not waiting around to be eradicated. They are, like the restless people who are tired of being colonized, putting up a fight. They’re pushing back in small ways now, and perhaps they’ll lose in the short term. But in the long run, we lose by insisting on claiming superiority. Nature has a way of winning. Eventually.
If we kill off the birds here in New York City, we’ll be at the mercy of the disease and filth spread by the unchecked rodent and pigeon populations. We can kill them too, but they’re adaptable, and they will prevail; we stand to lose this island as we stand to lose the planet we have abused too long.
Ultimately, we are here at the mercy of the creatures who naturally inhabit this island. They have been erased before, and they have always found their way back. The alligator in Disney World was no accidental happenstance; one wonders how Disney could have been so blindsided, given their layered history with Captain Hook. Okay, it was a crocodile, but the point remains. The swamps that were Florida before the marauding white man decided to tame them belonged first to the alligators. The Disney folk can kill them, but for every one they kill, a dozen will come to the funeral, and unless the humans figure out a way to co-exist peacefully and safely, the gators will be victorious.
The meek do not inherit the earth. The fittest do. Those who can survive on garbage and mud and each other, like gators and rats and pigeons and squirrels and bugs, will long live after us. They don’t need us any more than they need the sunlight or the clean air that we can’t live without. The creatures will be more than happy to take what we leave behind. And then nature will regenerate, and evolution will replace us with new “higher” organisms. But we won’t be here to greet them or study them or abuse for our pleasure.
We have to choose. Are we with ‘em? If we’re not, they’ll most assuredly be against us.