Falcon Family Drama Ruffles Feathers

STARE DOWN: The family of red-tailed hawks near Fordham University  are among hundreds of birds of prey living in New York City. Photo Credit: Richard Fleisher.
STARE DOWN: The family of red-tailed hawks near Fordham University is among hundreds of birds of prey living in New York City. Photo Credit: Richard Fleisher

BRONX – High above city streets, melodramas unfold that go mostly unnoticed by New Yorkers below. The characters of these stories aren’t part of some acting guild: They’re the city’s birds of prey.

“It would be great if more people just looked up and observed,” said Fordham University political science professor and avid nature photographer Richard Fleisher.

Fleisher has been tracking the unfolding drama of a Bronx family of red-tailed hawks that has made its home on the campus of Fordham University and along Webster Avenue. The university’s student newspaper first reported on a pair of hawks in 2004, and Fleisher and others have observed the lineage ever since.

The hawks are part of a growing population of birds of prey that has thrived in New York City since the 1972 Clean Water Act. The act limited the use of chemicals that poisoned the bird’s food supply of city rodents.

The story of the original star-crossed hawk couple, Hawkeye and Rose, ended with the death of Hawkeye in 2009. Fleisher and others speculated, but could not confirm, that Hawkeye suffered death by poison after ingesting a rodent that had ingested an exterminator’s toxin.

Rose soon found a new mate, whom the university community named Vince. Rose and Vince nested together for several years, but trouble befell Rose after she entered the nest of a new male: a great horned owl named Junior at the New York Botanical Garden.

This, however, was no love story. Rose attempted to take over Junior’s nest, most likely presuming it was empty.

“Great horned owls and red-tailed hawks have been known to predate each other’s nest and we believe that was the issue,” Fleisher said.

When Junior and his mate began raising young and refused to leave the nest, Rose and Junior became adversaries.

“Rose was an alpha female and I would see her harass Junior,” said Debbie Becker, a naturalist and bird guide for the botanical garden. “She would perch right on a branch next to the nest, and Junior would show his shoulders in defiance.”

The duel between the birds of prey likely led to their demise, although no bodies or bones were found.

Vince eventually took a new mate. The two now live with their young in a nest on Webster Avenue, across the street from the university.

Melodramas akin to that of the Fordham hawks are likely happening across the city. Populations of birds of prey have dramatically increased over the past 40 years and are now estimated in the hundreds, said Tod Winston, communications manager and research assistant for New York City Audubon.

“The bird of prey population is doing well in the city,” Winston said.

Winston noted that turkey vultures breed on Staten Island, ospreys live in Jamaica Bay and peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls breed across New York City. The metro area even boasts bald eagles.

“You can find the bald eagle in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, or along the Hudson River, or the river near Inwood Park,” Winston said.

Urban birds of prey are more adaptable, unlike their more skittish upstate counterparts, Fleisher said. But New Yorkers shouldn’t worry about the aggressive birds, as they rarely – if ever – attack people, he added.

“The birds of prey in urban society just go about their business and pay humans no mind,” he said. “I have seen a red-tailed hawk fly between people going after its prey.”

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