Good Times, Bad Times
By Keith Michael
What was that? It sounded like a cry for help.
It was a nice day, though unseasonably hot, so I decided to detour through Hudson River Park on my way home. Circling Abingdon Square and past every front stoop garden while heading down West 12th Street, I’m on the lookout for an American Woodcock huddled in a corner. It’s actually good news that I haven’t seen one in the neighborhood this spring. Often, they’re only around because they’ve crashed into a window, and are downed for a mandatory time-out. Still, I always like to see their plump bodies, pop-eyes, and long, prehensile bills. That “prehensile” fact about their bills is both endearing and a bit creepy.
A young Red-tailed Hawk (left) having a very bad day in a rumble with a Peregrine Falcon (right.) Photos by Keith Michael.
Across the street from each other, a Cardinal pair is duet-singing. It’s uncanny how they finish each other’s sentences like a seasoned married couple. From their songs alone, I can’t tell which is the firebrand red male and which is the sultry, olive-burgundy female, but they seem well on their way to renewing their vows.
A Mockingbird concertizes from the pinnacle of a water tower, occasionally boomeranging into an acrobatic flight flashing the white semaphores of his wings and tail. His whole repertoire is on Shuffle: Robin, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Nuthatch, House Sparrow, Phoebe, Cardinal counterpointing with the two Cardinals already on the block, a few songs I don’t recognize from his winter southern travels, and a perfect rendition of a screeching Red-tailed Hawk. Oh no, that was a Red-tailed Hawk! It’s that same sound of distress I heard earlier.
Crossing West Street, I look up and there’s the young Red-tail soaring above Westbeth, next suddenly skidding across the sky. A blur passes by him, and I’m shocked that he just got slammed by a Peregrine Falcon—the fastest creature on earth. Out of the corner of my eye a second Peregrine is hovering, then stoops into a death plunge, bashing the hawk again. Scrambling from under a tree to get a better view, I fumble with the zipper on my bag to get my binoculars and camera into action as fast as I can.
The two Peregrines look like they’re regrouping, huddling high. The hawk seems stalled, not ducking an escape which might just draw more attention. Finally, looking through my binoculars, I see that his wings and tail are a mess with several gaps of missing feathers. It is spring, so maybe he’s just at the start of a molt, replacing some of his kid-stuff, long wing feathers with fresh, adult feathers, maybe even adding some grown-up red feathers to fill out his future namesake tail. I really can’t tell, but I fear those Peregrines hit him so hard that some of those gaps are battle scars. He leans back in the air and screams. A Peregrine dives again, fists clenched. Bam.
Wow. This is hard to watch. What’s going on? This is probably the Peregrine pair that I’ve always suspected nests on the cliffs across the river in Hoboken. I’ve seen them occasionally before around Westbeth, even perched on the cornice, but really? They’re being territorial, like a street gang with this youngster: New Jersey against New York? Or are they really trying to kill him for dinner? The Peregrine’s body slam is the equivalent of being hit by a car at more than one hundred mph. Each lost feather for the hawk makes every wingbeat a little harder.
Losing or breaking feathers can be a disaster. Birds’ lives depend on flying. It’s not like they can order a replacement set and have them overnight expressed to their door. It takes months to grow new ones. Different birds have different seasonal strategies for molting and replacing worn feathers. Most get decked out in fetching spring fashions for breeding season. Some ducks lose all of their flight feathers at the same time, grounding them during the summer while their kids are growing up—a natural brake to ensure devoted parenting! Raptors, though, lose and replace wing feathers one at a time throughout the year in a timed rotation, so that flight is never compromised. A few lost milliseconds of not pushing against the air because of too many gaps in those wing feathers might be the milliseconds between life and death—like that mortal whoosh I’ve felt after a too-close-for-comfort, near-collision while crossing the bike lane.
If this is this hawk’s first dogfight, surely, he’s in a panic. Or maybe his parents did tuck him in under their wings one night with a cautionary bedtime tale, “Honey, sometimes there are going to be bad days. Why, I remember once, let me tell you about it…but I’m still here. You’re going to keep your wits about you when you grow up and you’ll be fine. Sweet dreams, kiddo.”
Glancing down to check my camera settings, when I look back up, the battling trio have vanished. Did the hawk find an escape route or plummet somewhere to his death? And where is that murderous pair? Murder is a daily part of Peregrines’ lives, Red-tailed Hawks’ too, so I don’t hold it against them. Still, it’s chilling.
P.S.: Several days later, while looking for owls in the Hudson River Park pines, I startled a young Red-tail on a low branch. His eyes saucered, “Go AWAY!” as we stared at each other. His feathers were a wreck. Likely, this was the same fellow from the aerial drama. Then, he dove off the branch, spread his wings, and was gone! I hope, off to a better day.
Keith Michael, West Villager, birder, urban naturalist, photographer, dance production manager, and ballet choreographer, leads nature walks throughout the NYC area. Visit http://www.keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.