Hawks in the City: Reflections on the Urban Zoo

Last Monday in Cambridge, Mass., under skies made hazy by smoke from distant Canadian wildfires, a young hawk dubbed Larry took his first flight.

I didn’t catch the initial launch, which took Larry to the roof of nearby Circle Furniture early in the morning, then  “frolicking on top of Dunkin’ Donuts,” avid follower Ernie Sarro told a local NPR reporter.

I did see Larry later that same afternoon, perched on 185 Alewife Brook Parkway—an office building overlooking a main commuter artery. It’s the shopping district in my neighborhood, and I was heading for CVS.

I walked back to look up at the young red-tailed hawk. He wasn’t moving; he could have been one of those fake owls designed to scare away pigeons. But to the two-dozen-plus people clustered below, Larry and his two siblings, Lucky and Lucy, have become an obsession.

I’m enchanted by the birds, too. But that afternoon, I realized I’m far more interested in the human watchers.

“They’re like our kids,” says one fervent admirer quoted in the Boston Globe story about Larry’s flight.

Since the drama began in April, with the adults nesting in this extreme setting, the red-tailed hawks have drawn increasing crowds of gawkers and reporters. Sarro has been blogging about them and running videos for Cambridge Community Television; he named the parents Ruby and Buzz. (Larry’s moniker comes from the Boston basketball legend Larry Bird.)

Robin Young of WBUR was on hand the next day when Larry came in for a landing and crashed. As she describes in her segment on “Here and Now”:

“The crowd gasps as Larry hits the building and spirals down into the busy street, where he sits, as big as a fireplug. Pandemonium.”

One of the regulars then shot into the four-lane road, stopped traffic, and “shooed’ the bird back to safety behind the building.

There’s reason to love them, of course. Redtails are gorgeous birds. Yet I’m starting to believe their presence, clearly visible from Whole Foods in the strip mall across the road, says more about us than the wonders of nature.

As Young said to Sarro, tracking the birds is work and “an emotional commitment.” She asked him, “Why are you doing this?” His heartfelt answer:

“It gets to be a compulsion. It’s—life is unfolding in front of you. I don’t have to worry about this the way I have to worry about the oil leak in the Gulf, which is depressing to me.”

I’m a birder myself, and in the past, my husband and I have chased rare birds around New England. Once we high-tailed it north of Salem, where a Great Gray Owl had taken up residence for a few days, way south of its usual range.

We did see the owl, but the birding hordes running after it across a field, lugging huge spotting scopes and high-end binoculars, were far more striking. I still imagine that owl, lifting a disdainful beak or hiding its head.

The paparazzi, they offend me.

I do understand the pleasures of birding, the desire to match a beautiful song with a bird, the Zen-like focus it requires. But in other ways I’m not truly of the brethren. I don’t have enough of the collector’s zeal; I don’t like running around with cameras; I hate bushwhacking before I’ve had my morning coffee.

The desire to collect birds—as with stamps or Hummel figurines or baseball stats—reveals this avocation for what it is. One person’s birding is another’s desire to build model railroads. All these hobbies make me love the human species: we’re so acquisitive and inquisitive, so creative. I especially love the unself-consciousness of collectors and birders, the way they risk looking silly.

Birding offers other pleasures, too, what many would call a direct connection to nature. But what draws us to watch the hawks on the office building is not quite that, even if fans have described it as such to reporters. We are not tramping through the woods, after all, but standing on the sidewalk. Commuters honk. Traffic jams and roars. The affection many regular watchers feel for the fledglings resembles that of pet owners, a relationship that is about domestication of the wild rather than the forest primeval.

The Globe notes that Larry’s tumble to the street and rescue, for example, prompted calls to the police. A Cambridge animal control officer then “asked the crowd of about 25 to 30 people watching the birds to disperse” because she felt the hawks were “stressed” by all the attention.

(Just two days before, I’d quipped to my husband, “Do you think they have performance anxiety?”)

Regardless, the crowds were still there this past weekend. They’ve given reporters various reasons for their fascination: there’s the community of fellow watchers, the thrill Sarro and other regulars get when they see non-birders excited about the hawks. “It’s nature in a very unnatural place,” he says.

Some are trying to use the celebrity redtails as a means to stop developers from building on open space a mile away in Belmont. Another recent Globe story reports that Friends of the Alewife Reservation have urged hawk fans to rally in a show of support at a Belmont Selectmen meeting tonight.

Sarro even told Young of WBUR, “They are great parents. Buzz is not an absentee father…. The lesson for children is fabulous.” He noted that Dad sat on the nest and later fed the chicks while Mom was out hunting.

None of these attempts at sense-making really make sense. Redtails are not endangered; they do quite well in urban or semi-urban settings. As environmental icons, they are a stretch. Ditto as parental icons. I’m just waiting for someone to make the feminist case for hawk living.

But it’s in this quest for meaning that I feel the most affection for my fellow humans. We are animals, yes, but we’re also creatures of our particular cultures and time periods. We’re always trying to explain ourselves.

Two springs ago, mating season for the redtails of Harvard Yard, my husband had one vigorous pair go at it on the ledge outside his office window. As he jokingly tells it, this repeated scene was a test of his visitors’ personalities and ranks in academe. Most of his students ignored the hawks or blushed and stammered. His older colleagues guffawed.

So now I’m watching the hawk watchers, allying myself with their desire for magic, for kinship with other creatures, even with my fellow Cantabrigians’ kookiness. In a week in which wildfire smoke blew hundreds of miles and a series of thunderstorms pummeled the area—and the BP well keeps gushing its darkness into our collective ocean—I think about the hawks at odd hours. I imagine them hunkered against the cracks of thunder, the rain.

I think about how we all hunker in our cities, trying to protect ourselves from the many unknowns we can’t control. We may say we love nature more than anything else—and some of us surely do—but we are all happy trespassers, too, and philosophers. We are the most curious animals in the zoo.

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UPDATE: Late this afternoon, I walked over to the nest and found it empty. The crowds were gone, too. But on closer inspection, I spotted a pair with a spotting scope. Other people in a nearby parking lot had their eyes raised, searching the skies or pointing across the highway.

One of the hawks was perched on the Hotel Tria next to Whole Foods. I overheard one woman say in front of CVS, “Yeah, that’s the father.” I’m not sure how she could tell it was Buzz. But the fact that even a scatter of people in a busy parking lot had their senses so attuned seemed remarkable to me.

UPDATE ON THE UPDATE (July 26, 2010): Now I’m pretty sure the “hawk” on the Hotel Tria is one of those fake statues of an owl, designed to scare off pigeons. It’s always there, in exactly the same position—and another interesting example of how we humans see what we want to see.