Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail

I learned yesterday from a visit to the Morningside Hawks blog that the female of Riverside Park’s paired red-tailed hawks was found dead on Friday. This is such sad news, just as nesting season is underway.

Today, the dog and I walked to the nest site.

Just above the 79th street boat basin, the nest overlooks the Hudson River.

There we found a makeshift memorial to the hawk.

According to hawk watchers, the hawk seemed ill on Friday, perching for hours without moving. The Riverside nest has a particularly fraught history, as rehabilitator Bobby Horvath told the NY Daily News, “Every year there is a tragedy with this poor bird. One year there was a storm, the nest blew out of a tree and three babies died and last year her mate was found dead by a Dumpster.”

The death of the Riverside female brings the recent death toll of Manhattan’s Red-tails to four, three in the last two weeks alone. The bodies are being tested to determine the cause of death, a process that may take over a month. Many birdwatchers suspect rat poison, an on-going hazard for urban raptors.

Rat poison caused the death last year of the Riverside Park male red-tail, and has also killed baby hawks that were inadvertently fed poisoned rats by the their parents. After last year’s death, the Parks department stopped using poison near the nest, but NYC hawks hunt in the streets as well as in the parks. And I can attest from daily experience that rats, and boxes of rat poison, are easily visible all over Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side.

Whatever the cause of the recent deaths, red-tails move on to new mates with astonishing rapidity. There seems to be no shortage of “floaters,” unattached, usually younger hawks in search of mates. The Riverside female had found a new mate earlier in the season. And on Saturday, Roger_Paw reported, the male had already been observed copulating with a new  female.

When I got home this afternoon, I spotted a red-tail perched on a water tower on 109th Street. It might have been a Riverside red-tail, but it could just as easily be from Saint John’s, Central Park, or elsewhere.

As I fumbled with my camera, the bird took flight, heading south.

Here’s hoping we have another successful nest in Riverside Park this year.

And here’s a last look at “Mom,” showing unequivocally why we call them red-tails.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2012, Birds, Hawks, In the City, NYC Parks, Riverside Park, Seasons, Spring, Wildlife/Natural History

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24 Comments on “Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail”

  1. […] Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail documents the community reaction to the demise of a red-tailed hawk known as Mom who nested each […]

  2. […] Out walking the dog tracking nature in the city & other NYC odysseys « Good-bye, Riverside Park Red-tail […]

  3. Jenny Says:

    How sad. It makes me wonder about the hawks that I see most often in Boston – those around the Arnold Arboretum and my place of work, Allandale Farm. Both of these places use poison, so I’ll have to ask some questions. They’re such beloved birds – it’s beautiful, though heart-breaking, to see all of the remembrances left at her nest.

  4. ailsapm Says:

    So sad, I hate to think of that beautiful bird suffering. I hope she didn’t, and I hope the new pair take over the nest and flourish. x

  5. Pigeonsarecutebut... Says:

    The incessant (and utterly useless) feeding of pigeons by the 50 lbs bag on the UWS is certainly to blame for the death of these hawks. I have observed a bicycled woman drop a few pounds of seeds in areas that are/were clearly marked with Rat Poison signs.
    Pigeons have no trouble finding food in this overpopulated city; the misplaced feeding by humans has indeed set off a chain of deadly events.

  6. The memorial is very touching.

    I watched a red-tail soar outside my office window this morning. I whipped out my “emergency binoculars” to watch it.

    Red-tails have to be one of my favorite birds.

    I hope the bird’s death wasn’t painful.

  7. Barbara Says:

    How very sad Melissa… it’s always sad when we get a first hand look at how the human species has interfered with the natural way of life, ie using rat poison everywhere, to the detriment of unintended victims.

    Beautiful photographs – hopefully there will be other red-tails that will take over the nest soon.

    On my way to Toronto which is my closest big city, I often see redtails high in the sky or on lamp posts that line the freeways that circle the city. Isn’t it amazing how they have adapted to such difficult environments? And peregrines have been bred to nest in some city skyscrapers to act as natural predators for pigeons.

    We can learn a lot by watching wildlife.

    This is a beautiful memorial to a wonderful bird. Thanks

    • I agree, it is amazing how well they have adapted, Barbara, given that red-tails are built to hunt in open spaces. NYC has plenty of peregrines now, too. I believe most of the bridges into our lovely island have a nesting pair. As for the natural way of life, well, for better or worse, living in the city certainly blurs the edges of what is natural, and challenges standard definitions of natural behavior – in humans as well as red-tails! I suspect the very fact that we have so many red-tails in the city may be due in part to loss of habitat elsewhere as well as the conservation success of banning DDT and maybe a changing culture about shooting raptors. The rat situation is really just terrible – but solving it will require that we humans change our behavior (both in feeding animals and in disposing of garbage) and invest long-term in solutions, and that seems to be much tougher than continually throwing around poisons in hopes of treating an immediate infestation. It doesn’t work, anyway, even on the short-term. I mean, it kills some rats, but does nothing to prevent the population from continuing to grow – and even to return to the same places. I see this on my own block, especially in one particular patch of dirt around a street tree where the rats have a burrow into their underground empire. The same spot is treated over and over with poison, the hole is closed up, wired over with thick chickenwire, and … a few months later, guess what? the hole has again appeared and the rats are back in business.

      • I also wonder if the burgeoning urban hawk population is due to the rampant rat population. It’s so unfortunate that secondary poisoning is such a treacherous reality for these awesome predators.

        I recognized the nest from one of your pictures as the subject of the first nature footage I ever took in New York City. I remember being so excited to see a tangible example of wilderness in the city. I had no idea the site was plagued by so many troubles. I am so saddened to hear of her death, and the others, these past few weeks. It’s really troubling.

        • Pigeonsarecutebut... Says:

          I’m not so sure of that; Hawks, falcons etc. like to pursue a moving, ‘easy’ prey. I have often observed a hawk having a pigeon for a snack in RSP, up near 116th Street. Rats tend to stay in/near/under buildings where food is easily found.
          Either way, both the pigeons and the rats are poisoned/poisonous, primarily due to human feeding in the streets near rat poison.

          • I too have seen hawks dining on pigeon. But I will say that I have seen many, I mean MANY, rats on both sides of Riverside Drive. I see fewer in the park, but I think that is partly simply because there is more natural cover for them. I hadn’t thouhgt about the pigeons being poisoned from the rat poison. Yikes.

          • I think you’re right that healthy, normally behaving rats (with their nocturnal habits – a critical point which I forgot to consider!), would be unlikely to form a significant part of a Red-tail’s diet. Apparently though, rats suffering from the effects of anticoagulants do not behave normally. They change their patterns of activity so that they are out in the open during the day, and further, they tend to roam into open spaces instead of moving along the edges of structures. Even their innate response to run from potential predators is relaxed or disappears. They freeze, even when prodded. The study I read — — was conducted on wild rats kept in a large enclosure. If this holds for completely free-ranging rats, it seems possible that poisoned rats could become a larger proportion of an urban hawk’s diet.

        • I don’t think the rat population is responsible for the increasing hawk population. Our growing resident raptor population includes peregrines, Cooper’s Hawks and kestrels, none of which eat rats. They are bird-eaters (which has its own problem: frounce, a disease carried by pigeons). And even our red-tails, which are normally small mammal specialists, have adapted to eat pigeons and other birds in addition to squirrels and rats. My own feeling is that the growing numbers of urban hawks are the result of some combination of habitat loss combined with population recovery after DDT was banned and a change in rural mentality from the shoot-to-kill-all-predators era (of course, I wouldn’t try to tell western wolves that predator-hunting is in abeyance). I need to research this more, and would love to hear other thoughts.

          That must be have been an exciting moment when you first discovered the Riverside nest!

  8. Here’s an insider tip for you. The New York Times is setting up a hawk cam on their building. They were installing it today.

    • Thanks for the tip – very cool. Wonder if it’s a hawk or a peregrine or …? Well, if it’s the Times, we’ll be hearing about it.

      • It’s a red-tailed hawk and I was wrong about the location. It’s in Washington Square Park. Does your dog walk that far? Check it out –

        • Thanks so much, Virginia. That’s the hawkcam that was up last year, and turned out to be quite a source of drama for the red-tail pair and their fans. The female, Violet, recently died after she was captured in an attempt to correct a life-threatening problem with her foot. But like the riverside hawk, the male, Bobby, quickly found a new mate, known as Rosie, and they already have at least one egg, I think. I’ll definitely check in on the live feed, and hope for a successful nesting year.

          • Something must have happened to the old cam. They bought and installed this camera last week. Thanks for the background story. I’m fascinated and tune in quite often.I too am hopeful. You have to be, right?

  9. p hoey Says:

    If the hawk dies because of rat poison and is eaten by a raccoon,
    does the raccoon then suffer poisoning? The chain of results, then,
    another example of unintended consequences…
    The photos are a fitting memorial–thanks, Melissa.

    • I think our park hawks are often found by humans when they die, since our spaces are so trafficked and the ones that nest have devoted observers. I don’t know if the toxins would be strong enough in the hawk’s body to poison a scavenger – it’s a good question. We’ll have to see what the evidence shows.

  10. Very sad… evidently lots of hazards in the city for birds like that.

    • Yes, it is actually remarkable that red-tails have adapted to the city at all, let alone thrived to the extent they have. Unlike peregrines, they are not natural candidates for an urban environment. But like other successful species (ahem, humans), they have shown flexibility in diet and habits – in their case, a flexibility that might not have been predicted. But yes, the hazards are everywhere – and the Riverside Park hawks have seen many of them – eyasses hit by cars, rat poison, stormwinds off the Hudson knocking down the nest, dogs and people harassing the fledglings, etc. Riverside is such a narrow strip, and when you see where the nest is located, you shudder at how close the cars are and how dense the foot traffic! I’m speaking out of ignorance, but it seems that it is early enough in the season that the new pair may bond and produce eggs in the existing nest.

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