Thursday, May 19, 2005

Blakeman on what's happening now

Photo by Lincoln Karim - 18 May 2005


Donna Browne described for me some recent, somewhat strange behaviors. A bird was seen flying with dangling feet, and Lola was seen sitting on a perch previously used only for copulation. These all refer back to behaviors normally seen at the start of the reproductive season (in winter), not now. Here is the explanation I sent to Donna, and here, for others, too.

The recent observations of the descended feet, the sitting on copulation perches, and other behaviors that look back to February are, I believe, more "displacement" behaviors, a term used by ethologists (animal behaviorists) to describe actions that don't seem to fit some expected, normal animal behavior. Displacement responses usually are expressed when an animal, for whatever reason, can't respond specifically as it would prefer. Instead, it behaves in some unrelated way that nevertheless satisfies the animal's desire to give a deliberate response. None of this, of course, makes much sense to humans who always (huh?) act upon considered reason.
In the case of our hawks, expected behaviors are beginning to get very confused for the pair. The birds right now should be hunting and providing food for rapidly growing eyasses. But there are no eyasses to feed or protect. The nest is empty, but there are still hormonal stimuli to "do something." Dropping the legs and sitting on a copulation perch are both "somethings" that can be done. Futile and pointless, but these otherwise out of place behaviors satisfy non-cerebral impulses.

All of this, too, will subside as the heat of summer approaches, and more important, as the lengthening of daylight periods diminish. Not long from now, the hawks will no longer spend time at 927 Park Avenue. As reproductive hormones vanish, the birds will live lazy lives merely growing new feathers and eating whatever they wish in Central Park. For them, life will be exceptionally good, with virtually no concerns whatsoever. Would that each of us could live such a life, even for a period.

Don't anyone presume that the birds are anguished in any way by their reproductive failure this year. Those thoughts are mammalian in the highest forms, not avian whatsoever. For readers who wish to assign high human emotions and thoughts to the Central Park red-tails, my postings here have certainly been disappointing and disconcerting. For some, my viewpoints have not been helpful, I'm sure. But I have no personal objections whatsoever to the anthropomorphic viewpoints of anyone else. All of us have enjoyed following the exploits of the pair. Everyone is freely open to entertain personal, even quirky explanations for what has happened.

But as a biologist and falconer who has so closely worked with this great species for over 35 years, I prefer to explain these matters in a biological context. To assign human traits to these noble birds -- for me -- is to reduce them to an artificial caricature, a pair of feathered cartoon figures, as it were. For me, the authentic avian and raptor personalities of the hawks are so much more engaging. I'll expend my human analytic efforts solely on my own behaviors, a complex set of problems unto themselves. For the birds, they are just birds, albeit noble and regal ones at that. They are not models of human parents, nor even mammalian ones. They are red-tailed hawks, sufficient enough.

Have no concern for the pair's failure to reproduce this year. This happens frequently in nature, and they will try again next year, probably with resumed success. Revel in all that we've been able to experience. So few others can, especially in the heart of New York. Rejoice. Pale Male and Lola have no laments. Neither should we.


John A. Blakeman