Monday, May 30, 2005

A new hawk development

Yesterday Kentaurian and several other observers at the model-boat pond witnessed an odd sight. At 7:20 p.m. Pale Male landed atop of Lola, who was then perched on the "Smokestack" building. An unmistakeable copulation took place.

I sent a report to John Blakeman -- a fine excuse to resume communication -- and asked if this too was "displacement " behavior. Or was there possibly a chance that the pair might resume nesting and still raise a brood this year. Here is his answer:

Yes, any copulation by our pair at this very late date can only be a "displacement:" behavior. There are absolutely no known cases of red-tails re-nesting this late in the season. Even if the pair could lay an egg or two, it wouldn't hatch until early July. The eyasses wouldn't be able to fledge until August, and easily-captured food sources are beginning to really dry up in late summer. The young birds simply wouldn't have enough time to learn how to hunt and consistently capture food each day. Consequently, late re-nesting for red-tails just isn't in their stack of genetic resources.
The recent copulation does show that the pair is "deeply in love," stated in human terms, as it were -- not a good biological explanation, but sufficient for the moment. The birds are strongly pair-bonded, and they continue to act upon biological impulses. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the birds right now should be hunting excessively and feeding growing eyasses. Normally, those activities would consume every bit of energy and behavioral impulse. Without the eyasses present, the adults' behaviors can wander, and an occasional fling in the hay (or a mounting on an antenna) is a momentary, delightful diversion that further strengthens the bonding between the pair.
It also has territorial implications. Modern evidence strongly suggests (at least in kestrels, but probably in all territorial diurnal raptors) that resident breeding birds are not only attracted and attached to each other, but also to the territory itself. Red-tails are non-social predators, and they commonly don't abide the presence of other red-tails. Their acceptance of another hawk close by, in the territory, as so often seen when the birds perch nearby, is altogether contrary to their un-mated natural disposition. Mutual perching and copulation mean that the birds not only are bonded to each other, but to the local landscape, their territory, in this case Central Park and it's adjacent buildings.
It's easy and convenient to ascribe human love and relationship behaviors to mutual perching and copulation. For readers who wish to do this, that's fine and sufficient enough. But as a biologist who's studied all of this rather closely for over three decades, and likewise as a falconer who has had unique personal experiences with this species, I find the pair-bonding behaviors of red-tails far more complex and important than merely "being in love." The birds are not in love. Those are high cerebral activities that birds in general and hawks in particular are incapable of. These pair bonding behaviors are driven by and centered in brain patterns very different from mammals.
For me, this makes all of what we've watched even more astounding and interesting. Pale Male and Lola are not feathered little people doing what all of us might for a time wish, to soar and raise babies. These birds are a separate, distinct species with their own, unique behaviors. Those are what I want to understand, as they relate to the birds themselves. For guidance on understanding proper human behaviors, I'll confer with Scriptural texts, writings by wise authors, and ponder my own experiences. To understand red-tails, I'll constrain myself to their own behaviors and the biologically-based explanations biologists offer. For me, their regality is actually elevated when I'm not forced to reduce their lives to mere shadows of human ones. Our (well, at least my) great joy has been to experience close-up the continuing lives of an authentically wild hawk species. That's rare enough anywhere, but in this case it's been in Central Park, in the center of one of the great cities in the world. It's been a great adventure, and the story will continue in due season, I'm certain.

John A. Blakeman