Pale Male & Lola "smooching" on the Beresford 2/4/07
Photo by Lincoln KarimYesterday Bill Trankle of Indianapolis sent in a question for John Blakeman:
Marie, the recent photos by Lincoln of PM and Lola "smooching" brought to mind a question: With Lincoln's excellent and constant coverage of our pair, why is it he's never snapped pictures of them preening each other? Typically, bird pairs will preen each others' heads, the one area they cannot reach themselves, but I don't know if this is a typical behavior in the more solitary raptors. I suppose they may just use their talons, but those things are HUGE and would seem a bit cumbersome for the task. Just curious. BillAs ever, Blakeman replied quick as a wink, with, as ever, a most interesting letter:
Bill, this is a good question, especially from anyone who is familiar with the delightful mutual preening done by truly social birds.
But red-tails are not very social. I've had experiences with over a hundred red-tails, kestrels, and other North American raptors in captivity, in breeding trials, in rehabilitation efforts, in physiological studies, in falconry, and a few other encounters. North American raptors simply don't engage in mutual preening in any real sense. The extent of their "mutualness" is expressed by Lincoln's photo of the pair sitting shoulder to shoulder at the Beresford.
Alone, this is a rather remarkable photo, which I think more accurately reflects the curious perch the birds are sharing, not any particular mutual social behavior. No, I can't deny that there is a strong element of pair bonding that allows both birds to sit so closely together there. But out in the open countryside I don't recall ever seeing a pair of red-tails perching so close together, save for a few seconds before or after (Shall I state it?) copulation. That's not involved in Lincoln's photos. And none of the captive birds mutually preen, either.
The real deal here is that both the view of the Central Park landscape from way up there at the Beresford, and the ease of landing on that perch, are apparently just about as good as they can get. The view must be stunning. Pale Male and Lola can see every pigeon, rat, or other animal of any kind over most of that region of the park. Nothing that would interest them can go unseen up there.
Here's an important concept. There is the thought that raptors tend to be more "mated" to their respective territories than to each other. The raptor pair-bonding process provides for the occupation of a territory by the other selected and tolerated hawk. But both birds may be more psychologically connected to the territory and its perches and prey, etc. than to each other. They essentially tolerate each other and come together physically only when copulating. Nest building, incubation, and eyass rearing require close encounters, of course.
But red-tails and most other diurnal raptors are decidedly non-social predators. Preening each others' feathers just doesn't fit into the genetically limited social scene these great birds engage in. Lincoln has labeled his photographic sequence a "kiss." That's nice, but it wasn't a kiss in any mammalian or human manner. Nor was it mutual preening.
We must---as you have with your intelligent question---attempt to understand these hawks for what they are...uniquely red-tailed hawks, nothing more nor less. In my mind, the assignment of human or pstticine (parrot) behaviors to these magnificent creatures merely substitutes arbitrary (and false) traits to this great species. That works in fiction and children's stories. But Pale Male and Lola present the public with authentic raptor biology, for tens of thousands to see first hand, were they only persuaded to look up and take in the live wildlife spectacle.
One last note here. At the start, I questioned the hawks' use of the 927 nest site. It seemed way too high, as does the Beresford perch. Our rural red-tails never sit or nest at these great heights. They have no opportunity. Our trees are no taller than those in Central Park. But the Central Park red-tails have elected to perch and nest at heights not seen elsewhere in the wild. They have the ability to "get above it all," and for whatever reasons, have chosen to do so.
Thanks for the observant question.
--John A. Blakeman