Monday, December 20, 2010

Oldest Red-tailed Hawk

The following story about the oldest Red-tailed Hawk living in the wild just appeared in the New York Times:

Old, but Unready to Be Rung Out
By PETER APPLEBOME

Fame can be a capricious thing, for any kind of beast. So no disrespect to Pale Male, the ├╝ber-hawk of Fifth Avenue, but he’s not the only raptor of renown in these parts.

As Pale Male’s celebrity grows in books, song and the recent documentary “The Legend of Pale Male,” a rural cousin has demonstrated equally remarkable, if less publicized, avian persistence.

She doesn’t have a catchy name (or any name), a fashionable perch or Twitter twitter (“Pale Male’s Central Park is infested with humans but he’s tolerant”), but the red-tailed hawk first seen just before Thanksgiving sitting on a dead rabbit on the white line in the middle of Route 17M near Monroe, N.Y., has quite a story to tell.

When finally contained, after a somewhat erratic journey, she was clearly old and infirm. But it was not until people were able to study the aluminum band that had been placed on her left leg when she was 6 or 7 months old that they realized just how old she was: about 27 years and 9 months. Most red-tails that survive their first year — more than 60 percent do not — live about half that long.

Among red-tails whose ages could be documented, she was the oldest ever found alive in the wild in North America. She first came into contact with humans when Joe Morgan and Pete Rose were playing for the Phillies in the World Series and Ronald Reagan was president.

“Part of it’s luck, part of it’s genes, part of it’s being really proficient in what it does,” said Leonard J. Soucy Jr., founder of the Raptor Trust in Millington, N.J., where the bird is being kept at least through the winter. “It’s not that different from what makes you live a long time and stay healthy.”

Red-tailed hawks are large, adaptable birds of prey that breed from Canada to Panama. This one was almost certainly born north of New York City, and she was captured and banded on Oct. 15, 1983 — coincidentally, by personnel at Dr. Soucy’s center.

She has almost certainly traveled far since then, but her current acclaim began on Nov. 15 when a motorist, worried that the bird would be hit by a car, stopped to pick her up after seeing her feeding on a rabbit carcass in the road. When the bird didn’t fight him and wouldn’t let the rabbit go, he figured there was something wrong with her and put her in the back of his van, where she perched on a mop handle.

There were a few stops and missteps. She escaped when a worker at Sterling Forest State Park in New York tried to transport her in a banker’s box, but she was picked up the next day on the same highway and taken to the Bear Mountain Zoo, and then to Suzie Gilbert, a wild-bird rehabilitator in Garrison, N.Y.

Ms. Gilbert fed her for a few days, realized the hawk had a respiratory problem of some kind that needed extra care and took her to Dr. Soucy’s raptor center, where the red-tail has been given food, medicine and treatment for a hairline fracture of a wing. The bird will be fed and observed at least through the winter. If she is fully healed and able to fly, she will probably be released back into the wild.

Things have improved for red-tails since regulators began to curb the use of DDT and other harmful pesticides. And in some ways, the cleared landscape of highways and subdivisions has made it easier for them to find safe perches to hunt for mice, rats, squirrels and ferrets.

In other ways, our comfort zone is their nightmare, in which a bird like this one over the years has managed to escape plate-glass windows, electrified utility lines, speeding cars, hunters’ rifles, windmill blades and other perils. City hawks, like Pale Male, face particular dangers from rats feeding on rat poison, which can kill both predator and prey, though there is plenty of rat poison in the country as well.

As we are, a hawk is bred for survival and without concern for its victims in a world in which predator eventually becomes prey. So you romanticize it at your peril. Still, old age can be its own reward, burden or miracle. As we get older, this time of year feels as much about survival as about celebration, a time when, if we’re lucky, we find a secure perch for a few quiet weeks, to look back on obstacles overcome, mazes run, bullets dodged, refuges found. A holiday season shout-out to this tough old bird and to assorted tough birds, old and young, down here on the ground.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

No comments:

Exploring urban nature, birds, birdwatching, birding, hummingbirds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, hawks, raptors, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, environment, binoculars, spotting scope