How the Nest Was Won

Over 21 heartrending days, Pale Male became not only the world's most famous bird but a powerful symbol, too, by beating the odds against nature in New York City.

By Jesse Greenspan
Photograph by Cal Vornberger


By now, virtually everyone in the world knows about Pale Male—except maybe those who don't read newspapers or magazines, listen to the radio, watch television, or go on the Internet. The red-tailed hawk had one of the swankiest homes in New York City, a penthouse nest on 74th Street and Fifth Avenue, where, since 1993, he and his mates have fledged 23 chicks.

Before Pale Male showed up, it is believed that red-tailed hawks, among North America's largest birds of prey, had never nested in modern-day Manhattan. So when Pale Male arrived, he quickly attracted a devoted group of followers. His story inspired both Marie Winn's best-selling book, Red-tails in Love, and Pale Male, an Emmy Award–winning PBS documentary film by Frederic Lilien.

Last December 7, however, the building's co-op board evicted Pale Male and Lola, his mate of four years, for allegedly defecating and for allegedly dropping nest pieces, as well as the remains of rats and pigeons, around the building. The owners removed the 400 pounds of sticks used in the nest, along with the metal spikes that were intended to thwart roosting pigeons but that had anchored the eight-foot-wide nest. For two weeks Pale Male and Lola watched as most of the new sticks and twigs they used to try and rebuild the nest tumbled to the sidewalk below because there was nothing to hold them in place.

The brouhaha that ensued was dramatic, even by New York City's overblown standards, pitting nature lovers, public officials, and grassroots activists against a wealthy real estate developer accustomed to getting his way. The city's tabloids and TV stations went into overdrive, ripping the building's board leader, developer Richard Cohen, and his wife, CNN personality Paula Zahn. “Poultry in Motion” and “Hawk Fans Sink Talons in Co-op,” screamed the tabloid New York Post, whose reporters staked out the building. The happy ending that came with the spikes' return on December 28 made Pale Male one of the year's feel-good stories. “We celebrate Pale Male because he is the underdog that survived against all odds,” says John Flicker, president of National Audubon, who was instrumental in negotiating the settlement. “He is a symbol of hope and a reminder that we can make room for a piece of the wild, if only on a window ledge.”

A vigil organized by New York City Audubon lasted from the time the nest and the pigeon spikes were taken down until they were restored three weeks later. Often braving frigid weather, a hardy group of protesters gathered in front of the building and held placards aloft: “Support Family Values,” “Honk 4 Hawks,” “What Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” and “Flip the Bird to Paula.” Protesters chanted “Shame on you!” and “Bring back the nest!” Passing motorists, bus drivers, cabbies, and even police officers honked their horns in support. Actress Mary Tyler Moore, who lives in the building and championed the birds' return, joined the Audubon vigil, lending the cause celebrity cachet. “This episode galvanized the public,” says Flicker. “These hawks are ambassadors for the wild.”

Meanwhile, Pale Male was becoming a media darling, soaring across the headlines in far-flung places around the world, including Saudi Arabia and India. The New York Times ran more than 10 stories on the hawks, including one on the front page, and dispatched multiple reporters to the scene. The paper even devoted space on its hallowed editorial page to a piece called “Squatters' Rights,” which read: “The hawks have gone out of their way to learn to live with us. The least the wealthy residents of 927 Fifth Avenue could have done was learn to live with the hawks.”

Already a book and movie star, Pale Male, in his latest adventure, received nearly nightly coverage on local and national newscasts. Numerous websites in addition to palemale.com (which received 2 million hits in three weeks) popped up. Audubon collected 10,381 signatures urging the building to put back the nest. As a result of a campaign waged by National Audubon and New York City Audubon, Cohen received almost 5,000 letters. “It's just a very heartfelt story about indomitable wilderness being able to find a home in such a populous spot like New York City,” says Marie Winn, who appeared at the Audubon vigil dressed as a cardinal. (“The store didn't have any red-tailed hawk costumes,” she explains, “so we had to make do with cardinals.”)

The mounting media pressure and the constant protests grew too much for Cohen, who met with Audubon and city and state officials. Finally he consented to Audubon's demands to restore the pigeon spikes. A building architect, a historic architect, city and building engineers, multiple ornithologists, a city biologist, and representatives from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission teamed up to design a plan in which the nest would hang on the wall about four inches above the facade of the building (to avoid causing damage). Moreover, guardrails were strategically positioned to catch anything that fell from the nest, and a layer of twigs was placed in the bottom of the nesting area to encourage the hawks to rebuild.

Although Pale Male and Lola captured the hearts of a city, their victory is not apt to set a precedent for the nation. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 fully protects all migratory birds and their eggs, feathers, and nests. In 1993, when Pale Male's nest was removed for the first time, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official sent a letter to the building, warning its residents that they had violated the act. Although the agency did not issue a fine, the residents were warned not to remove any nests in the future.

In 2003, however, a Fish and Wildlife Service memorandum modified the law to discount the destruction of nests outside of breeding season. Diane Pence, chief of the agency's division of migratory birds in the Northeast, explains that the memorandum was issued for consistency purposes; the seven regional agencies around the country were all deciding cases slightly differently. As a result, when Cohen contacted her office to inquire about removing the nest, he was told no permit was required. “We had no clue that this was the nest of a famous pair of hawks,” Pence says. There are no plans to modify the memorandum anytime soon.

Pale Male sits on a perch in Central Park

By late January Pale Male and Lola were sighted bringing sticks back to the site in preparation for egg laying in March, although the nest had not yet been completed. “Red-tailed hawks have a tremendous fidelity to a successful nest,” says E. J. McAdams, the executive director of New York City Audubon and the vigil's organizer. “Historically, they've always built there, and they've been seen around the nest, so I'm very confident they will rebuild.” There will be many people rooting for the hawks, now that birdwatchers, tourists, and the simply curious have replaced protesters in front of the building. Plus, if past history is any indication, even more people will become enthralled by the two birds this spring and summer when they raise yet another batch of babies on Central Park's border. “It's one of those issues where you can unite reds and blues,” Winn says. “Everyone's for Pale Male.”



© 2005 National Audubon Society

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To learn more about Pale Male and about Audubon's Red-tail Conservation Fund, visit http://palemale.audubon.org or www.nycaudubon.org/home/. For a 3-D video clip of Pale Male's new cradle, visit the website of Dan Ionescu Architects at
. For information about ordering Pale Male, Frederic Lilien's award-winning documentary film, go to page 47 of the magazine (Audubon members receive a discount). The film is available in both DVD and VHS formats.