Young ‘reality show raptors’ get ready to wing it
BY LORENZO LIGATO | In 2011, two red-tailed hawks in Washington Square took the Web by storm.
The two raptors — named Bobby and Violet — had built their nest on a windowsill outside of N.Y.U. President John Sexton’s office, on the 12th floor of Bobst Library on Washington Square South. More than 1.7 million viewers around the world observed Violet laying eggs and their offspring hatching through the lens of the Hawk Cam, a live-streaming Web cam installed by The New York Times’s City Room blog.
This March, the Hawk Cam returned for its second season — and now, both the raptor reality stars and their rapt fans are preparing for the big finale.
After Violet died late last December from complications from surgery, Bobby returned to the roost overlooking the park with a new mate, Rosie. Since the pair were first spotted together on Dec. 25, the two celebrity hawks have been hunting side by side and tending their aerie outside Sexton’s office for months, sparking new excitement among the city’s hawk watchers. In early March, Bobby and Rosie gifted their fans with two bluish-white eggs with brown spots.
N.Y.U. President Sexton himself espied the much-anticipated eggs on Tues., March 6, while both hawks were out of their nest.
Sexton said he finds the presence of the birds a source of joy, adding that he is glad to share an intimate view of these “majestic” wild raptors with others through the Hawk Cam.
“It is wonderful to be able to add the rhythms of the natural world to the academic rhythms of a university community,” he said.
Soon, the following week, a new Hawk Cam was set up to bring the intimate lives of the two raptors to computer screens around the globe. For about a month, followers of the hawks kept a close eye on the nest, where Bobby and Rosie shared the duties of incubation, taking turns sitting on the eggs.
Often, in the morning and in late afternoon, the male hawk would arrive on the 12th-floor ledge with a rodent or a pigeon for his mate. While Rosie enjoyed her meal, Bobby would give her a break from nest-sitting duty.
Finally, on Day 34 from when the eggs were first spotted in the nest, Hawk Cam watchers reported a tiny, round hole on the surface of one of the two orbs.
“Hatching begins 28 to 35 days after egg-laying,” said Glenn Phillips, executive director of NYC Audubon, an environmental organization for the protection of wild birds.
It can take baby hawks nine hours or more to emerge from their shell, said Phillips. This process — called “pipping” — begins when the oxygen provided through the eggshell’s porous surface is not sufficient for the baby. The baby hawks, Phillips said, then use their egg tooth — a sharp, cranial protuberance on their beak — to peck a hole through the shell.
Almost nine hours later, at 11:02 p.m. on Mon., April 9, a small, fuzzy eyas — or baby hawk — made its broadcast debut in the Bobst nest. A second baby hawk emerged from its shell almost 24 hours after its sibling.
“Red-tail eyasses emerge as helpless little balls of fluff, but we get to watch the mother feed them, as they grow with remarkable speed,” said John A. Blakeman, a raptor biologist and master falconer from Huron, Ohio. Blakeman — who has been studying red-tailed hawks for more than 40 years — said the advent of computer cameras trained on nests allowed him to advance his knowledge of incubation and nesting.
“And yes, I dare be altogether unscientific — but very human — in concurring with everyone who has followed the N.Y.U. nest saga in noting the utter cuteness of the downy hatchlings,” Blakeman added.
Six weeks have now passed since the birth of the two eyasses, named by Times readers Boo and Scout, after characters from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” From white, alien-like fuzzballs with stumpy wings and oversized heads, Boo and Scout have transformed into lanky, juvenile raptors with chocolate-brown feathers and menacing, gray eyes.
While the two nestlings are still dependent on their parents for feeding, the two baby hawks have become increasingly active and mobile. When they aren’t sleeping or eating chunks of meat from their mother’s beak, Boo and Scout play-fight, preen or stretch out their growing wings, in preparation to test them soon in the park.
The eyasses, which began to grow flight feathers in their third week of life, are finally ready to take their first flight or “fledge.” Now it’s just a matter of days until they make a leap over the edge and venture out into Washington Square Park.
“Those of us watching the nest cam hope to see this instantaneous event,” Blakeman said.
Yet, for now, every day hundreds of people tune into the Hawk Cam to carefully monitor Boo and Scout “jump-flapping,” or fluttering an inch or two in the air before falling back down on the ledge. In the nest cam’s chat room, a growing online community hooked on the hawks discusses the eyeasses’ habits and progress.
“I think people are fascinated by this peek into an otherwise hidden world,” said Paula Eisenberg, a faithful Hawk Cam follower. “It’s a privilege to be able to watch the hawks go about their daily domestic lives.”
Eisenberg — who created an additional Web site dedicated to the hawk-watching community, http://wsphawks.com — was drawn into the N.Y.U. nest saga last year, after viewing the original City Room story about Bobby and Violet.
While some of the Hawk Cam crew have excessively anthropomorphized the birds, Eisenberg said she has been touched by the excellent example of parenting she has observed in the N.Y.U. nest. Additionally, she noted, the media coverage of this story can help deepen the city’s commitment to protect urban biodiversity.
Blakeman noted there is something inherently moving about observing untamed nature unfold before our eyes.
“Why the attention? Well, they are red-tailed hawks: When people, rural or urban, encounter these regal birds, they become entranced,” he said, adding that urban red-tails are less wary of humans than wild red-tailed hawks in the countryside, allowing for close viewing without binoculars.
“It’s such a delight to know that New Yorkers, so close at hand, can watch and encounter these regal hawks in ways we rural folks cannot,” Blakeman said.