Wild Neighbors: A Hawk in the Park

By Joe Eaton
Monday December 13, 2010 - 06:21:00 PM
Pale Male with stick.
Pale Male with stick.

I may risk losing my curmudgeon status by saying this in public, but The Legend of Pale Male got to me, despite my high threshold of resistance to anything heartwarming. The documentary is now at the Shattuck, where such films tend to wind up. I don’t know how long it’s playing, and would recommend catching it before it goes away. See www.thelegendofpalemale for details. 

Pale Male, of course, is the red-tailed hawk who (it’s impossible to avoid personal pronouns with this bird) has been nesting in Manhattan, on the ledge of a Fifth Avenue co-op apartment building facing Central Park, since 1992. He was the protagonist of Marie Winn’s 1998 book Red-Tails in Love and of a 2004 PBS Nature documentary. The new film is director Frederic Lilien’s feature-length reworking and updating of the saga. If, like me, you haven’t been following developments since the PBS show, you may be surprised by the movie’s denouement; I’ll try to avoid spoilers. 

Lilien, who showed up for a question-and-answer session after Saturday’s screening, says he jettisoned most of the natural-history material he used for the PBS version. The director puts himself in the foreground for most of the film, which works well enough: he’s an engaging presence. He describes a chance encounter with Pale Male when he (Lilien) was fresh in New York, a self-described refugee from his Belgian family’s law firm, in the process of reinventing himself. That one meeting sets the hook. When another hawkwatcher, Charles Kennedy, gives him a long lens, Lilien decides he’s going to be a wildlife documentarian. 

He becomes part of a small cult who meet every day at a model boat pond to observe Pale Male and his succession of mates and offspring. (It’s implied that these are the first redtails to nest in Manhattan. That’s possible; in his memoirs, Roger Tory Peterson recalled these birds only as winter visitors in the 1920s and 30s.) Another photographer, Lincoln Karim, arrives with a monster telescope that is immediately nicknamed “the Hubble” and a video monitor. A retired physician opens the terrace of his nearby apartment to the watchers. Winn, then, in the pre-Murdoch days, a nature columnist for the Wall Street Journal, begins writing about the hawks. Celebrities drop in. 

In jaw-dropping footage, Lilien captures the hawks nailing pigeons in midair and fending off marauding crows. Every spring the crowds grow for the Fledge Vigil, as the nestlings work their way up to their first flights. Sometimes there’s a betting pool on the launch time. Pale Male, the consummate urban predator, brings home the pigeons and squirrels, and what appears to be at least one coot. He outlives at least two mates, who fall victim to poison and traffic; another disappears. 

Although never banded, Pale Male is clearly recognizable from year to year. He’s much paler about the head than the typical eastern red-tail, but not as pale as the ghostly “Krider’s” morph of the plains. Some of his sons and daughters share that trait. 

Anyway, the millennium turns, the towers fall, Lilien finishes his TV documentary and goes home to Belgium. Then, in the winter of 2004, the co-op board has the massive nest removed in the dead of night. All hell breaks loose. Hawk advocates, including someone in a cardinal suit (St Louis, not Vatican), picket across the street from the building. When Karim is arrested during the demonstrations, co-op resident and hawk fan Mary Tyler Moore goes his bail. 

Flinching from the publicity, the co-op does a 180 and agrees to allow Pale Male and his current mate Lola to return. An architect designs the armature for the ultimate nest box, and workers bolt it in place. And on day one, the hawks start bringing in twigs. The ending, as it develops, is more bittersweet than happy. That’s as far as I’m going with that; go see the movie. 

Frederic Lilien is neither Judy Irving nor Mark Bittner, but The Legend of Pale Male resembles The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill in its quirky charm. As in the parrot movie, the human dimension—the way hardened New Yorkers take these raptors into their hearts—is compelling. Pale Male should have taken on Bloomberg while he had the momentum.