Hawks of New York: Neat, or Environmental Harbinger?

Unbeknownst to me until very recently, New York City apparently hosts a lively population of red-tailed hawks along with its other wildlife (and the usual domestic suspects that come along with urban environments, like rats). When I first read about the hawks of the city, I got intrigued, and started doing more research to learn about them. Many of the hawk pairs are named, people eagerly watch their nesting sites, and there are, of course, blogs dedicated to tracking their movements across the city as well as their parenting activities. The hawks are a subject of fascination for New Yorkers and visitors alike, and no wonder: a red-tailed hawk is not something you ordinarily expect to see in an urban environment, as these most excellent and majestic creatures feel like the stuff of wild spaces and open, rural environments.

I was reminded of the hawks when I was crossing the Richmond Bridge and a red-tailed hawk alighted on my windshield around San Quentin. Traffic was sluggish that day, and whether the bird was staging a prison break or just happened upon me I’ll never know, but we stared at each other through the windshield for a moment as he clung to my windshield wiper. He ended up hitching a ride all the way across the bridge and then he flapped off when traffic picked up. When I told this story to disbelieving friends, they gawked at me, and I don’t blame them: it was very unbirdlike behaviour.

While I’m intrigued by the idea of red-tailed hawks in New York, it also stirs feelings of worry in me. I wonder about their choice to nest in the city, and what it says about the current environmental situation in New York and environs. On the one hand, I can see why hawks would choose to nest there. There are ample food sources, including squirrels, rats, and mice who have been nicely fattened on urban refuse, and there are lots of nesting spots as well: New York has a number of parks, trees, and assorted structures that provide great substrates for nesting.

From the perspective of a bird, all of that would be rather appealing. But don’t red-tailed hawks belong in nature? Wouldn’t they be better off in rural environments, where they wouldn’t be frozen to death, hit by cars, poisoned, and subjected to the other deaths that happen to New York’s avian population? Are they in New York because they’re choosing the urban life, or because they’re being forced into it, and they’re taking the available option rather than starving to death?

New York State, like many regions of the US, is suffering from what is known as habitat fragmentation. For birds and other species, it’s not enough to have some vague, unspecified ‘habitat.’ It also needs to be contiguous, connected to other stretches of habitat to create a large environment for animals to roam in. If animals are instead isolated to little patches of habitat, they’re less likely to thrive. It’s bad for genetics, it makes it harder to find food, it puts animals at risk of injuries from human populations (for example, cougars squeezed by habitat fragmentation are more likely to clash with local human populations as they roam in search of food and quickly reach the limits of their available habitat).

Consequently, more and more wildlife across the US is flooding into urban areas, with their steady supply of food, designated nature spaces, and available habitat; with the suburbanisation of the US has come tremendous pressure on habitat as cities sprawl left and right across the landscape in an ever-tangled web of development. Are New York’s hawks victims of fragmentation struggling to find a place to survive in a hostile landscape? Are they, perhaps, living in an urban area not because they love Broadway shows and bagels made as G-d intended them to be, but because they have no alternative?

The immense interest in the city’s birds is compelling, and illustrates that many residents of urban areas love the animals and, in addition, appreciate the existence of wild animals in their space. Yet, the relationship with urban wildlife can often be tempestuous, to say the least. Raccoons, for example, are hated for scattering trash and bringing a risk of rabies, and likewise with skunks. Mountain lions and bears, obviously, pose some considerable risks to people who want to enjoy their communities peacefully. Deer, being deer, appear bent on eating everything and then flicking their tails in a casual ‘fuck you’ to frustrated gardeners as they bound over supposedly deer-proof fences.

The reception of urban wildlife depends on the species, even though urban wildlife is driven into settled areas for the same reason across many species: because the city provides tempting food sources, habitat, and shelter, and because it is encroaching on the habitat of wild animals. As creatures move into the city, it might be whimsical and interesting to live with red-tailed hawks, but what does that say about the larger availability of red-tailed hawk habitat outside the city?

Living with wildlife can come at a cost, and some of that cost is paid by the wildlife themselves long before they ever reach an urban area, as they watch their habitat destroyed and they become subject to fragmentation that pushes them into small, isolated areas. For every urban animal I see that should be living out in the wild, I see a compression of the gene poll, and greater pressure on the species as a whole.