Friday, April 6, 2012

A Hawk Named "Pip"

Adult harris hawk taking twig to nest

March 19, 2012
Last year, I lived extraordinary and emotional events with hawks. Knowing I'm an avid birder and especially passionate about raptors, my photographer brother sent me a link to a livestream monitoring of a pair of red-tailed hawks that built a nest on window ledge of the New York University (Bobst Library), in Washington Square Park.
The couple was named by NYC fellow hawk lovers "Bobby" and "Violet". The New York Times (City Room) sponsored the project by positioning a livestream hawk cam to the nest from inside the window so that hundreds, later thousands of people around the USA and the world could watch live in their computers the activities and behavior throughout the day (and sometimes at night) of a beautiful red-tailed hawk family.

Violet laid three eggs early April but, against all odds because too much time had already passed (more than 36 days), only one egg hatched on May 6, 2011.
Right after the eyas (hawk chick) emerged from its shell we noticed mother Violet was having difficulty standing on her right leg, which was considerably swollen. There was much discussion about whether or how to intervene. Finally, a hawk rehabilitator went to New York University for a closer look (thru the window) at her leg which seemed also to be constricted by a metal bird band.  A specialist from Cornell (Ornithology lab) also assessed Violet's leg and after a long two-day debate with EPA and wildlife local officials, it was decided that Violet's wound was not life threatening and she would not be captured (yet) for fear of endangering the eyas. Despite her injury, Violet appeared to have no problem caring for and feeding her baby. Bobby did most of the hunting but Violet was also seen bringing in prey (rats, voles and small birds) for the little one. Some of us commented about Violet's apparent maternal and 'loving' behavior with her hatchling but were immediately reprimanded by the alleged expert of 'humanizing' the behavior. Could be, however it really was quite touching

On May 17, after a long list of suggestions in the NYT for naming the chick, "Pip" got most of the votes, combining references to Dicken's "Pip" in Great Expectations because truly this bird was "greatly expected", the recent UK royal wedding character "Pippa", and the process of hatching itself which is called 'pipping'. The name didn't convince me but that's what a majority reportedly chose.
The precious hatchling was growing stronger and stronger and had everyone mesmerized with its daily changes in her wing and tail feathers, her talons, beak and eyes, her fantastic 'polka dot' bloomers that we admired at five weeks-old; along with her increasingly bold acts preparing for the eventual flight. When she started jumping and flapping her wings and moving away and out of her nest some of us panicked like frantic mothers terrified she might fall off the ledge.

The daily live hawk-watching (lurking rather) with 24-hour communication among hundreds of fellow and anonymous (we all had aliases) hawk lovers in the chat room became even more interesting and interactive with the daily participation of Ohio based biologist and falconer John Blakeman, a mysterious fellow watcher, alleged red-tail expert, who provided a lot of insight into red tails but whose presence and comments were at times controversial. Blakeman was questioned and criticized by some fellow Pip watchers regarding his true identity and expertise.
Blakeman did indeed teach us some basics about hawks, for example, that they "pair bond" for life (like eagles) and that most probably Violet and Bobby would return to this same nest for the next breeding season. We learned that female hawks (as other raptors) are larger than males and that baby hawks (eyases) are first referred to as females until they are old enough for experts to determine their gender, so we referred to Pip as a she.

"Pip" when she was three weeks old.

Dr. Blakeman sentenced that as few as 20% of hawks survive their first year in the wild; that most fledglings starve do death during their first summer..."It's all about food!", Blakeman reminded us constantly.
But, he said, if they do survive the juveniles move on, migrate (south) to warmer territory where food is more abundant, find their own mates and start their own families. He told us that once the young hawk has fledged or is branching in nearby trees, parents will put dead rats or prey in tree crotches for a few weeks, in part to keep the young alive but mainly to keep them from boomeranging back to the nest. But in essence, the female's only biological responsibility is to get her offspring flying off at the end of the summer...

On June 23, 2011, at 11:55, Pip took flight. She flew about 200 feet southeast to the rooftop of a nearby building. A few hours later she was seen perched above a courtyard between buildings east of Washington Square Park.
And yes, most of us wept, maybe one or two of us unconsolably, because we knew this was perhaps the last time we would see lovely Pip. I was especially touched after losing my dear dog Loli just three days before Pip left the nest, possibly for good.

But alas, Pip was reportedly seen a few weeks later in Union Square park, although actual sighting was not confirmed. 

Later, mother Violet disappeared for awhile. Then she was sighted alone July 18;  on August 11, both she and Bobby made a surprise visit to their nest on the NYU 12th storey window ledge. Violet and Bobby were seen together several times at the park but Violet's injured leg seemed to have worsened.

Violet was captured mid December 2011 and taken to a hospital to have her injured leg assessed once more. Surgery was decided and apparently it was a success. But sadly, dear Violet died at the end of December (2011) after her operation, from a heart attack, of all things! I was very upset because it gave me the impression NY wildlife officials waited too long to capture and cure her. Yes, she had disappeared for awhile after Pip fledged but she was sighted several times in August and September (photos in NYC hawk blogs confirm it).

Early this year (2012), a new female hawk appeared in Washington Square Park. Although some people infer that Bobby does not yet seem convinced she may be his new mate, some observers claim he is showing some interest in her. In any case, she was named "Rosie" by local hawk lovers.

The fantastic WSP story with Pip as the central character left me with many questions about hawks and other raptors, mainly influenced by comments and some assertions made by Dr Blakeman: 

For example, is it a fact that all red-tail fledglings in New York City migrate south in the fall to seek habitats where more food is available and never return to their original birthplace to start their own breeding? 
What happened to Pip? Where did she go? Why wouldn't it be likely that she would return (if she survived) to WSP? 
Where did "Rosie" come from? Would she be considered a "floater"? (hawk allegedly 'waiting' to take place of missing or deseased mate). How would she 'know' that Bobby was 'available', without his longtime mate?
I highly recommend a lovely book about Pale Male: "Red Tails in Love" by Marie Winn.

* Update (April 24, 2012) Bobby and Rosie finally did mate (in February) and have two precious nestlings.

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