Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who took up residence on the ledge of a ritzy Manhattan apartment building 30 years ago, became the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles, at least three books and an award-winning documentary film and counted Mary Tyler Moore among his fans, was pronounced dead on Tuesday evening.
But then again, it could have been a different hawk.
Pale Male, an apex predator living in the most populated city in the United States, was the original New York City celebrity bird, predating Barry the barred owl, the “hot” Mandarin duck and Flaco the eagle-owl.
He was named for his light-colored feathers by the birder and author Marie Winn, a longtime columnist for The Wall Street Journal who followed his progress in print for over a decade and penned a book about him, “Red-Tails in Love,” making him something of a local celebrity.
But Pale Male stole the national spotlight in 2004, when the co-op board of 927 Fifth Avenue, where he had settled in 1993, decided to evict the hawk and his mate, removing the nest the pair had built on the facade of the prewar building. An uproar ensured. Ms. Moore, who had lived in the building since 1989, appeared on national television, declaring the destruction of the birds’ home “pointless and heartless.”
As one of the first of his kind to nest in New York City, Pale Male became an ambassador for urban wildlife in the days before social media. He attracted a crowd of humans with binoculars who would stand on Fifth Avenue and watch as he flew, fed, mated and tended to his chicks.
On Monday afternoon, a park ranger found a sick red-tailed hawk on the ground in Central Park, near East 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Bobby Horvath, a wildlife rehabilitation expert who specializes in raptor care, was contacted.
“I picked him up and I called my vet’s office immediately,” Mr. Horvath said. “They did blood work on him. They took X-rays just to rule out if there’s any orthopedic injuries, if there’s any fractures.”
There were no fractures, and Mr. Horvath took the hawk home and waited for the blood work results. In the meantime, the bird was given antibiotics, some meat and fluids. “We got a small meal into him actually,” Mr. Horvath said. But the bird was severely ill and did not make it through the night, dying in his sleep.
Pale Male had never been banded and had no identifying tag. If the hawk was indeed Pale Male, he had lived to be 32 years old.
However: A hawk’s average life span is about 20 years. Which means either Pale Male was truly one extraordinary bird — or Pale Male wasn’t Pale Male at all.
Gabriel Willow, a freelance naturalist who leads bird walks in Central Park from time to time, said that he was unsure whether the Pale Male in question was the original or a descendant.
“He does look similar, but he doesn’t look the same,” Mr. Willow said, adding that this was normal, since a bird’s appearance can change when they molt their feathers.
Then again, could a Pale Male Jr. suddenly show up on the scene without anyone knowing? “He was so closely watched,” Mr. Willow said. “I guess I don’t know what to think.”
Mr. Horvath believes the bird — whose corpse was in his freezer on Wednesday — was the original Pale Male.
“I have to go along with, you know, the hawk people who I know and I rely on,” Mr. Horvath said. “And I trust them. ”
He said that if the bird was the original Pale Male, he had “dodged so many bullets,” from ingesting rat poison to merely outlasting the usual life expectancy.
Mr. Willow had doubts. “It seems unlikely to me that the most famous red-tailed hawk of all time would also be the longest lived,” he said.
Could Pale Male’s diet have contributed to his longevity?
“He did have a known predilection for eating baby birds,” Mr. Willow said. “He would raid robins’ nests and cardinals’ nests and loved snacking on delicious little tender baby birds.”
He said that if, in fact, the recently deceased hawk was truly Pale Male, it was like losing “an august figure.”
“His accomplishments are unparalleled among the red-tailed hawk community,” Mr. Willow said. “He established a breeding territory and then a subsequent breeding dynasty.”
He added: “Many of today’s red-tailed hawks in New York City are his direct descendants.”
And then he turned philosophical: “I think what’s meaningful about Pale Male is the way he captured the public imagination. And as such, it doesn’t matter if it was Pale Male or not at the end of the day.”
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