Monday, February 17, 2020

How close is too close to our urban hawks?

It's easy to forget boundaries while living in this crowded city, especially when it comes to wildlife. Our urban hawks have a high tolerance for human activity, and they allow us to be a lot closer to them than hawks in more rural areas would. That said, how close is too close when it comes to the hawks in our local parks?

Red-tails Christo and Amelia are embarking on another nesting season in Tompkins Square Park, and they can often be seen gathering sticks and hunting in the park while there are a lot of people around. I feel we need reminders that these birds are wild and not tame, despite appearing to be friendly.

Over the years, I have seen people get way too close to the hawks - either the fledglings are playing on the ground and someone decides to let their dog run around in the same area, or the hawks are hunting and people interfere. This is often the case with Christo, as he hunts a lot in the park and will often perch low on a fence or bench. It's tempting to get close to him for a picture as he seems to be posing, but in reality, he is hunting for rodents on the ground.

This happened today, when Christo was hunting for rats behind the park offices. There used to be a cabinet and a storage container that hid rat holes underneath them. Christo could perch in a tree, watch the rats come out, then nab any one he chose. The park has been cleaned up quite a bit recently and the cabinet and storage container have been removed and the rat holes filled in. Since this happened, Christo has to work a little harder for his food and is often forced to get lower to the ground to hunt for rats, which means he perches on the fences.

When he does this, it's tempting to walk up to him and snap a pic, especially if someone has a cellphone and needs to get close to their subject. I've found that people who do this usually just don't know what's going on and are excited to see the bird. However, I see a lot of people, including other photographers who should know better, decide to interfere in order to get a picture.

The photo below shows Christo on a fence as he's hunting rats, and someone approaches him from behind and gets extremely close. This is way too close.

I don't think the person meant any harm, but Christo had to abandon his hunting and fly away. 

Christo resumed his hunting after all the people left the area. Today he was lucky as he was able to finally catch a rat, but I've seen days when he's unable to catch dinner because people have interfered with him and he's gone without eating. In some cases, a missed meal could mean life an death for a bird, especially when the parents are feeding their young.

Another reason not to annoy the hawks while they hunt in the park is we don't want them to be so uncomfortable, they start hunting somewhere else. There is no rodenticide being used in Tompkins Square (the Parks Department has been using dry ice), so the rats the hawks catch in the park are safer to eat than those caught outside the park. There is rat poison all over the city, and it can and does kill the hawks who eat the poisoned rats. Christo and Amelia lost both their babies last year to secondary rodenticide poisoning when the parents fed the chicks poisoned rats. Where the rats came from, we don't know, so it's imperative we keep the park a safe and welcoming place for the hawks to hunt. No one can control where the hawks find their food, and the adults are at risk every time they eat a rat.

I invested in a long lens so I could stand further away from the hawks when I take photos. Many of the pictures I post here appear to be close-up, but I shoot at 400+mm and usually crop the photos. The welfare of the birds is way more important than a picture, and I strive to observe the hawks without getting in their way.

As nesting season is quickly approaching, please use care when observing the hawks in the city. We are so fortunate to have them living here and to be able to witness their lives, we just have to remember to give them their space.

/rant over

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