I am quite fascinated by the popularity of New York City’s most photographed feathered friends, the red-tailed hawks.
Each hawk dynasty’s ups and downs and adaptations to a city environs has been riveting audiences since the early 1990s. We have been amused by their pricey multi-million dollar digs as they have forsaken trees to nest aloft some of the city’s most coveted park-view real estate. Kudos to the hawks that scored a Fifth Avenue penthouse and a Washington Square ledge outside the office of John Sexton, the President of New York University!
We have also been enthralled by steamy stories of mating with red-tailed beauties, which earned the raptor Pale Male a comparison to Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and the tag of a slut. Indeed, Pale Male seems to have ignored the frugal idiom “a bird in hand is worth more than two birds in the bush”, to frolic in the bushes with several birds. The ongoing drama of ingesting rat-poisoned prey has also engrossed us as advocates fight for the welfare and survival of adult hawks and their nestlings. Even those of us that can’t muster a whole lot of empathy for rats, can’t understand why simple solutions like enclosing garbage or utilizing rodent repellent garbage bags aren’t effective measures taken by the Parks Department to safeguard the hawks in the vicinity.
If scientists, preservationists, and bystanders have been enchanted by how these out-of-the-woods hawks find themselves among a human community, reciprocally these birds seem to draw people slightly further into the wilderness. Literature has familiarized us with many examples of footsteps leading out of the city and into the woods, such as those trod by Thoreau and Lord Byron. Yet civilization, by definition, never gave Babar the elephant or Paddington Bear a chance of staying wild. Perhaps the biggest allure of the red-tailed hawks in the Big Apple is that they touch upon a yearning to connect with wild nature. Photographs of the hawks, which picture the birds in the midst of urban architecture and capturing metropolitan prey (namely city rats, squirrels, and pigeons), present quite an astonishing encounter between utter extremes of wild and domestic. These city-dwelling hawks give us a taste of an increasingly encroached wildnerness as well as of the border between humans and other living species.
For eco-philosopher David Abram, through such directly-experienced encounters with the “more-than-human world”, we recognize that we are a “human animal” : “Owning up to being an animal, a creature of earth. Tuning our animal sense to the sensible terrain…Becoming earth. Becoming animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human.” (Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology(Pantheon Books: New York, 2010)). Using all our sensory faculties, we experience a kinship with other creatures. For example, a bridge between people and birds is felt through communing with the complex intonations of a bird’s song or the mechanisms of its flight. While speech, gesture, and silence are modes of communication beyond the domain of the human animal, reciprocally the quality of a bird’s flight also finds expression in our own muscular, emotional, or respiratory expansiveness. Abram describes this perceptual blending with earthly presences as inhabiting an “awakened world”: “Every facet of the world is awake, and you within it.” (Becoming Animal) Where does sensorial awakeness to the hawk’s own aliveness and by extension to the teeming web of a living earth take our understanding of the relationship between ourselves and the planet? According to the Alliance for Wild Ethics (AWE), founded by Abram, it takes us into a “relational ethics” based on a “new reciprocity with the rest of the biosphere.”
Certainly there is an intense presence required to deftly capture these instances in the lives of the hawks in a decidedly loud and distracted city environment. The fact of even noticing the birds demands a certain attentive appreciation for the everyday that is rare in our usual rushed experience of our physical surroundings. A glimpse at awakeness—both human consciousness and a living earth—comes through in these photographs of the red-tailed hawks.
Alicia Lubowski-Jahn holds a Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She began to build an expertise in landscape art through her doctoral dissertation, “The Picture of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Tropical American Landscape,” which explores how the scientist’s ecological view of nature found visual expression and aesthetic analogy in the landscape genre. She has worked for various museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Frick Collection. In addition to her ongoing curatorial work in art history, she covers contemporary eco-art and sustainable design for online media.