New Yorkers Hear the Call of the Wild


By Bruce Nussbaum Pale Male's New York saga appears to be coming to an end. The Fifth Avenue co-op board that voted to remove the nest of this famous red-tailed hawk from their building appears to have relented in the face of enormous public pressure. It now says it will allow Pale Male and his mate, Lola, to rebuild their digs.

I hope it isn't too late. The hawks have been desperately bringing twigs to their cornice ledge for days, only to have the wind blow them away. The building says it will replace the anti-pigeon spikes that anchored the hawks' nest, and add a guardrail around the 12th floor window cornice to prevent rat or bird carcasses from falling to the street. But after raising 23 chicks over 11 years at this fancy address, Pale Male may soon decide to move on to more hospitable climes unless the building moves fast.

The saddest part of this whole spectacle is that the owners of these multimillion-dollar apartments still don't get it. They may be Masters of the Universe, but they can't see the beauty of the world. Red-tails are fierce, free hunters, with wings that span four feet, tails that blaze in a clear sky, and cries that pierce the air. Like bald eagles, red-tails embody much of the spirit of America. Pale Male's decision to make the cliff-dwellings of the Big Apple his home in 1993 was an awesome complement to New Yorkers. He gave them a chance to observe a slice of raw nature up close.

CULTURE VULTURES. Many New Yorkers grew to love him. Birders, of course, spotted Pale Male flying over Central Park, hunting for pigeons and other small game. Children loved to line up at the many telescopes trained on the nest to watch Pale Male and his mates raise their families year after year. Watching small fledging hawks take that first jump and fly out of the nest was awe-inspiring to these kids.

Yet for every wide-eyed child gaping in wonder at the hawks, many more adults are blind to them. Urban Americans don't get nature. They see it as messy, dirty, alien to them. City dwellers, historically, have been the builders of high culture -- museums, symphony halls, libraries, skyscrapers. They aren't taught very much about the wild in school, and with the exception of summer camps, don't have much real contact with it.

But Eastern urbanites aren't alone in their ignorance of and even antagonism toward nature. Go west to Texas and other states that have frontier cultures and you find a similar desire to conquer the wild and replace it with civilization. Westerners just put down ranches and farms rather than put up skyscrapers.

You have energy people wanting to drill holes into every mesa, mountain range, and canyon. You have loggers wanting to put roads into every wilderness and cut down every big, old tree in every forest. And everywhere developers are building on deserts or around lakes, on mountaintops and wetlands.

RED, BLUE -- AND GREEN. The weird thing about the West is that, unlike Eastern cities, it's full of hunters and people who love the outdoors. Yet the urge to exploit nature rather than protect and enjoy it dominates today's Western states. You could say that wanting to eradicate the wild is one of the few things that blue- and red-state cultures have in common.

Yes, of course, this is an exaggeration. Plenty of birders, hunters, fisher folks, hikers, skiers, runners, and others understand the majesty of nature. Even in New York. The push-back against the titans of finance and real estate who evicted Pale Male and Lola was surprisingly intense, and perhaps successful.

I don't know if Goldman Sachs Chairman Hank Paulson, a birder on the board of the Peregrine Fund, had a quiet word with Bruce Wasserstein, legendary investment banker and resident of the Fifth Avenue building that took down Pale Male's nest. But I hope he did. I do know that actress Mary Tyler Moore and her doctor husband fought bravely against the eviction and led the battle to get Pale Male and Lola back.

BIRD BY BIRD. Not much wilderness is left in America, not much of the "wild" left to discover and enjoy. Easterners and Westerners alike are destroying it. Pale Male reminds us all of what we're losing, what we'll soon be missing. The fight for his nest is a battle worth having.

I've been birding in Central Park for a long time. I've seen Pale Male hunt for game, court a mate, raise a brood, and dominate the sky on a cloudless day. He is, in his way, a true Master of the Universe, and he should be welcomed as one. Nussbaum is BusinessWeek's editorial page editor


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