On a mellow evening this past June, a very unexpected guest was entertaining Mateo Suarez while he grilled chicken on his balcony in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His visitor didn’t say anything—it just stared at Suarez with unblinking, yellow eyes and gripped the rail with its sharp talons. The stranger was a Red-tailed Hawk, and it hung out with Suarez as he cooked for the better part of an hour.
“I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 21 years, and it’s the first one I’ve ever seen here, never mind have one land right next to me while I’m barbecuing,” Suarez says.
A Brooklyn balcony is an unexpected place for a hawk to turn up—but it's far from the weirdest encounter New Yorkers have had with the birds. In the past few years, the number of close encounters with the birds of prey in New York City seems to have spiked. There was the hawk that got stuck in the window on the Upper East Side, and then the dazed individual sitting on a Midtown street during rush hour. Broadway actor Lin-Manuel has received multiple visits from Red-tails at his highrise. And last year, one unlucky fellow had to be rescued by city authorities—twice in the same day. First it was fished out of the East River by some sharp-eyed NYPD harbor officers, and later, retrieved by firefighters at a construction site near the World Trade Center.
While the number of incidents have increased recently, Red-tails aren't anything new to these parts. The first hawk to achieve stardom was a Central Park resident dubbed Pale Male that hatched in 1990. As he grew into his city roots, he built a throne in a building on Fifth Avenue, became a dad to almost 30 chicks, and inspired a documentary called The Legend of Pale Male. There's huge debate on whether he's passed on—ask around and you will hear lots of impassioned opinions.
Alive or not, over the course of the Pale Male era, the Red-tail population has shot up around the city. There are now at least 20 nests in Manhattan, compared to just eight in 2010. Each nest can produce two or three chicks each year, and although those youngsters usually relocate elsewhere, newcomers are always dropping in on the fly. In fall, hundreds of Red-tails migrate through the boroughs, some traveling as far south as Mexico. Those that come back to breed in the spring eventually adapt to the congestion, spawning a new type of “city hawk” that requires less territory than their suburban counterparts.
Rural Red-tails have a diverse range of habitats, nesting everywhere from forests to deserts to agricultural fields, but one common feature is that they generally enjoy their space. That’s not the case with city hawks: They’ve developed the habit of nesting within mere blocks of each other, according to Bob Horvath, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and bird of prey expert based on Long Island. For instance, one stretch of pavement on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is home to three nests, all of them built just this year. (One is on a fire escape, one is in a tree, and one is in a stadium floodlight.)
As Horvath puts it, city hawks don’t care about conventions. “Their territories are getting smaller and smaller, even overlapping," he says. "It defies what the so-called experts commonly describe." Rita McMahon, founder of the Wild Bird Fund in Manhattan, agrees. “In the country, they’re living a mile or two apart," she says. "Here they’re much closer.”
But if real estate is growing scarce, then why, in the past two decades, have local Red-tail numbers risen so dramatically? Horvath’s theory is that their favorite food sources—rats, mice, and pigeons—have increased around the city, igniting a population boom. While country hawks subsist primarily on squirrels and rabbits, the urban birds resort to more vermin-ish fare. “The average Red-tailed Hawk in New York City has never seen or killed a rabbit,” Horvath says. Rats and mice are more prevalent than ever, thanks to an increase in garbage, he posits. The Parks department has recently scaled back its use of rodenticide during the birds’ breeding season, which could also be providing a boost to their numbers.
Richard Simon, deputy director for the Urban Park Rangers, confirmed that the department decided to suspend its use of poison in certain seasons after finding it had a detrimental effect on the hawks. But he disagrees that the blossoming rat population has been directly proportional to the birds’ health. Instead, he thinks it’s more likely tied to an increase in habitable park space.
“Certainly in a city of 8 million you’re going to have trash, but I don’t know that it’s a direct link to rodents in particular,” he says. He points out that many of the Red-tailed Hawk nests in Manhattan are adjacent to parks, which serve as hunting grounds for the adults.
In addition to more green spaces, Simon notes that the quality of the parks has improved in favor of the hawks. The tree canopy is denser than it once was; the water is cleaner. “They have everything they need for the perfect urban habitat,” he says, though he admits “the rats certainly help.”
As Suarez, the gracious barbecuer, can attest, most people enjoy meeting their new red-tailed neighbors. And yet, when the raptor first showed up on his balcony, it unnerved him.
“It was huge, and the sound of the claws grabbing the metal railing, I was like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” he says. But after a minute-long standoff, he realized the hawk wasn’t especially interested in his grilled chicken—it seemed happy to just sit there and watch. Suarez offered his new buddy a piece of meat, followed by a piece of zucchini. The hawk wanted nothing to do with either. At that point, Suarez grabbed his camera and started shooting photos.
“I kept getting closer and closer to the point that I was just leaning on the rail right next to him,” he says.
While hawks are often a welcome sight around New York City, they’re still wild animals. In May, a Red-tail nesting on the Upper West Side attacked a chihuahua who was outside on its owner’s balcony. A month later, two people were injured at St. John’s University in Queens after a mama hawk divebombed them while protecting her chicks.
“The babies, as soon as their eyes open up, they see people immediately,” Horvath says. “They’re nesting on fire escapes and air conditioners.”
And though they can live in tight spaces, the birds remain territorial, putting them at odds with their human neighbors. They also pose a threat to the city's pigeon owners, who will sometimes defend their coops by shooting at the hawks, McMahon says. But beyond that, she says she hasn't heard any complaints. "People think they're the sexiest birds we have."
Of course, if they feel harassed, the hawks are liable to cause harm. Because of this, Simon advises people to enjoy their presence, but only from a distance. That means no feeding them, and certainly not handling them.
In a situation like Suarez’s, with the hawk mere feet away, the circumstances are different. But the Brooklynite did right by keeping his cool and not perturbing the bird. It was just one of those New York moments: two strangers enjoying a rare snippet of silence. Move along people, nothing to see here.