Pale Male is the most famous Red-tailed Hawk in the world. The renowned raptor’s unusual city life has been celebrated on a website, in a documentary, and a bunch of books. So it’s strange that, for a hawk whose adventures have been so thoroughly chronicled, one basic question remains unanswered: Is he still alive?
Avid Pale Male observers are fervently divided on the question. Some say there’s no way a wild hawk in New York City could possibly survive to be as old as he would be now. Others argue that, despite the long odds, there’s photographic evidence to show that he’s still kicking, and no proof that he isn't. Before we get into the debate, though, let's look at the facts.
Pale Male is believed to have arrived in New York in 1991. Facing stiff competition with local crows for prime nesting spots in Central Park, he made his home on a nearby building—a luxe Fifth Avenue co-op, no less. As one of the first Red-tailed Hawks to nest on a building in the city, this avian pioneer attracted a devoted fan base among New Yorkers. He's also said to have fathered roughly 30 chicks, fueling an explosion of city-dwelling hawks that have shattered what was previously thought to be immutable Red-tailed Hawk behavior: Unlike their rural counterparts, who generally hold a territory of around two square miles, these urban birds have become accustomed to nesting within just a few blocks of each other.
If Pale Male is still alive, he’d be nearly 30 years old. That's not unheard of; the oldest known wild Red-tailed Hawk was at least 30 years and eight months old, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But Pale Male would need plenty of grit and good luck to survive so long on city streets, where the perils he and other hawks face are very real: Collisions with cars and buildings, electrocution on power lines, lead poisoning, and rodenticides are all daily threats. Sometimes, the dangers are even more direct. In one infamous incident in 2004, workers removed Pale Male’s nest at 927 Fifth Avenue, sparking outrage among both activists and tenants.
In New York, the city parks department has scaled back its use of rodenticide during the birds’ breeding season, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t used by other private citizens and organizations. Rats and mice are among a city hawk’s favorite meals, but eating a rodent that recently ingested poison is almost always bad news for the bird, too. In 2012, a female named Lima, who was Pale Male’s partner, was found dead in Central Park, likely from eating a poisoned rat.
It’s this maze of perils that prompted New York City-based birder and blogger Corey Finger to argue in a 2015 post on his blog, 10,000 Birds, that it’s highly unlikely that the “Pale Male” spotted around the city today is the original. “That the most famous Red-tailed Hawk also happens to be a longest-lived Red-tailed Hawk seems extremely doubtful to me,” Finger tells Audubon magazine. “The sheer volume of hazards that animal would have to deal with in New York City, it just makes it even more unlikely to me.”
Complicating matters is the fact that Pale Male was never outfitted with a leg band or other identifying mark that researchers use to tell birds apart. Thus, Pale Male believers simply rely on descriptions of his distinct plumage. As Marie Winn wrote in her 1999 book, Red-Tails in Love, “this particular red-tail was exceptionally light all over. His head was almost white.”
Such early descriptions, Finger says, “basically made it sound like this bird is almost like a Snowy Owl—it sounds really, really white.” And while there is still a light-colored hawk nesting on that same co-op building today, Finger isn’t convinced. Within the species there's a variety of color morphs, ranging from chocolate-brown to rufous to nearly white. “There are lots of pale Red-tailed Hawks,” he says.
Despite Pale Male’s long odds of survival—and they are indeed very long—there remains a vocal contingent convinced he’s still alive. Some of those believers flocked to the comments of Finger’s blog post. “Pale Male is a legend, and he lives on as such,” one commenter wrote pointedly. Others were less polite: “Santa clause [sic] is dead,” another chided, “will that be your next article?”
Bob Horvath, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and bird of prey expert based on Long Island, says that while he’s not “the Red-tailed Hawk police,” he still believes recently snapped photos of the bird depict the original Pale Male. “He's defied all the odds, but there's enough pictorial documentation that, in my opinion, it’s not an imposter,” he reasons.
Asked about the argument that many of the photos taken today don’t clearly match the bird Marie Winn described in the ‘90s, Horvath maintains that photos are not conclusive. “He can look light-headed, dark-headed, medium-headed, depending on the angle, the time of day, what kind of sunlight is available,” he says. “I still believe it's him.” Horvath is willing to admit that he could be wrong, but until he sees proof that Pale Male is dead, he doesn’t want to speculate. “I give him the benefit of the doubt that it's still the same bird,” he concludes.
Horvath's call for hard proof is a common refrain among Pale Male pro-lifers. But evidence such as a body would be awfully hard to come by. “I’ve heard some people say, ‘If he died, where’s the body?’ That’s a silly question,” says Paul Sweet, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, across Central Park from the purported Pale Male's digs. “The body could be anywhere.” Sweet says he doesn't have a dog in the Pale Male fight, but he's skeptical that the bird is still alive after all this time. “As a scientist, my question would be: Where's your evidence?” (There’s also no definitive proof Pale Male is not a vampire, Finger notes: Consider his spectral plumage and that he routinely outlives his mates.)
Since there's no way to prove that an unbanded bird has died, the debate rages on, especially on Twitter, where the argument crops up time and again. With passions running high on both sides, some New York naturalists have decided it's wisest to avoid the subject altogether, viewing Pale Male as a third rail of the birding world.
I treat conversations about Pale Male the same way I treat conversations about religion... #AvoidAtAllCosts— Jeffrey Ward (@JeffreyMWard) June 7, 2019
Alive or not, what is it about Pale Male that has inspired people to become so invested in the fate of a single bird? Finger’s theory is that they love the romance of it: A beautiful, ghostly raptor that overcame probable poisoning, nest removal, and the usual need for territory—feats that conspired to create the image of a living legend. Particularly among all the concrete and chaos of New York, the idea of Pale Male offers people an unlikely, coveted connection with nature. “We can say, ‘Hey, that bird has a name, that bird is Pale Male,” Finger says. “That does have value to it.”
But whether Pale Male is alive or dead is almost beside the point. “He helped spur that interest in nature among people living in one of the densest urban areas in the world,” Finger says. “It's okay to let him go now. His mission has been achieved.”