15 MARCH 2011


New Yorkers typically consider "wildlife" to fall into three main categories: cooing pigeons, fat squirrels and the residents of the Central Park Zoo. This is, however, not a very "wild" bunch.

The pigeons and squirrels are so comfortable with people that they come right up to me and my family anytime we sit down in one of the city parks to eat our lunch. I've noticed that the pigeons trust in the nutritional wisdom of people and will eat anything that anybody at all offers them or drops on the ground. The squirrels are more discriminating, particularly when there's a Whole Foods or Green Market nearby, and will actually walk away from a strawberry if it's not organic or locally grown. And my children have noticed that the Polar Bears and other "wild" creatures at the Central Park Zoo often just lounge around. It's probably because they're Arctic creatures dealing with hot, hazy, humid New York City summers, and they have a predictable meal schedule.

One morning about eight years ago, my whole image of urban wildlife was forever changed by the appearance on my Queens fire escape of a gray hawk.

I was on maternity leave from the United Nations, enjoying quiet moments with my infant son. As I sat peacefully in my warm, comfortable apartment with my baby on that wintry day, I looked up at the window and was startled to see a bird - one which was a lot larger than the pigeons that normally congregated there.

I placed my baby down gently on the bed and slowly approached the window, and the huge bird turned its head an impressive 180 degrees in order to look directly at me. The thing about a hawk's gaze is that it's more like that of a leering man - no, maybe more like that of a villain from a Disney movie - than the vacuous look of a pigeon. I was simultaneously frightened and impressed by his intense regard.

The hawk subsequently turned back around, dove down to the sidewalk below and grabbed an unsuspecting pigeon in his talons, then glided to another 6th floor fire escape to enjoy his meal.

That was the Winter of the Gray Hawk, as he returned several times to our fire escape that year.

Although I checked my window frequently throughout that year, there were no further hawk sightings, until the following Winter, when a beautiful red-tailed hawk started appearing. He has been our most frequent visitor and usually remains long enough for photos, seemingly enjoying the attention and posing for the camera. Other visitors have included kestrels, which are smaller in size, and an unidentified large, muscular - and less attractive - hawk, which has also been spotted by my next-door neighbor, on her air conditioner. And of course, the figurative "stork" (I now have two babies!).

I've learned a lot about hawks since my first sighting, courtesy of the internet, nature books and periodicals, and my own observances. I've traded stories with other hawk enthusiasts, like the ones who can be found in their usual spot in Central Park with their telescopes, tracking the famous Pale Male's every move.

Here are some things I've learned:

- Hawks are "cliff birds", which means they like to be up as high as possible so that they may have an unobstructed view of the surrounding area, in order to locate prey. And apparently, if you live in Western Queens, a 6th floor fire escape qualifies as a cliff.

- In some cultures, hawks are a symbol of power and protection, and the appearance of a hawk may even be perceived as an ancient ancestor coming to provide protection. I cherish this thought, and at times I feel truly honored to be the recipient of such impressive visitors. But not when I'm getting dressed! (I had to pull the blinds down one time.)

- Through my own observations, I've determined that the hawks come to our area more frequently in Winter, especially when it snows. I don't know where they're coming from, but apparently when food is sparse in their own neighborhood, they know they can find plenty of fat, delicious pigeons in Sunnyside!

When I'm outdoors on the bustling sidewalks and feeling like life down here on street level is overwhelming, I often gaze up at the open sky, where I know there is true, unspoiled wilderness, and it brings me a sense of peace. It's a spiritual sense of calm that comes from knowing that wilderness really does exist - right here in the city!

(Colette Sheehan is a former staff member of the U.N. Department of Public Information.)