The Hunter and the Hunted, Along with a Haunted Onlooker
Isaiah Berlin famously observed that, “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” A Lower Manhattan resident thought of this on a Saturday afternoon in mid-April, when Downtown was locked down, but he ventured outside — desperate for fresh air, seeking signs of life — and was confronted by this tableaux in the Battery. The raptor perched on the park bench knew one big thing: that he was too large to get beneath the seat, where his lunch awaited. And the squirrel below knew one little thing: that he was safe as long as he stayed where he was.
They prey was the Eastern Gray Squirrel that is ubiquitous throughout Manhattan. The pedigree of the predator was slightly harder to pin down, because the Broadsheet’s ornithology editor is in quarantine. Although a family of peregrine falcons is known to nest on a ledge at 55 Water Street, in the Financial District, this specimen appears to be a red-tailed hawk — a species that has made a parallel comeback in the skies over Manhattan, with more than a dozen mating pairs having established local roosts in recent years. The distinction is imprecise, because falcon and hawk livery, which provides a sharp contrast in adulthood, is similar among juveniles. But the evidence was both behavioral and visual.
First, this bird was not shy about humans coming close — hawks are comfortable around people, while falcons are chronically skittish. And second, this bird had brown cheeks (falcons have white), with a white “belly band” (brown hash marks on the abdomen, with white above and below), while falcons sport stripes all the way down. The absence of the eponymous rusty red tail added some ambiguity, but it turns out that hawks display this trait only in adulthood. (During adolescence, their tails are brown, with horizontal stripes, as shown here.)
So much for the introductions. It probably mattered little to the squirrel that the thing planning to make a meal of him is a noble creature, that mates for life and shares child-rearing duties with the mother of its hatchings.
Journalists are taught to report the story, not change its outcome, or deliver a happy ending. But amid the grim ongoing sequestration that surrounds us, your correspondent couldn’t resist. Waving his jacket at the bird (which reacted with sobering aggression, by spreading its wings, emitting a piercing screech, and then flying low and fast toward its human tormentor, before alighting atop a nearby tree, beside Castle Clinton) he gave the furry fugitive an opportunity to get away. So the squirrel lived another day, and the hawk went hungry — at least for the moment.
“It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning,” wrote John Galsworthy, “a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what.”