The 12-story co-op at 927 Fifth Avenue, near 74th Street, contains ten full-floor and duplex apartments, occupied by ten families. In the early 1990s, though, it gained an unofficial 11th: Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk that nested atop an ornate lintel on the building’s top floor. Pale Male, hatched in 1990 and given his name by local birders for his light-colored plumage, nested there for many years with a series of mates until he died on Tuesday at the likely age of 33. He was, at his death, arguably New York’s most famous bird, a role that now probably falls to Flaco.
Pale Male’s first nest at 927 appeared in 1993, and the managers of the building swiftly removed it, which got them a stiff warning from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (Raptors’ brooding sites are regulated and protected.) A decade later, Pale Male and a new mate, known as Lola, settled in on that same ledge, and again the eight-foot-wide nest was cleared away, apparently within the constraints of the law. This time, though, all hell broke loose.
On one side of this avian-raptor showdown stood several of the building’s owner-shareholders, including, it was reported, members of the co-op board. They didn’t like that the hawks would bring takeout—bloodied rats, squirrels, smaller birds—back to the building for dinner. On the other stood several residents who liked their newest neighbors and wanted them to stay. Mary Tyler Moore, already well established as an animal-rights activist, became the face of the latter group. Her upstairs neighbor Bruce Wasserstein — the Lazard chairman and banker who (full disclosure) had recently bought New York Magazine — was reportedly pro-bird as well. Richard Schwager, a plastic surgeon who lived in the building and kept his offices on the ground floor, argued that the hawks were doing their bit to keep the rodent population down. After the eviction, “both Pale Male and Lola have been observed circling their cornice,” reported the New York Times poignantly, “landing with bits of twigs and tree branches in what appeared to experts on the ground as a futile attempt to rebuild.”
There were protests outside by birders who carried signs reading “927 = Money Without Morals” and “Bring Back the Nest!” The anti-bird contingent claimed that it was not anti-bird but anti-carrion and also anti-bird-watchers-with-telescopes-pointed-at-their-windows. There was concern about droppings, too, and damage to the masonry and awning. One of the more full-throated bird lovers, Lincoln Karim, was arrested for harassing members of the co-op. Eventually, the board commissioned an architect, Dan Ionescu, to “create a functional yet visually pleasing structure that would satisfy human as well as avian sensibilities.” Ionescu came up with a 300-pound, stainless-steel basket arrangement to sit atop the cornice, one that could be lifted away temporarily for façade maintenance and the like. Peace, in dovelike fashion, soon descended, and the birds returned.
The Battle of the Hawks was recorded in three books, a full feature in Vanity Fair, an award-winning documentary, and a Nora Ephron movie script that never got produced. Lola stuck around till 2011 or so, then disappeared and presumably died. Pale Male, like many middle-aged widowers with great apartments, subsequently got with a whole bunch of other, younger birds and ultimately sired 23 offspring. As of 2015, a bird-watcher noted that he hadn’t been seen for a while and speculated that he too had likely died, because hawks don’t typically make it to 30. Maybe so. But a fairly definitive announcement came yesterday via a wildlife rehabilitator named Bobby Horvath: A park ranger had found an aged Pale Male critically ill the day before, and after some veterinary intervention, he died of renal failure, likely owing to his age, on the night of May 16. The 12th-floor nesting enclosure remains, for now.