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/ April 28, 2011
Why Are The NYU Hawks Roosting On Bobst?

Our guest blogger is Colin Jerolmack, an assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at NYU. He is responsible for naming the NYU hawks Bobby and Violet. This is the sixth post in our series, Professors Who Blog.

As people from around the world tune into the New York Times’ streaming video of the red-tailed hawks Bobby and Violet, a lot of them are wondering why they would choose to build a nest in the middle of the city on NYU’s Bobst Library. But I’ve been encouraging my class to turn this question on its head—why wouldn’t they?

We tend to conceive of cities as human habitats. To the extent that humans make room for plants and animals in our midst, we do so by relegating them to particular locations where encounters with them can be managed: the manicured park, the zoo, or the tree encircled by concrete. But in everyday life, nature overflows these physical and mental containers and collides with the pulsing humanity of our sidewalks: tree roots poke through the asphalt; pigeons scavenge our discarded pizza crusts; and, yes, hawks choose a cornice rather than a cliffside for their nest.

In a fascinating article published in New York Magazine, Robert Sullivan (the author of Rats) writes that nature is prospering in New York City. Most of us have not noticed it, he argues, because it is not the nature we’re looking for—it is less precious, less “pure.” Who would bother to detect the biodiversity lurking in interstitial spaces such as highway embankments, particularly if they are strewn with litter? And yet the five boroughs contain a greater variety of habitats than the surrounding suburban and rural areas, with their uniform tracts of grass and fields. Amazingly, Sullivan points out that Jamaica Bay (Queens) contains more species of birds than Yellowstone and Yosemite Parks combined.

While a number of species are, at best, surviving in the built environment, a surprising number are thriving. Biologists use the term synanthrope (literally, “together with man”) to describe animals that have adapted their behaviors to the habits of humans; and they are often the creatures that urbanites know best: geese that forgo migration to beg humans for food, rats that make their home in the subway, squirrels that invade trashcans, and crows that crack open seeds by dropping them into automobile traffic.

Given the pace and scope of human-induced ecological disruptions, as well as important efforts to save or restore open spaces in and around metropolitan regions, ecologists predict a future in which animals will adopt synanthropic behaviors with greater frequency. Coyotes and other predatory animals, which most of us think of as “belonging” in the countryside, are now regularly encroaching the city limits and finding our sidewalks to be suitable habitats.

This brings us back to Bobby and Violet. Washington Square Park likely holds a much greater concentration of food sources — squirrels, pigeons, and rats — than a similarly sized portion of land in the countryside. And the fact that the park is hemmed in by asphalt and contains only sparse tree cover means that Bobby and Violet can easily spy and capture their prey from above. The pair likely chose the president’s office in particular for the same reasons that Dr. Sexton did: in addition to providing a ledge deep enough to contain their large nest, it serves as one of the best overall vantage points from which to survey the entire park and surrounding environs. Bobby and Violet can thus keep a keen lookout for any potential prey, or predators, from the comfort of their roost.

While we may look askance at Bobby and Violet’s choice of “unnatural” nesting material — a plastic bag, some tinsel, a dish rag, and some wrappers line the interior — the birds pay no heed to what is “natural” or “unnatural.” This is perhaps one of the greatest lessons they can teach us. Nature is resilient and adaptive; and it makes do with the materials at hand. Our city blocks add up to more than census figures and slabs of concrete—they are living, breathing ecosystems.

The historian William Cronon argues that our myopic view of nature — “pristine,” “wild,” “virgin” — is one of the greatest impediments to valuing and protecting the natural world around us. Unfortunately, humans have all too often treated city streets as a “defended territory” and made war with the species that trespass our imagined urban boundaries. Maybe creatures like Bobby and Violet, and technology like the “hawk cam,” can help nudge us in a new direction.

As we excitedly watch Bobby and Violet build the nest and take turns sitting on the eggs, and as we anxiously await the arrival of their babies, perhaps we can extend this sense of wonderment to mundane dramas of the wild that play out in our midst every day. As I speak, a pair of pigeons is nesting on the ledge next to my office. Like hawks, pigeons mate for life and take turns sitting on eggs. When the eggs hatch, the male pigeon will join the female in producing crop milk and feeding the young. While I don’t expect the New York Times to host a “pigeon cam” to document their birth, when the time comes I will have one eye out the window watching the pigeons—my other eye will, of course, be on the hawk cam.

Photo via City Room.