By Keith Michael
“Baby, it’s cold outside.”
I’ve used that as a title before, but it’s apropos this morning. I’m holding the front door open to the street and Millie is standing on the landing, procrastinating, glancing back at the now closed inner door, feeling the chill, damp air on her nose. After repeated encouragement her foreshortened corgi legs brave the two-step “ba-dum, ba-dum” plummet down to sidewalk level.
“Good girl.” We’re out! At least it’s not raining. Yet.
Once again, Millie just stops. She squints into the wind toward Greenwich Street, then scans her domain toward Washington Street. What goes on in her head during these lengthy pauses, and what logic guides her decision to venture left or right? The cheerful scolding chatter of a Tufted Titmouse pulls me (instead) forward to the center of the street for a better look. Winter birds tend to move quickly, which keeps their body temperatures up. They are also frequently small, which seems counterintuitive to me in comparison to mammals that increase the thickness of their fur in winter to keep warm—look at Millie. Fast and tiny makes them difficult to find even among bare winter branches. Ah, there are one, two, three of the gray-crested marauders stripping the Chinese scholar tree beans high above my head. I wonder—does eating the beans make them smarter or make their head tufts stand up perkier? Suddenly, as if on a silent cue, the trio bounds into the air, and wings east.
Now the street is quiet. Wintering Robins have long since gleaned the last of the freeze-dried Callery pear fruits on the block, so they must have moved on to other neighborhoods. Most mornings, I’ll usually hear a Blue Jay argument somewhere within a few streets away, or a Cardinal’s “cheer cheer cheer” call. There are no mournful Mourning Doves cooing, and no pigeon battalions circling. There is not even a warm-up orchestration of Starlings and Sparrows to be heard clicking, whistling, chortling, and wheezing. Something’s up.
As we head west, Millie paces out every inch of cobblestone real estate along the way while I survey every inch of roofline real estate. There, on the pinnacle corner of that pink bombshell, Palazzo Chupi, sits the source of the neighborhood’s sudden silence: a young Red-tailed Hawk. (It’s breakfast time and the avian fellowship of these streets knows it.)
I know it’s a young hawk, not an adult, because it hasn’t yet molted into its namesake reddish orange tail feathers. But this one is likely hungry, nonetheless. Having to catch one’s morning meal rather than glean it from a tree requires a different strategy from the hyperactivity of Titmice, Juncos, Chickadees, or Kinglets. The phrase “hawk-eyed” can be discerned even from this distance. It looks intensely in one direction, then swivels its gaze to another. Other than the wind ruffling the dark V of feathers on its chest, it is completely still.
I’ve seen this adolescent hawk on various other perches for weeks now: the cornice of Westbeth, a lamppost in Hudson River Park, the edge of a Richard Meier tower, a tree in Abingdon Square, an upper railing of the Liberty Storage & Moving building on Hudson Street. Up high is the key: “The better to see you with, my dear.”
Something wet touches my face (the only part of me not bundled against the wind). A few snowflakes linger in the air, not certain whether they’ll gather enough friends together to make a flurry. Millie gives her entire coat a shake.
I look back up just as the hawk plummets to take cover or look for breakfast elsewhere. A few wing flaps and it’s gone. “Millie, show’s over. Let’s go home.”
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs, and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.