One of my most delightful spring rituals has come to an end. The webcam’s been turned off, the one that gave us an intimate view of Red-tailed Hawks Bobby and Rosie and family, nesting on the twelfth floor of NYU’s Bobst library. Sponsored for two years by the New York Times, the camera was taken over last year by the university which provided us with a chat room as well as a stream of real-time images — fluff-ball eyasses (hawk chicks), clumsy and beguiling, growing up, learning to fly and finally leaving the nest. As, in a sense, have we.
While we don’t know why NYU chose to discontinue the cam, we’re grateful that they’ve kept the chat room open. We meet on Sunday evenings to share information, witty repartee, and links to everything. We may even name Bobby and Rosie’s unhatched babes, their eggs invisible to us. Life goes on.
Yet something happened here that begs reflection. This experience touched many people and occasioned a real outpouring of grief at the news that we would no longer gather around “our” hawks’ nest for the annual rite of rebirth. I know I’m not alone in saying that observing the hawks has been a life-changing experience. For weeks we’d watch the antics of these newly-hatched creatures and the parents which fed and cared for them. Scattered across a continent or two, we wove together our own “nest” of care for the young, and of friendship for each other.
I don’t know when it happened, that observation dissolved into connection, into the wordless sense of ourselves as parents and protectors; for me, an awareness that my humanity was about more than being human. In a deep physical way, I began to realise that we share elementals — hunger and thirst, tenderness and comfort, life and death — with all that lives. Our large brains have given us language and names for these things, but not the things themselves. And I for one might never have experienced the truth of this if I hadn’t discovered the webcam and the nest.
Memories abound. The third of last year’s eyasses, Judson, hatched on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, a poignant witness to life in the midst of death. There was Bobby delivering the morning paper (and Rosie appearing to read it). Rats for breakfast, lunch and dinner; feisty Kiku snatching a rodent from Rosie and swallowing it whole (Who could forget that bulge going down, or that tail hanging out of her beak?). Kiku’s fledge, landing on a police car, Archie taking a tumble on her first flight, and, as always, how we felt watching the fledglings complete their time in the nest, and ours.
For three years, our group has marked the beginning of spring by gathering around to witness the hatching of new life, its growth and struggle and lifting of wings. Like a graduation or a bar-mitzvah, our own annual ritual carries real meaning, a common understanding and a profound universal story which belongs to us: we are born, grown-up, released to fly into a new world. We say goodbye and by some strange alchemy, that new world begins.
This is not something frivolous. This is not something easy to relinquish.
Yet my awe of Bobby and Rosie is rooted in the understanding that they and their offspring can never belong to us. They belong to the mystery of evolution encoded in their DNA, to the uniqueness of what it is to be a hawk, to a magnificent strangeness that we can only ponder. It’s this otherness that has touched me as the young ones take flight. Every year, it’s been a lure that I can’t resist: my sense of wonder at what I think I understand and never will.
Ritual contains and celebrates these truths as nothing else can.
Because of this experience, I go birdwatching now with my expert husband. Two years ago, I would have felt that this was beyond me. Now I’m in awe of a sky full of birds, of these slight and beautiful creatures, their worldwide migrations.
Thanks to Bobby and Rosie, I love so many more things in this world.
A line of a song comes to mind (from A Chorus Line): “The gift was ours to borrow.”
On the other hand, the magnificent hawks have not gone away.
One day we’ll be with them again.
View video highlights from the 2013 nest in Washington Square Park at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZwjUZ_KPHA&feature=youtu.be