When I think about Big City animal life I think pigeons, rats, squirrels etc. Indeed my most unusual visitor in the apartment in Nice was a hedgehog who popped inside to say hello. I was thus surprised when a friend posted a photo on FB of a red-tailed hawk outside her apartment on the Upper West Side last week. The ensuing FB conversation showed that this visitor’s ancestor’s actually have a history in the city and several picture books have been written about the subject. I immediately browsed the catalogue in Brooklyn Library to learn more. I think children will enjoy as much as I do, discovering more about the fauna of New York City.
Written by Janet Schulman, illustrated by Meilo So
Published by Alfred A Knopf, 2008
Genre: Picture Book, ‘animal biography’, 40 pages
Themes: New York City, red-tailed hawks, animal protection, Central Park
On crisp autumn day in 1991, a red-tailed hawk flew across the Hudson River from New Jersey. He flew over smokestacks, sky-scrapers, and ant-liek traffic to a rectangular oasis smack in the center of New York City.
The story begins with a young red-tailed hawk flying across the river into Manhattan. He hovers over the beautiful autumnally bedecked park in the heart of the city, surrounded by apartment blocks, and makes a decision which will impact his life and give the New Yorkers a new hero.
We can’t be sure why this young hawk decided Central Park would be a great place to settle. Maybe he felt the lunch options (fat city pigeons and rats) were better than pickings outside the city! His arrival caused quite a stir among local ornithologists and he was soon named, garnering a group of enthusiastic human followers. Pale Male, of course, had little interest for the humans, but was quick to find himself a partner. Their first attempts to set up nest were failures and later, when his female was injured, he was fortunate enough to find another mate. Pale Male, who was clearly a classy hawk, began to build a nest on 927 Fifth Avenue. His nest was destroyed by the owner of the building, but the pair persevered with a little help from the Audubon Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2004 saw the birth of the first three fluffy white chicks, and over the years there were more until . . . the owners destroyed not only the nest, but the entire building spike structure Pale Male needed for his nests. Well, you’ll need to read the book to discover quite how this tale of urban survival ends.
Why I like this book:
This is a lengthy and mature text for more recent picture book preference, but I believe the lyricism of the prose, the flow and interest of the true story and the exquisite watercolor illustrations will mean it is a book that can captivate even young children. Seilo truly manages to capture the magic of these wild birds in an urban landscape. For me, a newcomer to Manhattan, she also manages to paint a strong sense of this borough and the contrasting beauty of Central Park. It’s also a story of environmentalist success, which I applaud. The only thing I didn’t appreciate was a political comment, which I felt inappropriate for a picture book, but it can be glossed over as the rest of the book is a vivid love story of perseverance both from the feathered pair and the New York fans.
I think the book is a great addition to any school topics focused on New York or urban animal life. I know that my next walk in Central Park will take on a very different dynamic.
– In the back of the book is a more detailed discussion of the author’s experience and thoughts about Pale Male and his descendants in New York.
– Take a walk in Central Park WITH binoculars. Do some bird watching. The Audubon Society would be able to provide a list of typical birds that can be spotted in Central Park.
– PBS Introduction to Pale Male, with the possibility of buying their video.
– The official Pale Male website with some fabulous photos, video clips and archives: http://www.palemale.com
– Eight picture books on Pale Male, all reviewed on GoodReads.