A picture book tells the story of an urban red-tailed hawk and the international outcry that erupted when the management of a Fifth Avenue co-op destroyed its nest
Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City. By Janet Schulman. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Make way for hawklets. This delightful picture book tells the true story of a red-tailed hawk who became a star after he and his mate began raising chicks on a ledge on posh building on Fifth Avenue in the 1990s. Birdwatchers named him Pale Male and gathered in Central Park to study his family with binoculars and telescopes.
But residents of 927 Fifth Avenue disliked having their sidewalk littered with feathers, bird droppings and the remains of rats, pigeons and the occasional squirrel that the hawks ate. They persuaded the owners of the building to remove the hawks’ nest, an act that set off an international outcry and homegrown protests that — even in a city full of exhibitionists — commanded attention.
“Two protesters dressed as birds urged cars on Fifth Avenue to ‘Honk 4 Hawks.’” Janet Schulman writes. “Taxis, cars, and city buses honked. Trucks let out ear-piercing blasts of their air horns. Even fire trucks let loose their sirens.”
After the Audubon Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got involved, the owners of the building restored the nests. And all of it could have turned into another of the dreary lectures on environmentalism that have come to infest picture books.
But Pale Male has less in common with those sermons-in-print than with Robert McCloskey’s endearing 1941 Caldecott Medal–winner Make Way for Duckings. Like that tale of Boston policeman who stops traffic so a family of ducks can cross the street, this book isn’t a brief for animal rights. It’s a celebration of wild creatures and the joy they can bring when, against the odds, they cross our urban paths.
Schulman clearly sympathizes with the hawks, but her text suggests why others might have different views, as do the wonderful illustrations, created with watercolor inks and colored pencils. One picture shows a sweeper in the hands of the pained-looking doorman who has to clean up the mess left by the hawks. Meilo So uses shifting visual perspectives to show New York City as it might look to the varied players in this drama — Pale Male soaring above Central Park, birdwatchers tracking him with their binoculars, a rich couple despairing in their plush co-op about the din caused by honking taxis and protestors. Schulman’s afterword on Pale Male is good, too: “He has now won the status of a true New York celebrity: his building is pointed out by tour-bus operators.”
Best line/picture: Both Schulman and So tweak wealthy residents of 927 Fifth in ways that are amusing but not mean. The rich couple despair in a living room that has faintly Victorian décor, including red walls and a rolled-arm red velvet sofa. It’s a subtle way of suggesting that they’re out of touch.
Worst line/picture: “Most of the tenants had been irked for years that they couldn’t legally get rid of the hawks. Then in 2003, during a time when many conservation and wildlife laws were being relaxed by President George W. Bush’s administration, the Migratory Bird Treaty was changed. It now permitted destruction of nests as long as there were no chicks in the nest. Hawks lay their eggs in March and the chicks fledge in June. In December Pale Male’s nest was empty. The owners of the hawk building were quick to take advantage of the new law.”
The problem with this paragraph isn’t really the jab at Bush but that, atypically for Schulman, it’s confusing. Why the sudden jump from June to December? Why does the paragraph say that the nest was “empty” then when the following one suggests that it was gone? And why does it call the people who lived in 927 Fifth Avenue “tenants” instead of “residents” when the building was a co-op?
Furthermore: Pale Male is likely to receive – and deserves – serious consideration for the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal or one of its annual awards for “information books.” This is one of the year’s best gift books for children and maybe even a mother who loves bird-watching.
Update: Pale Male www.palemale.com and his current mate, Lola, still live on their ledge at 927 Fifth Avenue, but no more chicks have hatched since the nest was removed and restored. An update on their plight appeared in an article the May 1, 2008 New York Times, “Reprise: The Fifth Avenue Ballad of Pale Male and Lola.”
Published: March 2008 www.randomhouse.com/kids
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.