Pale Male, Audubon and the Life of the Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Havell plate no. 51
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Havell plate no. 51, 1821, John James Audubon, Watercolor, pastel, black ink, graphite, and black chalk with touches of gouache and selective glazing on paper, laid on card, Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863.17.51

UPDATE BELOW: If Central Park had a mascot, it would be Pale Male, the majestic Red-tailed Hawk who has made the park his home since the early 1990s. Birders have chronicled his life and loves, from First Love to Lola to his latest mate, Lima. But nature has its dark side; last week Lima was found dead, presumably after eating a rat that had eaten rat poison.

The violence and tragedy found in nature is something John James Audubon frequently represented in his watercolors for The Birds of America  (1826-38), and that is never clearer than in the representation of two Red-tailed Hawks fighting over a fresh kill (engraved as Havell plate no. 51). His watercolor depicts an event that he observed wherein the male attacks the female and attempts to wrest the rabbit from her talons. Audubon notes in the Ornithological Biography, “They are sometimes observed flying either one after the other with great rapidity, emitting their continued cry of kae, or performing beautiful evolutions through the air, until one or other of them becomes fatigued, and giving way, makes for the earth, where the battle continues until one is overpowered and obliged to make off.” However, the male swooping in as the female shows her vulnerable belly is also sometimes part of courtship between the two hawks. The “attack” ends with the two mating in a tree.

The New-York Historical Society hosts a rotating selection of Audubon’s watercolors in our Luce Center, and kids can learn about the life of Pale Male at our April 15 story hour, where we’ll be reading City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male. Curator Roberta J. M. Olson also discusses the Red-tailed Hawk and all of Audubon’s birds in Audubon’s Aviary: The Original Watercolors for “The Birds of America,” which will be published by Rizzoli/Skira and the New-York Historical Society on September 18, 2012.

So, have you seen Pale Male in action? When did you first encounter a Red-tailed Hawk? And remember, you can always learn more at the New-York Historical Society and the Audubon Society!


UPDATE: If you’re looking to do some at-home birding, check out the Hawk Cam! The New York Times has set up a camera on a window ledge of NYU’s Library, where Washington Square Park hawk Bobby is nesting with his partner, Rosie, and there are already two eggs!



  1. says

    Sorry to hear about the demise of Lima. Thanks for the update and a nice connection between Audubon’s painting and life outside the New York Historical Society.


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