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In big city saga, bird has last word

Amid all the bad news from around the world, one happy item originates from Manhattan: the saga of Pale Male, the bird-king of Central Park. The story of his temporary defeat and ultimate triumph reminds us that the call of the wild is heard even in the most ordered of urban settings.

Pale Male is a red-tailed hawk who has nested atop Fifth Avenue since 1993. And because New York City has more photographers and writers per square inch than any other city in the world, the big bird became a natural magnet for documentarians and other chroniclers. One film waxed lyrical about "the magical relationship humanity can have with nature." So the co-op board at 927 Fifth Avenue should have anticipated the storm of protest that followed its Dec. 7 decision to remove Pale Male's nest from its building. Some of the pro-Pale Male protests came from residents. But most of the pressure came from a flock of bird-watchers and other activists who sold the media on the story line that the nest-busters were a bunch of grinches, stealing Christmas from a noble raptor and his human fan club. The protests worked: On Dec. 23, workers restored Pale Male's nesting place.

So why did the Pale Male story click with the public? Why did his eviction become a celebrity cause, when serious environmental problems go mostly unchecked? The red-tailed hawk, after all, is not an endangered species _ which is more than can be said for the ecosystem of the Amazonian rain forest, or the flora and fauna of vast swaths of Africa and Asia.

One answer is "biophilia." That's the term coined by Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson to describe the innate human yearning to have some direct contact with nature, even if it's nothing more than a plant in a window box _ or a glimpse of a neighboring hawk. To biophiliacs, a bird in the park is worth more than millions of birds in faraway bushes. That might be illogical, but it's surely natural.

A second answer is more political. Ordinary Americans have little control over events around the world, but they do feel a communal ownership over public spaces in their own hometown. And that belief in a collective stake applies even to the megabucks residences along Fifth Avenue. Yes, those buildings are private property, but much of their value derives from their views of Central Park, and that's public property. So those who benefit from the green vistas are now on notice that they have an obligation to maintain the ongoing circle-of-life nature show that exists in the park. And so what if the millionaires and billionaires at 927 have to deal with the rat and pigeon carcasses that fall from Pale Male's nest? They'll have to count the cleanup as just another cost of living along America's poshest avenue.

A third answer comes from sociology. To modern mankind, there's something deeply appealing about the juxtaposition of the organic and the inorganic. The idea that a feathered friend could find a home amid stone and steel _ well, that's heartening, proof that even after eons of human depredation, warm-blooded creatures can still flourish alongside our cold technology.

Moreover, there's what might be called the "Batman-Spider-Man Syndrome." Part of the fascination with those superhero characters is the sense that they're misunderstood by their fellow humans, and so must retreat into their animal-like disguises. When we see these comic-book avatars in their stereotypical poses, they are gazing out over the cold city from atop or maybe on the side of a skyscraper. What human, especially teenagers and city dwellers, can't relate to such isolation and alienation?

So Pale Male is the perfect urban companion. Aloof and alone as he soars overhead, he is forever roaming, a symbol for all those who feel hungry in their heart and restless in their spirit.

James Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist.

Special to Newsday

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