By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Wildlife lovers say Riverside Park's red-tailed hawk family is facing a deadly threat that could mean another tragedy for the beloved raptor clan.
With a set of eggs poised to hatch just weeks from now, hawk watchers say the Parks Department is endangering the soon-to-be-born babies by laying out rat poison not far from the hawks' nest.
A Parks Department spokesperson said the poison won't be used after the baby hawks hatch, but the park's avid bird watchers worry because they believe two hawk hatchlings died after eating the meat of a poisoned rat in 2008.
That was the first of several tragedies to befall the feathered family. Two young hawks were killed when they were hit by a car on the West Side Highway in 2009; three died last May when a windstorm knocked the nest to the ground.
The family rebuilt their home — perched high in a tree just north of the 79th Street Boat Basin — and gave birth to two more offspring in August.
Now the busy hawk parents are readying for new young ones, and hawk watchers question the timing of placing rat poison around a Dumpster on the south side of the Boat Basin Cafe.
A plastic sign hanging from a bush near the Dumpster warns passers-by that rat poison was applied in the area on March 29. The hawk babies are expected to hatch sometime in the next three weeks, and some worry the young hawks could feed on toxic rodents.
"What morons," said hawk lover Richard Beeson, who visited the nest Monday to catch a glimpse of the hawk mother sitting on her eggs. "That was one of their main feeding places last year. Why the Parks Department is (putting poison) down there is beyond me. They know the hawks hunt there."
A Parks Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the poison is used carefully in "high rat population" areas "while exercising great care with concern for the safety of pets and wildlife."
It's Parks Department policy not to put out the poison after the hawk babies hatch, they said in a statement.
"Some have attributed the death of baby hawks found in Riverside in 2008 to a form of rat poison," the Parks Department said in an email. "The poison supposedly implicated is not one we use at Parks, but there remains the risk of a hawk eating a poisoned rat or feeding the meat to its young, and for this reason we are using bait more cautiously."
The Parks Department takes other precautions to protect the hawks, which attract crowds of on-lookers. Parks placed a fence around the tree where the hawk family built its nest and has posted signs in the past warning dog owners to keep their four-legged friends away.
Bruce Yolton, who runs the blog Urban Hawks, said rat poison poses a special threat to the red-tailed hawks.
The poisoned rats become sick, weak and slow before they die, which makes them easy targets for the raptors, Yolton said. While the hawk parents may not be affected by the poison, the baby hawks, known as eyeasses, can die if they eat a poisoned rat because the toxins can overwhelm their small bodies.
In a recent post on Urban Hawks, Yolton called applying the poison so close to the hawk family's nest just before their chicks hatch "negligent at best."
But he noted in an interview with DNAinfo that the Parks Department faces a unique challenge. The popular Boat Basin Cafe generates plenty of garbage for rats to feast on, so the department struggles to control the rodent population, Yolton said.
Also in the mix are dog owners, who don't want Parks to use poisons that could harm their pets. The poison Parks uses is considered safe for dogs, Yolton said, but it's harmful to birds. San Francisco temporarily banned the poison after it killed three hawks and a fox in Golden Gate Park.
"There's no simple fix for (the Parks Department)," Yolton said. "Hawks are a new challenge for the city. They're something new in the urban environment that we didn't have to deal with 20 years ago, and we have to start thinking smarter about what we do."