Getting stared down by a predator guarding a fresh kill may conjure up images of a Serengeti safari, but if you ask Samuel Sinyangwe, you can just as easily experience it in Brooklyn.

After seeing a raptor swoop down to kill a pigeon right in front of him, Sinyangwe tweeted out a photo of his sighting – the aerial attack, he wrote, was followed by a fifteen-minute stare-down between surprised human and victorious bird of prey.

The snapshot sparked plenty of interest, and incredibly, a number of people were prompted to chime in to share their own experiences of seeing urban avian predators in action. 

Although it's likely that many people would be surprised to see such scenes in any city, birds of prey have a long history of taking advantage of urban landscapes. One big benefit of city living? Plenty of pigeons and rats to eat.

The pigeon-slayer in Sinyangwe's photo is a red-tailed hawk, and this is certainly not the first time these raptors have been observed issuing intimidating meal-time glares in New York. The species is relatively well known in these parts thanks largely to an avian celebrity known as Pale Male: for decades, this red-tailed hawk (perhaps the most famous of his kind) was the reigning hunter over Central Park, raising many urban-dwelling offspring with a number of different mates over the years.

Although hawks can do a good job of surviving in the city, it is a tough life. One of the reasons for Pale Male's numerous consorts is that his mates keep dying – either from collisions with vehicles or from eating poisoned pigeons and rats.

"Birds who thrive in urban environments are definitely making the best of a bad situation," notes Jason Ward, a birder, writer, and educator with the Audubon Society. "Although city-living can mean more food for meat-eating birds, the risks outweigh the rewards. Chasing food in an urban environment often results in collisions with windows [and] cars, [as well as encounters with] overzealous home-owners who believe it's okay to chase hawks away from their backyard bird feeders."

Sinyangwe initially identified his pigeon-hunter as a falcon, and that's likely because the hawks' more famous cousins, peregrine falcons, have long made their home in New York, too.

The birds were placed on the Endangered Species List in the US back in the 1970s, largely due to widespread pollution; pesticides like DDT in the environment made it difficult for the falcons to raise their young successfully. Federal protection and a ban on DDT allowed the species to make its comeback – in part by exploiting cities.

When it comes to urban survival, red-tailed hawks get by thanks largely to their unfussy eating and dwelling habits, but their smaller cousins are a little more particular. "The peregrine falcon is a different story," says Ward. "The fastest bird in the world requires a lot of open space and high cliffs to nest on. It just so happens that skyscrapers in large cities provide them with a nice alternative. They can use those tall buildings to survey their landscape and watch for passing birds. They've adapted to the changing world around them."

Between the coyotes in Central Park, a fisher in the Bronx and an increasing number of red-tailed hawks patrolling the sky, the small birds and mammals of New York City should not get too comfortable: it looks like new generations of predators are learning how to make a comeback in our urban landscape.

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Top header image: Pixabay