"Central Park was my Sheherazade," Marie Winn writes in Red-Tails in Love: Mysteries of Urban Wildlife. "It provided a thousand and one tales that never seemed to end. One led into the next." The engaging and exciting tales that Winn tells in this book are those of the life-and-death dramas that go on around us every day, unnoticed, while we rage at rush hour traffic and sit mesmerized by television. This book is about how nature pursues its own agenda even in the midst of one of the busiest cities on Earth. Many visitors to Central Park come away without an awareness of it as a haven of wildlife (at least the non-human kind). But as Sherlock Holmes admonished Watson, most of us look without seeing. Winn sees.
If it seems difficult to imagine much drama in the daily rounds of a birdwatcher, well, you haven't yet read this book. It is seldom merely subject matter that makes an interesting book; it is a writer's point of view and way with words. Marie Winn quickly charms the reader into joining her in her daily (and frequently nightly) rambles through urban natural history.
The birds of the title are red-tailed hawks who decide to nest on a building in New York City, causing consternation among the building's owners, delight among birdwatchers, and paternal watchfulness among wildlife agents. The saga goes on for five years or, as Winn remarks, it had gone on for five years when she wrote this book. It's still going on.
Even in a straightforward anecdote about collecting an owl pellet and taking it to an expert for identification, Winn adds the details that make it vivid and the passion that makes it significant. Not least of her accomplishments is the way she conveys the sense of almost magical potency that the world possesses for people aware of the rest of nature.
This outdoorsy book is interestingly literary in its construction, reminiscent of John Kieran's classic Footnotes on Nature. Epigraphs include startlingly apt quotations from the likes of Proust, Schopenhauer, and Calvino. Dividing the text into acts, scenes, intermission, and curtain call seems a bit cute, but still it all adds up to a behind-the-scenes tour of a show that is around us every day. Urban natural history is not a new field, of course. W. H. Hudson followed the crows of London. Leonard Dubkin found ferrets in Chicago. Recently the famous tracker Tom Brown has written a whole series of books on the overlooked world around us. But no one has made it more entertaining than Marie Winn in Red-Tails in Love.