For a good holiday cry, you couldn't do better than the story of the Fifth Avenue hawks, Pale Male and his mate, Lola. The tale also offers a political lesson for environmentalists...

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For a good holiday cry, you couldn’t do better than the story of the Fifth Avenue hawks, Pale Male and his mate, Lola. The tale also offers a political lesson for environmentalists: Think birds.

As all the world now knows, Pale Male had built a nest on the 12th-story ledge of a fancy Manhattan apartment house. Over 10 years, the red-tail had sired at least 23 baby hawks. A limestone cornice might seem an unlikely nesting spot for raptors, but consider the birds’ point of view: Up there, the only danger is an unguided champagne cork.

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Days before Christmas, the building’s rich and famous deemed the nest a nuisance and removed the spikes holding it in place. The nest disintegrated. The hawks made pathetic attempts to rebuild by bringing new twigs to the cornice, but the materials just fell off. A global outcry turned a harsh spotlight on the Fifth Avenue Scrooges, and they voted to restore the spikes.

Talons all around have since relaxed, thanks to mediation by the National Audubon Society. The hawks did bring cuisine up to the nest, and that was a problem. Rat and pigeon carcasses were dropping on the gentry below. The society will now monitor the area for cleanliness. (For great Pale Male pictures, check Audubon’s Web site, www.audubon.org — donations will not be turned away.)

As this drama continued, another bird story — five time zones away in Hawaii — was having a very unhappy ending. A tiny po’ouli, probably the last one, died in its cage at the Maui Forest Bird Project. Tragically, all native Hawaiian birds are facing extinction. The money Audubon is raising in Pale Male’s name may help save some of them.

The point is this: Birds, trees, fish, rivers, wildflowers — these are gifts of nature that everyone can relate to. The science of ocean currents and PM2.5 air particles is tremendously important, but rather technical. Anyone can wrap his or her mind around butterflies and wildflowers. And this is the door through which most people enter the environmental movement.

Actually, the public is already inside. It just hasn’t made much noise as the Bush administration has trashed decades of environmental protection.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken right before the election found 51 percent of respondents thought the Bush administration had “fallen short” of their expectations on the environment, while only 36 percent said it had lived up to them.

They might disagree on solutions, but liberals and conservatives tend to share this fervor. And so do religious voters, according to John C. Green, a University of Akron professor who heads the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

“Over the last 30 years, there’s no question that environmentalism has risen in all the religious traditions,” says Green, who studies politics and religion. The message is that God expects his people to be good stewards of the Creation.

That includes largely conservative evangelicals. Green’s own polling found that more than 50 percent of evangelicals agreed with the strong statement: “Strict rules to protect the environment are necessary, even if they cost jobs or result in higher prices.”

Conservative members of the environmental majority don’t have more pull than they do because of the way issues get packaged. As Green puts it, “The American political system is not arranged so that you can be a pro-life environmentalist and have a candidate to vote for.”

As long as Bush is in office, there will be little environmental progress on the national level. The good news is that the public is more than willing to act locally.

Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows notes that in the recent election, nearly 80 percent of local initiatives for conservation passed. “People voted to tax themselves,” he says.

Parts of the conservative West have become hotbeds of environmental activism. For example, voters in Montana’s Rosebud County gave the county commissioner power over energy-development plans. Similar efforts are under way in northwest Colorado, at the Roan Plateau, and the Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico.

Meadows believes that “there’s a need to move away from a debate on policy and politics to a debate on places.”

Clearly, citizens already sense an inner duty to defend the miracles of nature. They have only to turn those feelings into action.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is fharrop@projo.com