In the world’s big cities, peregrine falcons are regularly accomplishing one of nature’s most awesome athletic feats.
We do not see this because we are in meetings, staring at screens or taking the kids to the park. Even if we wanted to, it would be hard to spot the birds. They are too high above.
Imagine that a hunting peregrine spots a pigeon crossing Central Park or the Thames. If the target is promising, the falcon powers steeply downwards, heart pounding at 900 beats per minute.
Baffles in the bird’s nostrils help it breathe the onrushing air. A transparent membrane protects its eyes from grit. Tiny adjustments to wings and tail align its trajectory with that of its prey.
The peregrine may be travelling at more than 200mph when it reaches terminal velocity. At that moment, it is the fastest animal on the planet. Few creatures appear more viscerally and vibrantly alive. Sadly, but inevitably, you cannot say the same for the pigeon if the peregrine connects with it. The luckless prey is then liable to be crammed in gobbets down the gullets of a brood of chicks.
Peregrines nest at this time of year. This is when urban falcons depend on us. In cities they rear young on tall buildings instead of sea cliffs or mountain crags. That requires humans to tolerate house guests that strew leftovers, poop profusely and shriek like banshees.
I had not realised peregrines were colonising cities until colleagues pointed it out. I associated these magnificent birds with the wild places where I have gone looking for them.
Supposedly, up to 60 pairs nest in New York and London. I was visiting the former and live in the latter. I wondered how easy it would be to see them.
I have serially failed to spot hemipodes in Andalucía, platypuses in Australia and gyrfalcons in Iceland. But I saw three Manhattan peregrines within an hour of joining one of Birding Bob’s 10-buck tours of Central Park.
They wheeled and sparred high up against the blue of the sky. It seemed to be a dispute over hunting territory.
A woman who was on the tour showed me incredible smartphone footage of peregrines feeding their young on the ledge of a skyscraper.
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“The windowsill of my apartment last year,” she said, gesturing to a far corner of the park. “They just laid this season’s eggs.”
If you own a fancy flat in New York, you may have to cope with a management company that rules the building with a whim of iron. My new acquaintance had the temerity to install a nest box. She then received an angry letter from an adviser to the company. Channelling the spirit of Hitchcock’s The Birds, this invoked a horrific vision of peregrines swooping down to attack local children. A building supervisor took the nest box away.
Undaunted, the peregrines now nest in a scoop of gravel in a gutter running behind the window ledge. So far, they have carried off no elementary-school kids in their talons.
“What I love about the peregrines is that they are fierce predators but also very nurturing,” says Barbara Cohen. She is the engineer at 55 Water Street in Lower Manhattan responsible for the office building’s falcon cam. This gives online airtime to a nest box perched above the East River — and thus to the eco-friendly credentials of the owners.
In the UK, Merton council has done the same thing with a falcon cam atop its medium-rise office block.
It is very much harder observing nesting birds from street level than through a video link. That was what I loftily told my wife as we were driving over to south-west London.
“Nothing. Nada. Zilch,” I said in pessimistic triumph, scanning the building with binoculars.
“What’s that dark blob?” she asked.
“It’s a hot air vent,” I said.
“You’re the only hot air vent around here,” she said, as the dark blob unfolded its scimitar-like wings and circled the building.
We got our best views of the peregrine from the pavement outside a fried chicken shop. We could clearly see the peregrine’s iconic black facial markings. Here was Horus, the falcon god of ancient Egypt, reborn and dwelling over Merton’s accounts payable department.
A man in a Wimbledon AFC bobble hat watched with us for a while as the peregrine flew rings round an irate crow. “Lovely to have the falcons around,” he said.
Across Europe and North America, peregrines have been rebounding from their pesticide-induced near-extinction in the 1960s. These days you can keep up with their breeding efforts via webcams covering roosts ranging from the Transamerica building in Baltimore to Leamington Spa Town Hall. Eggs laid in March should start hatching around now.
Viewer discretion is advised. These are predatory animals. But lest you think this article deals callously with prey species, remember they are the nemesis of most peregrines. When ageing falcons can no longer outfly canny pigeons, the falcons are finished. Every organism depends on others for survival — people as much as the peregrines who rely on us for nest sites.
Jonathan Guthrie is head of Lex