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Peregrine Falcons Adapt to Building Life

Dear Bird Folks,

This past fall I was in Boston (MA) on a business trip. One morning, as I looked out the window of my hotel room, I saw a Peregrine Falcon sitting on the roof of the building next door. I’m including this attached photo as proof because the books tell us that Peregrine Falcons live on mountain cliffs. Yet, here is one right in the middle of a major city. Isn’t this a bit unusual?

– James, Rutland, MA


You’re a good-looking man, James,

Even though I’ve never met you, I was able to get an idea of what you look like from the photo you sent. While the image of the bird is nothing special (I can barely make it out), I can clearly see your reflection in the hotel room window. (Nice robe, by the way.) I can also see the reflection of a blonde woman in your photo. Who’s that, the chambermaid? Sure, let’s go with that. I don’t want to tell you what to do, but maybe you should edit that photo a bit before you have it framed and hung over your fireplace at home. Just a suggestion.

The story of the Peregrine Falcon is rather interesting. (Well, it’s interesting if you like this kind of stuff.) Peregrines have long been considered to be the world’s fastest bird. How fast? It’s still a topic of debate but many experts believe that this falcon can dive at speeds exceeding 200 MPH. What is not debatable, however, is that they are one of the most wide spread birds on earth. In fact, the word peregrine means “wanderer.”

They be can be found from Canada to Argentina, from Europe to Africa, from Asia to Australia. And except for frozen Antarctica, the only large landmass that doesn’t have peregrines is New Zealand. No one is sure why, but the birds seem to have an aversion to kiwis. The weird fur on the outside of the little fruit freaks them out so much that they avoid the entire country. I can see that. In the Americas, peregrines are known to make extremely long annual migrations. Birds that nest in the northern tundra will often spend the winter in Argentina, a round trip of over 15,000 miles. Unfortunately for the birds, all of those extra frequent flyer miles do them little good as the best migration days are always blacked out.

Even people who have never seen a Peregrine Falcon in the wild should be familiar with this bird. Peregrines have been used for centuries in the unsettling blood sport of falconry. One bird is trained to kill another bird for entertainment. Peregrines are always pictured sitting on a big leather glove, while wearing ridiculous-looking hoods on their heads. Falconers will tell you that the hood helps keep the birds calm, but I think the birds are so embarrassed by the whole event that they wear the hood to hide their identity.

Although never truly endangered, certain populations of Peregrine Falcons suffered dramatic losses during the mid-1900s. I think most of us remember the disastrous consequences our old pal DDT had on creatures at the top of the food chain. While DDT didn’t have any deadly effects on the adult birds, it caused the females to lay eggs with thinner shells, which often broke before hatching. Without young chicks to take the place of the aging adults, Peregrine Falcons began to disappear in many locations, in particular eastern North America. With the banning of DDT, along with reintroduction programs from organization such as the Peregrine Fund, the falcon population has been recovering nicely. Yea!

Historically, Peregrine Falcons have been birds of wide-open spaces, mountain cliffs and wild coastlines, where they preyed on ducks and shorebirds. Years ago, if you wanted a chance of seeing one of these speedy birds you had to get away from civilization. Recently, however, things have changed. Over the past few decades more and more falcons are finding the urban landscape more to their liking. Clock towers, tall bridges and building ledges have replaced mountain cliffs, with pigeons and starlings substituting for ducks and shorebirds. Falcons have become so common in some cities that many municipalities have set up live falcon webcams. By simply switching on your computer, you can watch falcons nesting on top of the local high-rise. It used to take a lot of traveling and a little luck to see one of these birds in action, now you can watch them all day without having to get out of your pajamas. That’s my kind of bird watching.

I’m surprised you haven’t heard about peregrines living in cities before this, James. It seems every spring some newspaper or television station has an urban falcon story to tell. And now here’s mine. Recently, I was in Washington, DC, checking out the Smithsonian’s new and improved Museum of Natural History. As I walked down Constitution Avenue I spotted a Peregrine Falcon flying high overhead. The bird eventually settled down on top of the massive IRS building. As I stood watching for a few minutes I couldn’t help feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It’s not that falcons shouldn’t be in the city. We’ve already established that this has become commonplace.

What struck me as odd is that this falcon chose the Internal Revenue Service building to sit on. I mean, if any bird is going to find comfort on top of the IRS headquarters, shouldn’t it be a vulture? I think so.