Studying Peregrines in the city that never sleeps throws up some real treats
There’s much excitement in the sky above the city that never sleeps
NEW YORK CITY. The city that never sleeps. Yet the slumped, open-mouthed people around me tell a different story, the rocking subway and its blanket of subterranean warmth pulling them back towards nod. It’s long before sunrise, hours before commuters and ‘cawfee’. I emerge into the darkness and hail a taxi. I read out the address of a skyscraper, halfway between the Empire State and the Chrysler Building: 101 Park Avenue.
By the time the first hint of pink paints the clouds in the east, I’m at the top. Mobile on. Walkie-talkie on. This may be the most ambitious thing the BBC Natural History Unit has ever done. Seb Loram is a funeral director. To hear he is keeping a watchful vigil on a church may not sound unexpected. But now, as he steps out onto a Manhattan rooftop in Morningside Heights, and raises his binoculars to the gargoyles of the 12th floor of Riverside Church, we understand he is looking for an angel of death. Seb, like me, is a Peregrine expert. You might not expect it, but New York City has the highest density of Peregrines anywhere on earth. Downtown, the tips of the skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan glint. Near a hangar Fredi Devas, a TV producer, and Michael Kelem, a world-class aerial cameraman, sit in a helicopter and watch as the first rays of sunshine hit Liberty’s torch. Today, there are some 25 pairs of Peregrines in the city limits, up from 16 pairs in 2002. But go back only a few years and you’d find none. Not just in the city, but along the entire eastern seaboard of the USA. Not one pair of Peregrines bred there between 1960-1964. ‘DDT is good for me’ ran the slogan: seeds were coated in it, it was sprayed on crops. Except, it wasn’t good for you. If the Peregrine is the angel of death, DDT was the grim reaper. In ‘Decrease in Eggshell Weight in Certain Birds of Prey’ a chap called Ratcliffe pieced it all together; organic pesticides accumulating in the food chain, top predators getting the biggest dose, egg shells thinning, egg shells breaking. Yet it took until 1972 for the US to ban DDT. In response, professor and falconer Tom Cade founded the Peregrine Fund. His plan was bold and ambitious: to breed and reintroduce Peregrines to the USA. It started with a small team of staff and volunteers who lived illegally in a Peregrine breeding barn, cooked on a two-burner hotplate and bathed with a garden hose through upstate New York winters – anything to be with their birds 24/7 during the tenuous process of raising vulnerable chicks. The eventual release procedure was called ‘hacking back’. “The exact number of Peregrines released in North America between 1974 and 1999 was 6,769,” Bill Heinrich, Education Centre Director of the Peregrine Fund emails me. “1,667 of those were released in Canada. The Peregrine Fund quit releasing Peregrines in 1999 when the Peregrine was removed from the Endangered Species List.” Before that huge success, however, progress was hampered by Golden Eagles and Great Horned Owls, both of whom see a Peregrine as supper. Yet neither of the Peregrine’s predators especially enjoy suburbia, so the Peregrine Fund tried something ambitious. They released Peregrines
You might not expect it, but New York City has the highest density of Peregrines anywhere on earth
into New York City. The urbanites thrived. And a female has just catapulted herself off Riverside Church, talons out, headed straight towards Seb Loram. She did the same to me days earlier. A distant admiration of beak and talons, as yellow as the city’s iconic cabs, quickly became an appreciation of an enormous wingspan, which escalated into a blind “she’s headed this way” and ended with a dramatic duck. It’s not a behaviour I associate with urban Peregrines in the UK. I contact Ed Drewitt, who regularly rings UK birds and has authored Urban Peregrines, to check. “Whenever I hear stories of mobbing it is from North America. In the UK they usually fly around the area calling, but in my experience never mob or attack,” he replies.
Big, beefy and grumpy!
Why on earth are New York’s birds so grumpy? And was this a beefier and bigger Peregrine than any I’ve seen in the UK? These are mysteries I want to unravel. Seb has more pressing issues. He sidesteps. Thankfully the female has something else in her sights. Seb switches on his walkietalkie. “Fredi, she’s after Whitey,” he confirms. The blades on Fredi’s chopper begin to turn. Whitey is our name for a pigeon. Any pigeon. So long as it’s white. Wildlife cameraman John Aitchison filmed Peregrines on a long lens here last year: they killed a white pigeon. For continuity we need similar results. On top of 101 Park Avenue, more than 50 stories up, I’m feeling anxious. The Peregrines that nest on the Met Life building should be perching on the white spire of the Bank of America building, on the Empire State, on glitzy eagle heads of the art-deco
Chrysler building. But they aren’t. Rocko the building manager appears, all blazer, shiny shoes and telltale accent. He calls them “burds”. When I worked for the RSPB, I was taught that you never say: “You should have been here last…” “You should have been here last year,” says Rocko. “They nest over there – on the Met Life building. Last year – burds everywhere.” He’s right – in New York, falcons are everywhere. After that first helping hand, in 1983 Peregrines returned to breed on two urban bridges. By 2013 the falcons of New York State had produced 2,000 young and used 119 different nest sites. The population is expanding, thanks to people. Take 2012: six new documented pairs in New York State, and all but one nested on manmade structures. In New York City there are at least five high-rise nest sites. Most bridges have Peregrines. Staten Island is guarded by falcons at all access points. “The burds are around,” says Rocko, disappearing indoors to leave the madman to his 16-hour rooftop vigil. And the burds are around. Food caches on my skyscraper harbour prey remains: some support the assertion that Peregrines have become night-falcons and are making a meal of nocturnal migrants, thanks to the Big Apple’s artificial light. That’s a behaviour associated with Peregrines in the UK, too. It’s been demonstrated by Ed Drewitt’s macabre finds beneath St John’s Church in Bath, while wildlife photographer Sam Hobson has bagged grizzly nocturnal prey remains in Bristol. But is it a special urban quirk or are the urban nest sites just providing us with a previously unseen window into the life of the fascinating Peregrines? “I don’t think Peregrines need artificial light to hunt at night at all,” explains Seb Loram. “I’ve seen camera trap footage of them bringing in prey
in the dead of night in rural settings”. Seb’s comments spawn an idea and before long I’ve engineered a shoot where Ed Drewitt and Mike Dilger prove a captive Peregrine can hunt in moonlight on the BBC’S One Show. I raise my binoculars to a grey splodge on a distant building. I switch on my walkie-talkie to break bad news. There is no behaviour here to suggest these birds have freshly fledged chicks, vastly reducing the probability of hunts. It transpires I’m right: builders accidentally disturbed the Met Life birds earlier this year. We should have been there last year. Luckily John Aitchison was. Up town, Whitey the pigeon is making an impressive bid for freedom. Above him, there’s a bigger bird in the sky: in the chopper Fredi is hanging on Seb’s every word, as Seb watches the twists and turns of the hunts. The gimble on the helicopter-mounted camera twists slightly as Fredi relays the news to Michael. Whitey dives. It’s a strategy that would serve a pigeon well above Manhattan’s urban jungle, but above water there’s no escape. Ten minutes later and it’s like an angel has been caught: a single white feather drifts from the church, symbolising Whitey’s demise. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever filmed,” explains Michael later. Michael has filmed aerials for movies like Jurassic World and The Day After Tomorrow. We may have the sequence but there are questions to answer. Why are Peregrines thriving in New York? Well, prey density is an obvious answer – there’s no shortage of pigeons, but the Peregrines are catholic in their tastes: 75 types of avian prey have been identified. Nest site availability is great, too: Peregrines have even nested on rooftop patio furniture. Cities also have warm micro-climates, beneficial in winter. But a personal theory is that the skyscrapers provide another reason: they hide Peregrines from one another. Imagine a costal cliff: if you are a Peregrine you can see up and down the coastline, as well as out to sea, and you are game for territorial spats. A New York Peregrine will have some of its view obscured by steel and concrete, free-standing “cliffs”. In Yorkshire, Peregrines have held territories at Gordale Scar and Malham Cove, almost next to each other – but tucked well out of each other’s lines of sight.
Barbara Loucks worked for 35 years for the Department of Environmental Conservation alongside Chris Nadareski reintroducing Peregrines. Today she still rescues them: 44 in 2012, typically that season’s juveniles. Since Chris rings every chick he can, Barbara can play happy families, reuniting parents and fledglings. They may be a bit rubbish on new wings, but in adulthood Peregrines have learned to turn the cityscape to their advantage: obstacles like plate glass are no longer hazards. In Lower Manhattan, I’m gobsmacked to see one of 55 Water Street’s adults chase a pigeon into a window. It is the impact of the collision that kills the pigeon. All the Peregrine needs do is grab it as it falls. Genius. We see this three times, but it is unexpected, so no camera is rolling. We meet Barbara, and I share with her my observation that New York’s Peregrines seem bigger, bolder, brasher than those in the UK. I explain the gutsy female Peregrine’s aggression on the Riverside Church. “They are bigger,” she says, “They are more aggressive. When the Peregrines were originally reintroduced, they came from different places…” Barbara isn’t kidding. Look at a subspecies distribution map for Peregrines, and the eastern coast of the USA reads: “mixed races.” With so few native falcons left in the wild in the continental USA, the Peregrine Fund gathered Peregrines from around the globe, creating an avian immigrant story. They used the few members they could find of the subspecies that had dominated the United States, Falco peregrinus anatum, but also added a sprinkling of other subspecies: Falco peregrinus pealei from British Columbia, peregrinus from Scotland, brookei from Spain, cassini from Chile, tundrius from arctic Alaska and macropus from Australia. In New York, people have given Peregrines an exceptional gene pool from which Natural Selection has built the ultimate urban predator. It’s an incredible twist to the story, man and nature inadvertently creating a species together. “We even have our own scientific name for them,” laughs Barbara. “Falco peregrinus bad-ass.” In 1992 there were 22 Peregrine territories in New York State. In the 2012 survey, that figure had rocketed to 77; with 70 pairs breeding that season to produce 148 young. As I look across New York City at sunset, it is comforting to think that, although the Met Life birds may have given me a quiet rooftop vigil, somewhere in this city alone are 50 adult Peregrines plus this year’s offspring. It seems F. peregrinus bad-ass, the ultimate New Yorker, is here to stay. Watch your back, Whitey.
New York’s Peregrines seem bigger, bolder, brasher than those in the UK
IN YOUR FACE Typical New Yorkers, the city’s Peregrines are big, bold and brash
WHITE DOVE DIES This well-marked juvenile just took out ‘Whitey’ the dove
PIGEON TO GO New York’s ledges provide ideal feeding platforms
VIEW FROM A BRIDGE A Peregrine perched on Brooklyn Bridge NEXT GENERATION Young Peregrines have feathers fringed in buff