Study­ing Pere­grines in the city that never sleeps throws up some real treats

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: MATT BRI­ER­LEY

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.

Pere­grine rein­tro­duc­tion

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

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