A Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) looking out of the Brooklyn Bridge. Note the whitewash of bird waste below, streaking the jutting stone. The birds simply turn around, point their tails out, and let loose. Virtually nobody on the bridge notices.
New York City’s bridges (e.g., Verrazano, Throgs Neck, Marine Parkway), buildings (see 55 Water Street), and church towers provide long-term nesting sites or eyries for at least a dozen pairs of Peregrines. The shared characteristic of such sites: they are high above the ground. The Brooklyn Bridge has long been used as a nesting site. Both towers have these rectangular niches, which conveniently provide the sheltered, alcove-like structure necessary for a “scrape,” as Peregrine nests are called. As birds who traditionally bred on cliffs, they do not build nests. They simply use a relatively flat surface that may be scraped out into a shallow depression.
On Saturday morning, I was down below the Bridge in Empire Fulton Ferry Park. I’d heard that falcons were using the site this breeding season, and even though I didn’t have my binoculars with me (it happens), I kept my eyes open. I was rewarded with the sight of one of the falcons swooping out of the eyrie and perching on the bridge’s grid of supporting cable.Within a few minutes, it took off. Peregrines hunt by descending at speed upon flying birds. This is why they are often called the fastest animal on the planet: the dives, called stoops, can reach speeds over 200 miles per hour. A pound and a half of bird stooping at such a speed is going to smash into a songbird, which might weight an ounce, with tremendous force. After striking the birds with their talons, the raptor quickly circles around to grab the stunned, if not already dead, and tumbling victim. That’s what the one I was watching did over the East River to something quite small. According to this, some seventy-five species of bird are hunted by the city’s Peregrines. Already, then, we have come of the necessary conditions for these falcons’ affinity for urban spaces: tall structures fitted — mostly unintentionally — with places for scrapes, and domineering view points to keep a look-out for the plentiful prey the city offers. Also, a lack of predators like Great Horned Owls, who tend to take over abandoned eyries in traditional Peregrine territory. (The city does not lack GHOs, but they are few and far between.)
The bird carried its prey south past the bridge, turned around and presumably returned to land on the other side of the bridge (the tower blocked my view) to pluck and eat its prey. What I also couldn’t see was the bird’s coup de grace: these raptors have a notch in their beak they use to snap their prey’s spinal column.
Several minutes later the Peregrine returned to the scrape, which means it might have been the male bringing food to his mate. Even from down below on the ground and with the traffic on the bridge, I could hear one of them calling. Soon a bird flew out, followed soon after by another — which looked bigger. In the raptors, the females are larger than the males. (In falconry, the male is called a tiercel, since it’s in theory one third the size of the female, who is called, confusingly, a falcon.)They both perched looking north, the sun behind them. Coming out of the sun makes you harder to see, as any fighter pilot will tell you. I loitered for half an hour, but they didn’t move during that time, except for some ruffling and pruning. No potential prey were seen over the river during this time (although, of course, they have much better eye-sight than I do).These shots, all from down below in the park, give a slightly better view than I had with my naked eye. You can just see the dark, helmet-like head markings on these birds.
Peregrine falcons are found throughout the world — “peregrine” comes from the Latin word for wanderer — and as a result there are a good number of subspecies. The subspecies Falco peregrinus anatum was the one once found in eastern North America. It was also called the “Duck Hawk,” for its preferred prey. The subspecies was exterminated by hunting (raptors used to be slaughtered as pests), egg collecting (once a major hobby), and, most especially, DDT. This organochlorine insecticide, banned in the U.S. in 1972, traveled up the food-chain and concentrated in apex predators, especially raptors. Bald Eagles and Ospreys were also particularly hard-hit. The poison weakened eggs so much that the birds were literally crushing their replacements to death.
Efforts to re-introduce Peregrines into the East Coast have used birds from mixed genetic heritage; these were initially bred and raised in captivity before being “hacked,” trained to hunt on their own prior to being released. I think this knowledge is an important caveat to the oft-repeated assertion that the Peregrines “returned.” They did, but not in the form originally found here.
No discussion of Peregrines should go without mention of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, written while the falcons were disappearing from England in the 1960s. In it, the unnamed narrator tracks the birds through the cold, damp fens, watching them ravening through flocks of waders. Intense, fierce, and elegiac, the book attempts to see the world from the birds’ eye view. It necessarily fails in that attempt, but the effort is a poetic marvel. Watching Peregrines scimitar through the air around the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s easy to understand Baker’s obsession, awe, and rage at their disappearance.