In Season: Peregrines:
A Parable of Urban Recovery
by Gary Pendleton
In the interest of comfort and inspiration in the days after September 11s tragedies, consider the story of the peregrine falcon. It is a nearly tragic story of loss and recovery. The creature in question is a dweller of both cities and rural areas, a great bird that despite its prowess was nearly exterminated through the heedless acts of others. Ultimately it was saved through the dedicated intervention of a concerned few.
The majestic and powerful peregrine falcon is a truly cosmopolitan creature with a nearly global presence. It is native to six continents, including North America.
These falcons are adapted to living on cliff ledges or tall trees surrounded by open space. Think sea coasts, tundra or high mountains. They prey on smaller birds, which they capture in mid-air by diving down from high above at extraordinary speeds.
Peregrines possess great agility, strength and keen eyesight. They are not extremely large, about crow sized, but their appearance is impressive. They are built for speed with long pointed wings that are shaped like sickles and bodies streamlined for aerodynamics.
When peregrines fold their wings and go into a steep dive, which is called a stoop, they can reach speeds up to 200 miles per hour. They have powerful talons and sharp, hooked beaks to tear the flesh of their prey.
Majestic as they are, they are not invulnerable to human-caused catastrophe. Peregrines were among those species of top predators, including bald eagles and osprey, nearly wiped out in the early 1970s. Their near demise was caused by the pesticide DDT, which accumulated up the food chain and concentrated in the bodies of predatory birds. The DDT weakened egg shells, resulting in breeding failure.
As early as 1963, the breeding population of peregrines in eastern North America was wiped out. Thanks to the determined intervention of conservationists, the peregrine falcon has made a significant comeback. Over a 20-year period, beginning in 1970, conservationists reintroduced 1,200 individual peregrines to the eastern U.S. The population has not completely rebounded, but the birds have established a foothold and their numbers are slowly increasing.
Cities make good peregrine habitat. As the species resumes its position in nature, peregrines have taken up residence in Baltimore, Toronto, Pittsburgh and other cities including Manhattan.
In cities, peregrines perch and nest on the ledges of tall buildings and scan the canyon-like spaces for prey. An abundance of prey is a major reason why peregrines find cities hospitable. In cities, pigeons fill the place in the food chain that would be filled by ducks, shore birds and other country birds.
As New Yorkers and people everywhere carry on, we are aware that the world is different, but life endures. It helps to look around and notice that the leaves are beginning to change color. The tomatoes in the garden continue to ripen, though more slowly than a month ago. Canvasback ducks and other migratory waterfowl will soon return to the waters of Chesapeake Bay. In the Big Apple, the pigeons should not let up their guard.