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As Boston pushes skyscrapers upward at a record pace, it's attracting more than the normal flock of developers, captains of industry and the well-to-do seeking luxury views.
Now comes the rise of another high-flying elite: peregrine falcons.
They are landing on tall ledge tops around Boston and the region, where once they were nearly extinct. The growing peregrine falcon population marks not just resurgence, but a dramatic shift of habitat.
From our studios at WBUR, you can see for yourself by crossing the trolley tracks on Commonwealth Avenue and heading to one of two recently built towers Boston University constructed for student housing.
Nineteen floors up in the lower building, the elevator door opens to the special events room, where the big game in June and July was playing out on the other side of the glass bowl from which you have a panoramic view of the Boston skyline, the Charles River and Boston Harbor.
Looking in, a prince of raptors glides on the wind. Its wings three feet wide and pointed; its tail long and tapered; its head hooded black with thick sideburns on its cheeks; its back the color of blue slate; its belly and legs striped white and brown.
Hard on the edge of the Massachusetts Turnpike, Storrow Drive and the river, and high above matriculating students below, three fledglings learn to fly from the parents who mated on a BU rooftop. They soar, they circle, they play touch and go, and their parents sometimes drop food from the air, so they learn how to hunt. They ride thermals upward and out of sight.
Peregrine falcons can see prey up to two miles away -- and when play hunting turns real, they dive at terminal velocity.
“It folds its wings from way up and comes down like a bullet,” says Dr. Tom French, of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
“It can go as fast as the air will allow it,” he laughs with amazement.
There's no faster bird on the planet than a peregrine. They have been clocked at 242 miles an hour.
As a reporter, I started following French up to building ledges 20 years ago. The first ledge was his first site, at the Customs House. A commanding view with spectacular displays of flight, the Customs House holds an especially exciting memory for Peter Sinatra, a cameraman from WCVB-TV who, during one visit, got a great shot of a female peregrine coming straight toward his lens. The fabulous video turns shaky at the last second, though, when the defensive mother put a gash on the side of Peter’s scalp.
Each year since he began monitoring peregrines, French has had more chicks to band, especially in cities, as more peregrines pair and make nests. Far from cliffs that are their natural nest sites, peregrines have become a predominantly urban species.
“The city seems to be where they pack in,” French explains. “In nature, there's not that many cliffs. The nesting sites are a real limiting factor.”
But there are plenty of artificial cliffs in the city, made of steel and glass, concrete and granite. There are tall bridges, too. And these artificial cliffs are far from the reach of great horned owls, the biggest predator of peregrine chicks on the cliffs that are their natural nest sites.
“All they need is a high spot, and then they need food and their food is flying birds, and everywhere [in the city] there are flying birds,’ French says. "So it’s got everything they need.”
Perched up in the high reaches of a chosen building, the falcon hurls itself into the canyon below when it spies its prey flying through. The embodiment of speed and power, it kills its target on impact, the feathers of its larger target exploding as the dead bird tumbles in mid-air before the falcon’s talons hook it again to carry it back to hearth and home.
Outside the Boston Medical Center, French is describing this as we stand beneath a corner of the building streaked white with peregrine droppings. Feathers of a recent kill drift down from a falcon nest like snowfall as we watch a peregrine sharing half a pigeon with a fledgling. Suddenly, another pigeon flying down the street unwittingly comes too close.
In an instant, the falcon opens its wings, whirls and launches toward the pigeon. It closes on the pigeon’s tail while the pigeon flaps wings like there’s no tomorrow. But there is…a tomorrow. This pigeon escapes by dropping to street level, where high-flying peregrines don't go.
“That’s the luckiest pigeon in the city today,” French laughs.
What chicken was to former Red Sox hitting star Wade Boggs, pigeons are to peregrines. It's what gets them through the game. And it's what has brought them to the city. I find pigeon skulls and feathers atop the BU tower. Starlings and blue jays contribute as well.
Sixty years ago, the outlook for peregrine falcons was bleak. Back at mid-century, they were functionally extinct this side of the Mississippi River. “That was all because of DDT,” French explains.
The widely used pesticide made the shells of falcon eggs too thin, just as it did to eagle eggs. They broke and didn't hatch. In 1955, only one pair of peregrines made a nest, on Mount Washington in the Berkshires, and there wasn’t another one made in Massachusetts for the next 32 years. But DDT was banned in the 1970s and then a captive-breeding program made it possible to place captive-raised peregrines atop the McCormack federal building in Boston’s Post Office Square in 1987.
The next year, the first peregrine pair moved to the nearby Customs House in Boston; a pair of falcons has nested there ever since.
Then another pair began nesting at the Christian Science Church administration building. French and his crew began putting up simple wooden boxes lined with gravel. (Peregrines don’t use a single stick or anything else to make a nest, but simply lay their eggs where they are, which is OK on a cliff, but no so OK on the granite ledge of a building, so French provides gravel and a box overhead to keep the eggs out of the rain.) And peregrines began taking over.
There are now pairs and nests in Watertown, Quincy, Roxbury, Deer Island and Saugus, French says, as well as UMass Amherst, UMass Lowell, Harvard's Sanders Theater, BU and downtown Worcester.
Altogether, he estimates, there are now 35 pairs statewide. That’s 70 adults. That’s more than there have ever been. Without tall bridges and skyscrapers there would be far fewer.
Seventy birds is not a big population. French says peregrines are like bald eagles in this regard.
“Even though they’re increasing and they’re doing well, by comparison to other raptors, [the population] is tiny," he says. "But they were never abundant and that’s the way it’s sort of supposed to be with these species.”
Back on the rooftop at BU, I turn a corner and see a peregrine perched maybe 40 feet away at eye level. I imagine what it's like to be a pigeon. The peregrine's eyes are big and dark black. They're telescopes. It's a wild bird. And this feels like wilderness, despite the highways, the cooling towers, the concrete and the students. But it's the city. The peregrine belongs here. And it has given us the thrill of looking up to urban skies.
This segment aired on August 5, 2015.
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