Hot Hawks in the City

The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird in the world, and can travel the length of a football field in a single second diving for prey. The spectacle is no longer reserved for country skies, however; today, city residents, too, have a chance to catch the birds in action. Peregrines are responding to the city’s siren song and thriving in urban environments.

A peregrine falcon enjoys an aerial view of Columbus, Ohio. The birds have made a spectacular comeback, and find a good habitat in urban areas.Tim Daniel, ODNR 

“There have been peregrines nesting on man-made structures for as long as we can remember,” says Bill Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund, the organization that initiated the recovery effort 30 years ago. Tall city buildings resemble cliffs and offer similar advantages: a perch for hunting and protection from enemies. Cities also offer a high concentration of other birds, the peregrine’s favorite meal. Urban-dwelling falcons can rely on a steady supply of sparrows, starlings and pigeons.

Although falcons face the same city hazards as other birds, including power lines and mirrored glass, common wilderness threats are obviously less of a problem. The purpose of the first city release, at the Smithsonian’s Castle in Washington, D.C., “was to avoid predators, specifically raccoons and great horned owls,” Burnham says.

Habitat loss is probably not a factor, according to Mark Martell, coordinator of conservation projects for the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. “Peregrines are extremely successful in the city,” he says. “Probably any city of any size in the U.S. within peregrine range has at least one pair.”

Evidence that city residents cherish them can be found in the abundance of “falcon cams” on the Internet. Other organizations monitor their peregrines via closed-circuit TV. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, pipes peregrine activity into the clinic for the enjoyment of patients and staff. Wisconsin Public Service’s Pulliam Plant in Green Bay has a monitor in the employee lunchroom that offers a close-up view of a rooftop nest.

The delight humans seem to take in accommodating peregrines is crucial to the birds’ survival. “One of the big things urban peregrines require is the tolerance, if not active involvement, of people,” Martell says. He notes, however, that the birds are very territorial and will not tolerate humans anywhere near their young.

Peregrine Fund founder Tom Cade estimates there are now probably 150 urban peregrine pairs, or seven percent of the 2,000 pairs within the U.S. and Canada.