July 30, 2004

Wanderer Falcon

The peregrine falcon, falco peregrinus or 'wandering falcon', is a beautiful bird. It's the poetry of sudden death fused with effortless grace that only Nature can really pen, iconified in a brownish-white sleek shape that even across a two-hundred-yard gap and sitting on a perch looks like it's moving at high speed.

There is a pair of peregrines that have apparently taken up residence somewhere near my office building. At random intervals, we can see them perched on the parapets of buildings surrounding ours - it's a perfect hunting ground for them, as this part of Cambridge is mostly single-digit-high office 'wedding cake' buildings surrounded by open spaces for roadways, lawns and park.

They're tantalizingly just out of reach of the naked eye's ability to discern detail. I know they're peregrines; several times, they have flown/soared past our windows, only ten or fifteen feet out and unable to see in by virtue of the energy-efficient mirrorcoating and hence unconcerned by our presence. They're the absolute top of their food chain around here, and act it; lazily wheeling around the sky with one eye cocked for pigeons or just sitting perched on buildings fluffing regally. Dark brown wingtops, with light tan/cream undersides, with dark grey/black spots on the breast and throat, which in flight looks like a slightly blurred spacecraft. They hold their wings out rigidly straight when soaring; almost perfectly perpendicular to their bodies. Rather than warping the whole wing, their flight feathers at the ends actually bend up in little winglets, which they twitch almost sub-visually to change direction in the airstream. From the front, they look like the Air Force's most persistent wet dream; stealthy, narrow, sharp, lethally hard to see, and from that angle consisting entirely of weapon (beak and talons) and sensors (eyes).

They don't make much noise, as befitting hunters. Still, I'm reminded, every time I see them, of my seventeenth birthday, which summer I spent working in the Raptor Research Center on Sapsucker Woods Road at Cornell University. There, I learned to talk to falcons perched nearby, or on my arm, or even how to cajole them down from the tops of their three-story-tall cages to have dinner or allow themselves to be moved so I could clean the cage. They are no less beautiful perched than in flight, although they are much, much sillier. The true silliness that is the stupidity of a bird (they have very small brains) is most apparent when they are attempting to interact with you at your own eye level when they're not in flight - and not least because when they're not flying, they're as awkward as a taxiing 747.

I hope they have a nest nearby. The fact that there's two together makes them a mated pair; I wouldn't think they'd be able to leave young in the nest alone this time of year, but my dad (raptor expert) assures me that by end of July, the young falcons are large enough to not be bothered by intruding small birds or squirrrels or what-have-you, and both parents will take off to hunt. So somewhere, around here, is (no doubt) an eyrie; whether it is busy with the gawkish rustlings of young birds or not I don't know, but I'd like to think so. Only a few years ago, these birds were on the top of the Endangered Species lists due to their vanishing habitats and hunting grounds; unlike most animals in that situation, however, falcons were saved because some smart people noticed that cities should be heaven for them (no predators, lots of pigeons to eat, tall buildings to roost on...) and they were right. Posted by jbz at July 30, 2004 4:21 PM | TrackBack


I remember, back when we were at the "old old office" on Rogers, I was at the trucks one day and noticed that the pigeons were behaving quite strangely. Instead of standing on the ground lazily, they were all on the wing, flying around in a big cloud of pigeons. Except... wait... that bird, that's not a pigeon! I couldn't make out colors well enough, but just from the silhouette, a raptor looks like a raptor, and there's really only one species that hunts pigeons in cities. I wonder whether the bird I saw is one of this same pair.

Clarification: the population decline had more to do with DDT than with habitat loss. The nesting sites (cliff faces) tend to remain undeveloped, and there are enough birds in developed areas to keep them fed. Last I heard, the major factor preventing reintroduction in former habitat (river bluffs etc.) was predation of young by great horned owls, not destruction of their former habitat.

As a side note on the subject of "exotic birds of Kendall", I wonder what happened to that turkey that was around a few years back.

Posted by: Mark Gordon at August 2, 2004 8:37 AM
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