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Falcon City

On a concrete cliff high above Boston, a peregrine family makes itself at home

The mother swoops out of the sky and lands on a ledge. She's 25 stories above Boston. Seconds after she lands, one of her fuzzy brown-and-white babies waddles over. He's looking for breakfast.

This mom is a peregrine (PER-uh-grin) falcon, one of the fastest birds in the world. When it swoops down to catch smaller birds in flight, it can go 185 miles an hour.

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Last year, this female and her mate raised four young falcons on a cement ledge of the Christian Science Church Administration Building on Huntington Avenue. This year she laid four more eggs. And now the falcon babies want to be fed all day long. The chicks have been stars on local TV and in newspapers.

It is not unusual for falcons to make nests in tall buildings in cities. "New York City has 10 nesting pairs, the densest peregrine falcon population anywhere, including mountains," says Tom French of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife in Westboro. One other falcon pair nests in Boston.

In the wild, peregrine falcons like to nest near a river and in ledges of cliffs. (The Charles River is nearby here.) In the city, falcons hunt starlings, bluejays, and pigeons.

A falcon is a bird of prey, or raptor. "Raptor" comes from a Latin word meaning "to seize." "Peregrine" means "wandering."

WILDLIFE experts are interested in peregrine falcons because the birds nearly became extinct. DDT, a pesticide widely used in the United States until 1972, affected the eggs of the birds. The falcons ate birds that had eaten insects or other animals that had absorbed DDT. Many falcon chicks never hatched. The peregrine population was quickly vanishing.

In 1972, DDT was banned. Wildlife experts began to raise falcons in captivity to return to the wild. They put small, metal bands on the falcon's legs to identify them. Today, some experts say the peregrine falcon is well on its way to being taken off the endangered-species list.

"The bands tell us where the bird is from," says Mr. French, who recently banded the falcon chicks here. A black-and-red band means that the bird is from the eastern United States. Numbers on the band identify the exact location. Other color combinations are used for other parts of the country.

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The mother bird on the ledge in Boston has a band that indicates she was born on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine. "The father is unbanded," says French, "so we don't know where he is from."

What is unusual on the ledge is that another unbanded male falcon showed up one day, and has become a nest helper. "The mother and father weren't aggressive toward it," French says. "We don't know if he was having a hard time finding a mate, or if he was so young he doesn't care yet. But it is very unusual for falcons to do this."

Sometimes when French bands young falcons, he wears a helmet. "The mother and father can get very upset," he says, "and they will dive and bang against the helmet." Banders also wear heavy gloves when they attach the bands.

Falcons banded in Boston have been found in South America. And falcons banded in Greenland have been found in Massachusetts. "One falcon I banded in the western part of Massachusetts was found in Venezuela," French says.

Once a nest has been established, the mother and father birds will use it for many years. This year's brood was banded on May 23, when the chicks were about three weeks old. The chicks should be flying by about June 20, French says. They will depend on their parents for another five weeks after that. The birds will be gone by Aug. 1.

How will young falcons take the first daring flight from 25 stories high? "They know a lot by instinct," French says. "At first the mother and father serve the chicks' every need. Later, when the chicks are older, the mother or father will arrive with food in its talons, but then it will fly away. This makes the chicks chase it, and that's how they can learn."

Falcon Facts

Peregrine falcons used to be found throughout most of the world. Now they are rare or absent in many places.

Since 1984, a pair of peregrine falcons has been nesting in Montreal, Quebec, usually in the Stock Exchange Tower on the 32nd floor. A stationary television camera is aimed at the nest and transmits images to a TV monitor in the lobby of the building.

Peregrine falcons now nest in more than 25 North American cities, including New York (10 pairs; one nest is on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge), Chicago (five), Milwaukee (three), Cincinnati, and Cleveland.

Between 1976 and 1990, 249 falcons raised in captivity were released into the wild along the St. Lawrence River in Canada.

The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho, is an international organization dedicated to protecting the falcons. But in 1993, Peregrine Fund biologists found a Madagascar Serpent-Eagle on the island of Madagascar (a large island off the East Coast of Africa). The bird had not been seen for 60 years, and was thought to be extinct. A survival program for the eagle is under way.

To learn more about peregrine falcons, try these Web sites on the Internet. (Be sure to include this prefix: http://www.)

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