Meet Your New Downtown Neighbors: Peregrine Falcons

Glance out the window of a downtown office building or high-rise apartment, and you may glimpse a family of peregrine falcons living next door. How they got there was no accident.

It was late March when the peregrines appeared outside of the 11th floor library where I work. 

They reeled and dove in downtown’s gusty air, calling to each other, playing in the wind. Through binoculars I watched them at a favorite roost, square sconces that light the upper floors of the Duke Energy building at Fourth and Main. Against a backdrop of neoclassical reliefs and stone eagles that menace the surrounding city with outstretched wings, the real-life falcons dissected their pigeon prey, sending down feathers into the air.

A peregrine falcon perched on the cornice of a high-rise building, surveying its urban territory

Photograph by Cedric Rose and John Faherty

One day, the smaller of the two birds—males are two-thirds the size of female falcons, earning fellas the name “tiercel”—carried his catch to this perch, pulled it apart, hopped over to the larger falcon and offered her half a pigeon. The female ate voraciously and then, her beak red, bowed deeply in what could only be a gesture of gratitude. Our falcons were in love.

By mid-April, in order to get a better look at the falcons outside, I would open a window and flatten out on the broad sill of our office. Leaning out from the ledge, I got an angle on another favorite falcon perch on the building next door. My colleague, John Faherty—a self-proclaimed city boy with little to no previous interest in birds—also developed something of an infatuation with the falcons. One day that spring, curiosity got the better of us, and we went into an adjacent building to take a peek. On the ledge outside an office window lay the cleanly severed head of a Hairy Woodpecker. I pulled aside another blind to discover the striated tail of some other bird. Peeking around a third blind brought me face-to-face with a surprised peregrine falcon. Pupils 10 times more powerful than mine dilated to make sense of the weirdo on the other side of the glass. It fluffed its feathers, screeched, and took off, circling to get a better look at me.

They’re beautiful, these birds, and deadly. Diving at up to 200 miles per hour to strike and kill flying prey makes them the fastest member of the animal kingdom. Adult beaks and eyes are edged with bright yellow. Their backs grade from slate to charcoal, like a pigeon’s, so that they blend in downtown. Brilliant white undersides are piped with dark horizontal streaks, and in certain light they take on this rosy or golden glow. Under each eye there’s a dark, gothic smudge.

Getting that close to a falcon was too good to be true—I had to go back the next day. This time I found myself in a restroom adjacent to where we estimated one of the falcons to be. I peeked through the blinds from a stall. The falcon spread its wings and hissed, opening its bill to show its sharp tongue in an expression of pure rage. Side-to-side, in a careful semi-circle below its air-conditioner perch, lay four pinkish and speckled eggs.

The presence of peregrines in downtown Cincinnati and other Midwestern cities today is part of a much bigger story: the Endangered Species Act of 1969. Nesting pair peregrine populations once numbered in the 3,000s nationwide, but by 1965 they had disappeared entirely from the Midwest and east coast. A mere 39 nesting pairs remained west of the Mississippi River at the time. Globally, the population was in steep decline.

The culprit behind the falcons’ near disappearance—and decline of many bird species—was Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, a pesticide that, despite early misgivings about its safety, came into widespread use after the 1940s. As birds ate insects, fish, and other birds contaminated with DDT and were in turn eaten themselves, DDT levels became more and more concentrated. In the bodies of apex predators like raptors—we’re talking birds of prey, not dinosaurs—the chemical can disrupt reproduction and cause thinning of eggshells to the point that they break under the parents’ weight.

By 1965, Cornell University ornithology professor and master falconer Tom Cade knew there was a problem. Five years later, he and about a dozen other ornithologists started The Peregrine Fund, which embarked on a captive breeding program seeded with falcons kept by falconers. Numbers had dropped too low in the wild for the species to naturally recover.

Laboratory-hatched falcon chicks, originally in eggs taken from at-risk nests, were reintroduced into the wild, or “hacked,” a term borrowed from falconry. “Hacked” chicks are placed in a hack box, a sealed container mimicking the natural “scrapes” where falcons lay eggs. Safe in this screened-in enclave that allows them to see out and acclimate to their environment, the chicks mature. They’re fed through a chute to minimize human contact, and when they are ready to fledge, the screened front is removed and the birds are free to fly and hunt. In the early days, Cade would climb to nests and borrow thin-shelled eggs, replacing them with fake eggs in order to maintain parental interest, then return the lab-hatched chicks to their parents. And should anyone doubt these scientists’ commitment, I offer the following factoid: They even performed falcon courtship dances and vocalizations while wearing special rubber hats that would capture the goods needed for artificial falcon insemination when the tiercels, thus aroused, attempted copulation with their heads. Which is fancy talk for a hat that made falcons horny.

The peregrine falcon was one of the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Congress also responded by banning DDT for agricultural use across the country in 1972. The chemical continued to be exported by U.S. companies and remains a problem in some areas, but the decision is widely regarded as the turning point for these and other threatened species.

Challenges remained for the peregrines, however. A Minnesota-based team of hackers continued losing falcon chicks, unprotected by parents, to predation by great horned owls, one of the peregrine’s few natural enemies. So in the late 1980s, the team began setting up hack boxes away from great horned territory, especially in more urban areas.

“Once we moved to the city, we were successful beyond our wildest dreams,” Pat Redig, director of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, told The New York Times in 2000. Bringing these birds downtown also brought them into the public eye, which in turn garnered contributions of money and time from individuals and businesses. Utility companies such as Xcel Energy supported hosting nest boxes at their Allen S. King power plant in Oak Park Heights, Minnesota, in 1989.

Falcons in flight from the Mercantile Library windows

Photograph by Cedric Rose and John Faherty

The curiosity is ongoing. Faherty and I began posting images of the falcons on Facebook and encouraging library visitors to have a look for themselves. One early falcon watcher was Vincent Andwan, who sports a John Muir beard and outdoorsy attire and has predilections for all things natural, including foraging and bird watching. Andwan was concerned about the nest because he knew that peregrines were protected. He sent some e-mails and made calls to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which in turn connected him with RAPTOR, Inc., a local nonprofit that rehabilitates birds of prey. Shortly after, ornithological expert and longtime RAPTOR, Inc. volunteer Jeff Hays paid us a visit.

Hays gets animated when he talks about birds of prey. Beneath his ball cap and quiet demeanor he possesses a contained, raptor-like intensity of his own. His commitment to raptor conservation runs deep—he was once attacked by goshawks, a bird known for its aggression, while climbing to a nest in Michigan. “Luckily it hit me in the head and I had the helmet on,” he says. “Usually when there are wounds, it’s because they hit you somewhere besides the head.”

In addition to peregrine nests, Hays regularly climbs to osprey and red-shouldered hawk nests in our region to band chicks:  Said chicks are removed from their nests, sexed and measured, and receive an aluminum band bearing a unique number—which is recorded and submitted to a national database—around their leg. This tracking provides insights into the life histories and movements of birds when they are later recovered (which usually means they’re found dead). Hays, who recently spent a week sleeping in his car while volunteering as a bird bander in Cape May, New Jersey, occasionally receives reports on birds he’s banded in Cincinnati. An osprey he tagged on the Little Miami River turned up in Colombia, South America, and a rough-legged hawk he recorded made it all the way to northern Ontario. Like other raptors, peregrines are capable of traversing vast distances. The name actually means “wanderer.”

“They measure distances not in states, but continents,” Hays tells me one day as we watch the tiercel preen himself on the downtown building they have decided to call home.

Peregrines never bred in southwest Ohio, but they migrated through and were persecuted here as they have been the world over. Hunters would often shoot them as perceived competition for ducks, which peregrines do sometimes strike, earning them the nickname “duck hawk.” Andwan found a local account from 1910 by Cincinnati-born naturalist Charles Dury in the Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History, detailing a Cincinnati City Hall custodian’s chagrin at seeing a peregrine take out one of the domesticated pigeons that lived in City Hall’s tower. “Each day at about the same time, it came for its meal,” Dury wrote. “It was finally shot by one of the police and proved to be a duck hawk, a rare bird in southwestern Ohio.”

One day, the male peregrine catches me spying on him on his Duke Energy building perch. He flies directly at me, eyes never leaving my lenses in a power glide that covers thousands of feet in seconds, before veering off just a few lengths from the library window. When I tell Andwan about the encounter, he says, “The act of observing changes both the observer and the observed.” This is less Zen koan than literal truth when it comes to our peregrines. Whenever we visited their nest in anticipation of the hatch, the very act of observation seemed to put it at risk.

Photograph by Cedric Rose and John Faherty

Peregrines do not build traditional nests, but instead lay eggs on a bare or gravelly rock ledge. (Or, in this case, on a windowsill behind an air conditioner.) The eggs are in constant danger of exposure to the elements. Moisture, Hays tells me, is the main concern, which is why nest boxes are lined with gravel, keeping them off of a potentially damp floor. It was a cold, wet spring in Cincinnati, and even though we covered our most popular viewing window with a slotted piece of cardboard as a blind, the slightest sense of an audience would spook them away. Mother peregrines incubate their eggs almost continuously, and I worried that, unprotected, a spring rain or gust might chill an egg in minutes, the way it can freeze your hands. Worse, if the falcons were spooked too often, the parents might abandon the nest entirely. That said, on dryer days, we couldn’t not sneak an occasional, careful look.

And they showed no signs of abandoning the nest. If we so much as cracked a library window, the tiercel would do a high-speed flyby. Faherty and I were both almost struck in stealth attacks from the watchful, territorial dad. No doubt, these peregrines are citified. According to Hays, data on their movements suggest that city-born peregrines usually return to cities to nest. This, one would assume, helps acclimate them to man-made motion and noise. Still, it was a fretful 33-day wait. That’s the length of time falcons incubate their eggs. When Day 33 came and went with no change at the nest, I feared the worst: The eggs weren’t going to hatch, and it was going to be our fault.

I was off work on Monday, May 15, when Faherty e-mailed me that the chicks had hatched over the weekend.

The first documented pair of peregrines to nest in Ohio did so in 1988 atop the Commodore Perry Motor Inn in downtown Toledo—a female from St. Catherines, Ontario, and a male from Milwaukee. Ohio’s hacking program officially began in Columbus in 1989 with the release of five falcons, resulting in three fledglings, and continued through 1993 with 46 peregrines released in cities across the state. In 1993, after a hacking project began here on the PNC Tower at Fourth and Vine, Cincinnati became home to its first nesting pair: a tiercel named Falcor, who had been released here, and a female, released at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. Between 1993 and 1999, in a nest box atop the PNC Tower, they produced four chicks, with several failed attempts.

Sister Marty Dermody, a life-long bird lover, served as a volunteer nest box monitor on the PNC Tower. She and several other women kept close dawn-to-dusk tabs on the birds from a vacant office nearby. When Ohio Department of Natural Resources personnel arrived to band the chicks in May 2007, she was there. Climbing out on the narrow 26th-floor ledge, the naturalists wore helmets and carried umbrellas to ward off attacks from the angry parents. They let Dermody name one of the chicks, Charity, after her congregation. “So somewhere out there, hopefully, there’s a falcon with a green band wandering around,” she tells me by phone from the Sisters of Charity Spirituality Center at Mount St. Joseph, where she serves as director.

Holding that chick in her hands was an experience Dermody says she’ll never forget. She and her fellow volunteers weren’t the only ones keeping tabs, either; a live feed was set up to watch the nest, streaming to a screen in the building’s lobby. Thousands followed online.

We’re still watching raptors today, and in more ways than ever before. The Internet offers point-of-view video shot from tiny cameras strapped to raptors’ backs as they take to the sky and strike prey, and nest webcams continue to enthrall us with nature’s highs—the hatching of a clutch, first flights—and lows.

Mercantile Library Executive Director John Faherty with a falcon chick during banding

Photograph by Cedric Rose and John Faherty

In 2016, viewers who tuned in to a bald eagle nest cam in Pittsburgh were horrified when the bird brought a domestic cat to its young. An Iowa eagle nest cam that same year showed the fatal poisoning of a chick by Methomyl, a powerful insecticide. As part of some still-mysterious evolutionary strategy, birds sometimes intentionally neglect certain young, garnering regular pleas from horrified viewers for intervention on the chicks’ behalf. Viewers grow attached and grieve the early deaths of young falcons they’ve watched grow up. In 2014, RAPTOR, Inc., reported that a young peregrine fledged from the PNC Tower nest was found dead on a Covington sidewalk. Closer examination showed it was well fed but seemed to have suffered a high-speed collision, leading them to believe it had been chased by another bird.

Untimely deaths and concerned commenters aside, decades’ worth of human interaction—from Cade and the Endangered Species Act to web cams and those watching at home—has had both a quantitative and qualitative impact. And not just for the birds. The peregrines’ early plight presented a clear indicator to legislators of the detrimental effects of DDT, which is also carcinogenic to human beings. In Pittsburgh, an entire community of bald eagle cam viewers rallied when a nearby recycling plant’s rampant use of rat poison, a threat to raptors, came to their attention; they pressured the plant to use a less dangerous pest control method. Viewers of raptor cams have also been vocal in bringing attention to lead poisoning that afflicts bald eagles when they scavenge carcasses peppered with hunters’ shot.

Living in the city, it’s often easy to ignore or forget about the natural earth at-large. Peregrines in our midst are a reminder of how our two worlds remain tethered, illustrated by a breathless glimpse of one in midflight just outside an office window or the occasional bloody pigeon wing found on the sidewalk below.

Much like Sister Dermody, the experience of holding a falcon chick changed me, too. On an afternoon in early June, Hays showed up at the library with a blue backpack containing heavy leather gloves, gunny sacks, pliers, and a plastic case of tiny, number-embossed silver bands. We crossed over to the nearby building and were spotted almost immediately by the tiercel standing sentry on a nearby windowsill. Both parents began this continuous, ululating war cry as they made high-speed passes at the windows. At the scrape, Hays inched the window open so that he could reach out into the nest.

Brown flight feathers were just beginning to protrude from the fledglings’ light gray fluff, fanning out from their wings and tails. While close to full size, their beaks and claws were awkward and lacked the strength to do real damage. Hays had me hold a sack as he gingerly slipped one chick from the nest into it, then cupped the other. We carried the chicks into a nearby office and he got to work, wrapping a single band around one ankle of each. Their cries softened into burbles. Placed on the carpeted floor, they flopped backwards. It was hard to believe that in just a few weeks they would be wrapped in fully formed flight feathers and, with only instinct and their parents as role models, learn to navigate the air. 

There had originally been a third chick in this brood—now there were only two, both males, Hays said—and months later we would learn that one of the original four eggs never hatched. Falcon hatchlings face daunting odds. The mortality rate is 60 percent in the first year, dropping sharply after that. For me, momentarily cradling one of the quivering bodies before returning it to the ledge was a brief, bittersweet intersection between my world and the falcon’s. I felt a connection with this wild thing that was about to be loosed in what suddenly seemed an impossibly inhospitable city.

Giving those adolescent peregrines and other young or injured birds of prey the best possible odds of survival is the mission of RAPTOR, Inc., and its executive director, Cindy Alverson. It’s a cold autumn Monday morning when I pull up to the organization’s Milford headquarters, housed at an erstwhile church camp just east of the 275 loop. A steep drive wraps around the center of operations, a barn-like structure flanked by the mesh-fronted mews where RAPTOR, Inc.’s permanent residents are kept; at the back of the compound stands a high, L-shaped structure where temporary cares undergo rehabilitation for re-release. It’s large enough and curved to allow both flight and cornering ability to be assessed. Bright leaves twirl out of the surrounding trees. I sense I’m being tracked by multiple sharp sets of eyes as I approach the front door.

RAPTOR, Inc., had a busy weekend. The previous day was their regular open house, which happens on the last Sunday of each month and attracts hundreds of visitors. The weekend also brought a new patient, their 300th of the year, a bald eagle all the way from Ironton, Ohio, near the West Virginia border. By fall, numbers for 2017 were already higher than the 295 birds brought here in 2002 at the height of the West Nile virus epidemic. Birds died by the score that year, and Alverson’s team could only supply palliative care; in almost every instance, the disease proved fatal. This year, Alverson attributes the uptick in patients to a wider awareness of RAPTOR, Inc., and its mission in the area—people know this is where to bring a hurt hawk, vulture, or owl.

Out in the mews, the owls are either sleepy or contemplative. There’s a moon-faced barn owl and a barred owl, two great horned owls, and two eastern screech owls. The peregrine falcon, Lucy, is much more alert. Found at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport missing part of her wing, she puffs up against the cold and cocks her head at us, then toward the sky. Each bird’s enclosure is designed to accommodate its special needs—ramps to reach perches, plenty of places to hide. I also catch a glimpse of a bald eagle, not on public display because it’s in training to be an “ambassador.” Like RAPTOR, Inc.’s other resident birds, it will be taken on visits to schools and other community institutions to raise awareness about the plight of wild birds and the dangers they face.

I found myself constantly looking up. When I saw a falcon flash against the sky, I temporarily lost myself to a sense of both enormity and possibility.

The volunteers of RAPTOR, Inc., and organizations like it continue to make a difference for urban peregrines. Alverson shows me stats from the past couple decades of their encounters with peregrines—almost every year they’ve been called out to return early fledged falcon chicks to nests or to rescue young birds. And the data aggregated in the banding databases to which Hays contributes shows a steady climb in both the number of nesting pairs and that of “floaters,” unattached falcons that will almost immediately step into a breeding territory when a peregrine is killed, providing resilience to the population. The data trails off in recent years, not because the birds are in trouble but rather the opposite: The feds removed peregrine falcons from the list of threatened and endangered species in 1999.

The underlying message of RAPTOR, Inc., is one of both compassion and mindfulness that our actions have unintended and far-reaching consequences. The organization often finds barred owls, which apparently love to fish (who knew?), entangled in fishing lures or line. Even a seemingly innocent act like tossing an apple core out the window can put a raptor in harm’s way, attracted to the roadside by apple-core munching prey. And while peregrines in our cities demonstrate that we can rectify past wrongs, mistakes repeat. Hardware stores are stocked with popular glycosate-based weed killers we spray on our crops and lawns despite evidence that they can cause cancer, other diseases, and widespread damage to the ecosystems on which we all—humans and raptors alike—rely.

For Sister Dermody, being close to falcons connected with her spiritual practice. These birds can take you to another place, luring your consciousness across great spaces to focus on a being both like and unlike yourself. Using birds to interpret omens and discern the will of the gods goes back to pre-Roman times. The concept turns up in Egyptian correspondence in the 14th century. Science now inhabits the role that myth once played, but birds like the peregrine still have much to say. “They tell us how we’re doing,” Dermody tells me, “and maybe when we’re not doing so hot.” There is, she says, “a real connection between the birds and us.”

It’s impossible to convey exactly why some people fall under the spell of birds. For the uninitiated, obsessing over falcons is just odd—I totally get why non-bird-watchers might find birders creepy. But to care about raptors and to care deeply about the natural world is more than just some touchy-feely conviction that all of us creatures, and our futures, are linked. The interest brings with it a host of pleasures, many of them selfish, including a projection into vertiginous heights that are not our own. This past year while walking downtown, I found myself constantly looking up, frequently to the detriment of my personal safety. But when I saw a falcon flash against the sky, I temporarily lost myself to a sense of both enormity and possibility.

It wasn’t long before our banded peregrine chicks were covered in rich chocolate and tan flight feathers. Their beaks and eyes took on a mystical blue. One of the chicks seemed timid, while its sibling liked to test its limits, walking the ledge. If we peeked at it through the window, it immediately looked right at us, eyes dialing in. Poised 11 stories up, it would spread its wings to get the feel of the breeze. And then, one weekend, it leapt.

An unfledged chick works on its balance

Photograph by Cedric Rose and John Faherty

The fledgling was sighted several times on the rooftop below, then disappeared into the convoluted landscape of ductwork and air handlers. Falcons will bring food to their young, but the bird’s proximity to the street and bus terminal was terrifying. On June 22, Hays e-mailed me that the chick had been found on the ground. Somehow it had crossed Main Street and made its way to the corner of Fifth and Sycamore, where it was spotted by a cop one night who called SPCA officer Kevin Fox. According to notes on RAPTOR, Inc.’s intake report, Fox chased the young falcon for 90 minutes before managing to bag it. Back at their facility the next morning, it was fed a quail and checked for damage. That afternoon, Hays, Alverson, and an intern smuggled the bird up to the library in a blanket-shrouded crate.

Reluctant to return it directly to the nest for fear of spooking its sibling into premature flight, or placing it on a nearby window ledge to repeat the incident, Hays thought the top of the building would be the best place for release. We climbed several flights of stairs to the roof, edged with a colonnade parapet. The peregrine came out of the crate still clutching the towel it had been sitting on. Hays untangled its talons from the towel, found a protected leeward corner on the nest side of the building so that its parents could more easily find it, and had us back out of sight before he released the bird. The next morning, from the ground, I saw it perched on the very edge of the roof, where it stayed all day. I wanted to see it fly, but I didn’t want to watch it die—a very real possibility as it learned to navigate the vortexes of blustery wind that curled against the glass faces all around.

On the second day I couldn’t spot it from the ground, so Faherty and I went to the roof to check things out. I poked my head through the parapet and there it was, still gripping the cracked and tarry gutter at the roof’s edge. “It’s there,” I said to Faherty. He stuck his head through to take a peek. Although we were a good 50 feet away, the peregrine saw us, spread its wings, and launched.

Its wing beats were tentative, wobbly, like a child just learning to ride a bike. It turned in tight circles, tacking back and forth against the wind, gaining height. Under a gray-ribbed ceiling of wind-whipped cloud it glided, gingerly paddling the air without the confident grace it would gain over time. For a single, sick moment, the falcon hurtled toward a sheer, glass face, before it cleared the building, flew high and to the east, and disappeared.

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