There is a broad, craggy precipice in Franconia Notch, NH, not far from my home, called Eagle Cliff. It was named in the 1800s for the golden eagles that nested there, back when the region was full of open farmland that was conducive to the giant raptors’ lifestyle. While the fields have grown up and the eagles are long gone, the cliff has been home to nesting peregrine falcons each year since 1981.
Once completely absent from the eastern United States, peregrine falcons have been making a steady comeback since the 1980s. Those falcons that nested on Eagle Cliff in 1981 marked the first successful re-occupancy of a historic cliff breeding site. Since then, recolonization has been steady, if slow.
“The population hasn’t been growing very rapidly,” said Chris Martin, a senior biologist with New Hampshire Audubon and director of that agency’s Peregrine Falcon Monitoring and Management Program. “Peregrines are just inching up. If we find a new nest site in a year, that’s a good year.”
There have been lots of good years since that first pair of falcons fledged two chicks in 1981. Last year, for example, New Hampshire Audubon staff – in collaboration with the state’s Fish & Game Department – documented 17 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons and 43 chicks. The numbers are rising similarly in Vermont, where a single pair of peregrine falcons fledged two chicks in 1986; by 2017, there were 44 documented nesting pairs raising 63 chicks. In New York peregrine nest on two bridges in New York City in 1983 have become more than 50 nesting pairs statewide.
Although removed from the federal Endangered Species List in 1999, peregrine falcons are still categorized as endangered in Maine and New York and as threatened in New Hampshire.
Vermont has upgraded peregrines to recovered status.
These crow-sized raptors are best known for their speed. In regular flight, a peregrine falcon can accelerate from around 25 miles per hour to close to 70 miles per hour while pursuing prey. They can go even faster when performing a dive-bombing-style “stoop,” reaching speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour while zeroing in on a chickadee or woodpecker or small duck.
“They’ll pull their wings in and look like a torpedo or a bullet dropping through the air,” said Martin.
The small raptors are able to slightly dislocate the shoulder joints of their wings to obtain a more streamlined shape. A bony structure at the opening of each nostril deflects air when the falcon is in a stoop so its lungs don’t overfill. Peregrine falcons also have incredible eyesight, allowing them to track prey at long distances.
All of this allows falcons to surprise and kill their prey efficiently. Peregrine falcons can chase and catch other birds, but they often strike their quarry with a killing blow in mid-air. The adults teach chicks to hunt by dropping food for the young birds to practice catching. Peregrine chicks will also snag dragonflies – a slightly easier target than songbirds – while learning to hunt.
These skillful flyers were decimated in the mid-twentieth century, in large part due to widespread use of the insecticide DDT. The chemical caused their eggs – and the eggs of other top-of-the-foodchain raptors – to become thin-shelled, which meant they either broke during incubation or failed to hatch.
The chemical was banned in 1972. In cooperation with other agencies, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service started peregrine recovery efforts in the late 1970s, when chicks were hatched in captivity and released into the wild.
As peregrine falcons have gradually recovered in the Northeast, participating agencies have worked to protect natural nesting sites and enhance new sites on manmade structures. Peregrine falcons typically choose sites on high cliffs, and a pair will return each year to the same area, building a small scrape for laying eggs – or using a repurposed raven’s nest. But biologists have also encouraged nesting on manmade structures – tall buildings, smoke stacks, and bridges – by adding nesting boxes when peregrines are known to be in the area. One such site is the 259-foot tall Brady Sullivan building in Manchester, New Hampshire, where New Hampshire Audubon has set up a peregrine web cam and where falcons have been nesting since 2001.
Still, Martin said about 80 percent of the peregrine falcons in New Hampshire nest on cliff faces, including many locations around the White Mountains and along the Connecticut River. “One of the things that’s unique about northern New England’s peregrines is the vast majority of our birds are still nesting in ancestral, natural habitats,” said Martin. “They’re using the same places they used 100 years ago. These birds are back where they were – plus some other places, too.”
Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and freelance writer based in Franconia, New Hampshire. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
Thank you for an excellent article. It is encouraging to see that these beautiful birds are making a comeback. I live in Queens and also have a house in Upstate New York, on the Columbia/Rensselaer County border. I have seen Peregrines here in Jackson Heights, where there are several pairs who nest on the bridges, but I was really surprised to hear from my brother-in-law that he sees one at our house in Schodack Landing. We have a bunch of bird feeders, and several times the Peregrine has swooped in and carried off a Goldfinch or Junco. He says that once the falcon actually landed for a moment on our front step! We always have Redtails, and sometimes Kestrels hunting in our field, but this is a first. I would love to know where this bird is living. Perhaps on top of one of the railroad bridges that cross the Hudson? We’ll be keeping our binoculars handy.
“Falcon Watch Utica”
I recall being a member of the Peregrine Project half a century ago. My how times have changed! I have been buzzed several times by Peregrines in Plattsburgh!
I am a little uncomfortable about continued “encouragement” to attract these (or any) birds to the cities and urban areas. When the population was very low, sure. But now that they are rebounding, I feel nesting in cities should be viewed more as “tolerated and accepted” vs. active encouragement (hacking platforms, etc.). I doubt wildlife officials actively hack in urban areas any more. They certainly do well there, but they also likely have fewer, if any, nest predators there to keep the population in check. This leaves disease a big opening for the rebounding population, which could potentially spread anywhere. My feeling is we should neither encourage or discourage them from nesting in urban areas, but leave it up to the birds.
NYC falcons have increased and they love to eat the overabundant pigeons. NYC red tail haws and various owls (great horned owls nest in several Bronx parks) love to eat the rats (sometimes a problem because of poison) and squirrels.
Indeed they do! The cities need certain predators. That isn’t the point I am trying to make. Cities are not a natural environment where the predator/prey balance has evolved naturally over time. I have no problems with raptors in cities – I do feel they are necessary – my problem is how much should we encourage them and how do we choose which species to encourage? Mankind’s historical efforts to “adjust” or “help” nature by selectively introducing or encouraging one species over another into unbalanced ecosystems has been dismal. Raptors were slowly moving into cities before we started encouraging them. I feel we should simply allow the predator/prey balancing process to reach its own equilibrium without heavy-handed intervention.
An example of one problem – raptors may innocuously nest on a bridge or building in the urban jungle, but they don’t always hunt where we would like them to. As they deplete the easy prey near the nest, they must range farther from the nest to feed their young. One hunting method falcons in particular use is to fly fast and low trying to flush shorebirds and waterfowl into the air. Raptors hunting near airports can flush both small and large birds without warning into the paths of aircraft with disastrous results. Higher concentrations of raptors in cities will likely lead to wider hunting ranges – perhaps into sensitive areas such as this.
Raptors were always in and near cities throughout the centuries… Even in modern times. “We” just poisoned and shot them out. I don’t think raptors are the main cause of “bird strikes”. But airports do like foxes and coyotes around because they keep bird populations low. I do agree that man shouldn’t try to figure things out for animals… But animals are much more adaptable than we give them credit for.
I agree. Raptors began moving into cities long before we started “encouraging” them.
Some airports have used falconers to flush birds intentionally to discourage them from hanging out. I don’t know how successful it was.
“But animals are much more adaptable than we give them credit for.” Some animals anyway. Others seem to be so specialized they can’t adapt to much change at all. I have often wondered why. I guess it is basically what drives evolution. Adapt or die out.