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Peregrine falcons are the fastest animal on earth. They have been clocked at over 200 miles per hour as they descend upon their target. (Peter Arnold, Inc. / Alamy)

The World’s Fastest Animal Takes New York

The peregrine falcon, whose salvation began 40 years ago, commands the skies above the Empire State Building

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“In 1973, we raised 21 young from three fertile pairs,” Cade told me. “That clinched it in our minds that we could do this. We’d need dozens of falcons, but not hundreds.” With 30 breeding pairs, they could repopulate the eastern United States. Starting in 1974, the Fund began to release fledgling birds in prime peregrine habitat, wild places from New York's Adirondack Mountains to Maine's Acadia National Park.

Then the birds reappeared, against all expectation, in the largest city around. A peregrine released in New Hampshire in 1981 showed up on the Throgs Neck Bridge in New York City two years later, the beginning of the abundance we see today. Over the course of nearly two decades, more than 3,000 young peregrines were released across the United States. Thousands of pairs are now breeding in the wild in North America, and the birds were taken off the federal endangered species list in 1999, although they remain listed in New York State, where 160 birds were released. Something shifted upon their return. Their old cliffside nesting sites along the Hudson River Valley and elsewhere still existed, but many falcons chose the city instead. Immigrant birds had come to the city of immigrants.

From the observation platform, we continue to watch songbirds pass high above us as crowds of tourists maneuver slowly along the perimeter, taking photographs and pointing, speaking in French, Japanese, Italian and other tongues. Some pause by our group, eavesdropping, as DeCandido points to where peregrines have come to nest in the city—on the nearby MetLife building, the New York Hospital, the Riverside Church, the George Washington Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge and the 55 Water Street building. They nest 693 feet up the distant Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that’s lit up in a twinkling string of green sparkles and have taken over an osprey nest in the darkness of Jamaica Bay.

At least 17 breeding pairs live within the borders of the five boroughs, the densest known population of urban peregrines in the world. The new generation adapted to the concrete canyons, towering bridge supports and steel skyscrapers of Gotham, redefining falcon habitat. It was as though we had built them a new world, with perfect nest sites—high, adjacent to wide expanses of open flyways for hunting and populated with an endless, year-round food source in the form of pigeons, another cliff-dwelling bird that finds our urban environment so pleasing. A biologist from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection makes annual rounds to the peregrine sites, banding young and building sheltering boxes wherever they have chosen to nest.

The Empire State Building granted peregrines the additional gift of a nighttime hunting perch, smack in the middle of one of North America's busiest bird migration routes. The building's lights were the brightest continuous source of artificial light in the world when they were installed in 1956. Today, the illumination makes it easy for peregrines to spot their migrating prey. It’s happening elsewhere. Peregrine falcons have been observed hunting at night in England and France, Berlin, Warsaw and Hong Kong, and off brightly lit oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Many bird populations are plummeting because of habitat loss and other environmental threats, but peregrine falcons are thriving, brought back from the brink, returned, reintroduced and reimagined back into existence through science and passion.

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DeCandido didn’t start coming to the Empire State Building in search of falcons, though. He came to count songbirds—dead ones. Generally, birds get the sky and we get the earth, but sometimes there’s a mix-up, and the two territories overlap. One morning in 1948, 750 lifeless birds were found at the base of the Empire State Building. “Mist Bewilders Migrators… Tiny Bodies Litter 5th Avenue,” announced The New York Times.

That was a record night, but every day, dead birds are found at the base of buildings. A recent study by New York City Audubon estimated that 80,000 birds perish each year in the five boroughs because of collisions with buildings. Ornithologist Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College, who has studied bird collisions for more than 20 years, estimates that hundreds of millions of birds die each year from striking glass windows—more avian deaths than are caused by cats, cars and power lines combined. Compared with building strikes, peregrines and other avian predators barely make a dent in overall songbird populations.

DeCandido first went to the Empire State Building in the fall of 2004, prepared to witness migrants crashing into windows. Instead, over 77 nights, he and his team of volunteers found only four dead birds and discovered a miraculous New York nighttime bird-watching site. They checked off 10,000 birds on their clipboards that fall—Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds and black-throated blue warblers. Chimney swifts and common nighthawks. Great egrets and night herons. Gulls and geese. A saw-whet owl and a short-eared owl. And other flying creatures, such as little brown bats and red bats, snatching moths and dragonflies. On more than half of the nights, they were accompanied by a peregrine falcon, hunting by the bright lights of the big city.

DeCandido’s work confirmed what Klem, the Audubon researchers and others were finding—that most bird fatalities happen at the lower levels of structures, especially when glass reflects landscaping and creates the lethal illusion of a resting spot. Landscape architects are beginning to take placement of ornamental plants into consideration to minimize this deception while design firms continue to develop a type of glass that looks to a bird, in one architect’s words, “as solid as stone.”

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