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

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)

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Fifteen minutes after our first sighting, the falcon returns to lie in wait on the northern side of the spire, with a clear view of incoming bird traffic. A few minutes later, a small form approaches with the flap-flap-glide movement of a songbird. As it appears within our halo of light, the falcon charges from its station, circling wide and then closing in fast on the unsuspecting creature. The peregrine comes down hard on the bird, which drops straight down as though injured, but the falcon swerves off, talons empty, returning to another perch overhead. The smaller bird, DeCandido explains, folded its wings and dropped to escape.

The falcon has speed, but this alone doesn’t secure dinner. Persistence is a requirement as well. Every few minutes, the falcon launches itself after a weary migrant, but each time, the hunter misses its quarry. Then DeCandido declares a faraway, lit-up speck to be an approaching rose-breasted grosbeak. The small bird veers east as the peregrine rises, for the sixth time, both disappearing behind the spire. We lose sight of them on the far side, gauging their speed and waiting for them to emerge on the other side of the tower. They don’t. Just the falcon appears, landing briefly back on its perch. “Did he get it?” someone asks, necks straining, eyes glued to binoculars in a hard squint. And then the falcon lifts off, and we can see the limp bird held tightly in its grasp as it drops down to the northwest, toward the Riverside Church perhaps, wings arched, gliding down to some favorite plucking post to eat.

The peregrines have returned. To North America, and—unexpectedly—to many of the cityscapes of the world. When it comes to bird habitat, humans have destroyed more than we have created, but for the falcons we have inadvertently made a nice home. Songbirds pass overhead as the night goes on, but the small beings can no longer hold our attention. It’s not even 9 p.m., early for us city folk, so we return to the sidewalk realm of humans and down farther into the subway tunnels below, leaving the secret avian superhighway above to carry on its mysterious motions of life and death, the top of the food chain that has returned, reigning over all.


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