I’m standing a thousand feet above the streets of New York City, on the 86th floor observatory deck of the Empire State Building, looking for birds. It’s a few hours after sunset, and New York City naturalist Robert “Birding Bob” DeCandido is leading our small group. We can see the cityscape in every direction as the cool wind tousles our hair, but our gaze is focused up. Migrating songbirds, many of which travel by night to keep cool and avoid predators, are passing high overhead on their autumn journey. DeCandido has taught us how to differentiate the movement of small birds—“See how they flap-flap-glide?” he tells us—from the erratic motions of moths, But there is another denizen of the city’s skies that we’re all hoping to see.
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A blur of a bird zips past the western flank of the building, level with the observatory. It’s too fast for a gull, too big for a songbird. Maybe a pigeon. Maybe something else. There is an excited buzz as we fumble with binoculars, unable to track the receding figure.
Ten minutes after that first flash, an unmistakable form draws our eyes directly overhead. Collectively, we cry, “Peregrine!” The falcon is smaller than the red-tailed hawks that live in Central Park, and sleeker, with a long, narrow tail that flares as the bird turns and sharp, pointed wings that propel its body fiercely. It loops around the building, in complete control as it navigates the blustery night air, its undersides transformed into a ghostly white by the upward shine of the building's glaring spotlights. It closes in on a potential perch midway up the spire and then suddenly veers south and disappears into the night.
“Come back,” someone whispers plaintively.
“Show me the top of the food chain,” says another.
There is a reason fighter jets and football teams are named after falcons. At their standard cruising speed of 40 miles per hour, peregrines are apace with pigeons and many other birds that are the basis for their diet, but falcons can go into overdrive in an aerial feat known as a stoop. They rise dozens of feet above their prey, tuck their wings in tightly against their bodies, and dive – a furious, feathered mission. The fastest animal on earth, they have been clocked at over 200 miles per hour as they descend upon their target, balling up their talons to stun their prey and then – supremely agile, able to turn upside down with a quick flip of the wing – scooping up their meal.
Forty years ago, we couldn’t have seen a peregrine falcon from atop the Empire State Building, or anywhere else on the entire East Coast. They were nearly obliterated in the middle of the 20th century by the effects of the pesticide DDT. Seed-eating songbirds fed on treated crops and were in turn eaten by the avian predators hovering at the top of the ecological pyramid. The pesticide didn’t kill adult falcons, but it concentrated in their tissues and interfered with females’ ability to produce strong eggshells. Brooding peregrines, settling down upon their clutches to keep them warm, were crushing their progeny with the weight of their bodies. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, warning of the unintended consequences of our new chemical age. By 1964, not a single peregrine falcon was found east of the Mississippi River.
In 1970, an improbable team of scientists and falconers that became known as the Peregrine Fund banded together at Cornell University in upstate New York to bring back the birds. Under the guidance of ornithologist Tom Cade, they planned to breed the birds in captivity and then release them into the wild after DDT had been banned, which it was in 1972. Because so few of the native falcons were left in the wild in the continental United States, they gathered peregrine falcons from around the globe, creating an avian immigrant story. They used the few members they could find of the subspecies that had dominated the United States, Falco peregrinus anatum, but added a handful of other birds—of the F. p. pealei subspecies from British Columbia and peregrinus from Scotland, brookei from Spain and cassini from Chile, tundrius from arctic Alaska and macropus from the southern reaches of Australia. While some people objected to the mixing of lineages, the scientists knew their options were limited. They also made the argument that hybridization could actually be a boon to a species that was facing a genetic bottleneck if they survived at all. “A peregrine is a peregrine,” Cade told me. Give the new generation of peregrines all the world’s genes, the logic went, and at least some of the birds will be fit to replace America’s lost peregrines—to traverse the fields of this region, live off the bounty of its airborne harvest, nest along its rocky cliffs.
The Peregrine Fund started with a small team of staff and volunteers who skirted building codes as they lived illegally in the peregrine breeding barn, cooking on a two-burner hot plate and bathing with a garden hose through upstate New York winters – anything to be with the birds 24/7 during the tenuous process of raising the vulnerable chicks. Using both natural and artificial insemination, breeding began in 1971, and just two years later, the Peregrine Fund newsletter announced a “bumper year.”