2017-05-18 / Nature

Peregrine Falcons Prominent Once Again

By Charles Avenengo

A juvenile peregrine falcon perches under the old Sakonnet River Bridge. 
(Photo courtesy of ©Peter Green/providenceraptors.com) A juvenile peregrine falcon perches under the old Sakonnet River Bridge. (Photo courtesy of ©Peter Green/providenceraptors.com) Another casualty in our area of the pesticide DDT, like the osprey, was the peregrine falcon.

Similar to the osprey and other apex birds of prey, peregrines consume smaller grain-eating birds. During the spraying years, the smaller birds munched on insecticide-laced seeds, and when peregrines ate them, the poison built-up in their fat tissues. This reduced the calcium in their eggshells and resulted in fewer eggs being hatched. As a result, the subspecies of peregrines east of the Mississippi river vanished by the mid-1960s. The only peregrines seen locally were an Arctic subspecies that would pass through our region during migration periods.

But their recovery began after peregrines were included on the Endangered Species list in 1969, followed by the banning of DDT in 1972. These efforts were so successful that by 1999, peregrines were delisted as an endangered species.

Peregrines are a thing of beauty in flight, unless you are being pursued by one. But look quickly, because they are the world’s fastest animal. Clocked at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour when dive-bombing, their unlucky prey, generally birds but occasionally mammals, reptiles and bats, hardly stand a chance.

The most widespread of all raptors, peregrine falcons are found on every continent except Antarctica. They have also been prominently featured for 4,000 years in falconry. Falconry ranked high as a method to hunt for food until the invention of gunpowder in the 1600s, when simply shooting game became an easier way to bring back supper for the stewpot. In class-conscience Europe, possession of the peregrine falcon was reserved for the ranks of princes down to barons. Kings received an even larger falcon, the Arctic gyrfalcon, while emperors outdid all with golden eagles.

In the Eastern United States, the recovery program to bring back peregrines was a brilliant success. Scientists at Cornell University bred and raised the falcons in captivity. The trick was to get the human-reared birds to take to the wild. This was solved by mimicking the bird’s preference for naturally nesting high on towering cliffs. The falcons were reintroduced to nest boxes on skyscrapers along the Eastern Seaboard. Looking down on cities like Boston, New York and Baltimore, the raptors began feeding on the pigeons below. The falcons, who received much public support, thrived.

Locally, the late Dr. Peter Liotta, formerly the director of the Pell Center at Salve Regina University, had a hand in the early days of the comeback. As a graduate student at Cornell, he was given seven peregrines to release over the course of a summer in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.

Eventually, over 6,000 peregrines were released. Although none were released in Rhode Island, observers noticed that immature peregrines were “hanging around” the various bridges connecting to Aquidneck Island beginning around 1990. Soon thereafter, they were spotted in downtown Newport during the winter months at various locations. For a few winters, peregrines were frequently seen perched atop Trinity Church, where they would stoop upon prey below in Queen Anne’s Square.

Later, the peregrines were seen in other months, proving that they weren’t the Arctic subspecies in migration. Nesting was suspected and finally confirmed.

Once established, peregrines began showing up in interesting places. One such place was the “Superman” building in Providence. Currently, they are the only tenants in the vacant building. From a nest box erected on the 30th floor, they watch the world far below. In 2000, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island installed a Peregrine Cam to keep an eye on them. It can currently be viewed on their website. Another nesting pair can be found high atop Pawtucket City Hall.

Closer to home, peregrines gained notoriety when they were found nesting on both the USS Saratoga and the USS Forrestal, two decommissioned aircraft carriers that formerly were berthed at the Newport Naval Station. In both cases, the falcon’s presence delayed the eventual departure of the vessels to be scrapped.

But of all the sites, the peregrine’s most enterprising nesting has been on the local bridges. For years, commuters have reported sightings of the raptors, and nesting has occurred on all four bridges.

This year, according to officials at the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, there are currently bird boxes on the Newport Bridge, Mt. Hope Bridge and the Jamestown Bridge, but only the Jamestown Bridge has an active nest. In addition, an extremely late nest with nestlings was found last August by the Department of Transportation on the old Sakonnet River Bridge. With the old bridge scheduled to be removed soon, they will have to find a new home.

So, the next time you look up, it might not be Superman after all, but rather a peregrine falcon looking for a new home.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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