This article was written for The Ecologist
Big Ben strikes 4.45am and a juvenile peregrine falcon sweeps into the air from the clock tower. A small anchor shape silhouetted against a just lightening city sky, it flies over to the north side of the Palace of Westminster and settles amongst the gargoyles, blending in perfectly. Dave Morrison, life-long Londoner and peregrine obsessive, focuses his powerful telescope onto the tower.
The young female, identified as such because of her flight and size, sits calmly on the well known structure where she’s been living for the last few weeks. In a territory shared with her parents and three siblings, home for her is an exclusive area by the Thames, with the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey at its centre.
Back in the 1960s, the peregrine falcon was almost extinct in Britain. Killed during the Second World War to stop it eating messenger pigeons, it then suffered the devastating insult of DDT. New levels of protection and restrictions on pesticide use have meant this dashing bird of prey, acknowledged as one of the fastest in the world, has now recovered.
Perhaps surprisingly, its recovery is best illustrated by the fact it’s thriving in the middle of London – over 20 pairs are known to be living within a 20 mile radius of St Paul’s Cathedral. Traditionally associated with remote mountain crags, the peregrine loves London for its canyons of concrete and cliff faces of bricks and mortar. Tower blocks are perfect places to nest and the River is an excellent commuting route.
At 5.30am an adult female falcon flies in carrying a limp feral pigeon. She lands on Parliament and begins to pluck her prey. Pigeons are another reason London is so appealing to peregrines, but they aren’t as easy a target as you may think. Alert to predators, the birds fly within the protection of large groups, dropping low and hugging the rooftops, and making what Dave calls sudden ‘jinking’ movements. Peregrines aren’t guaranteed a kill, it can sometimes take several hunts before they’re successful, but ultimately they’re London’s top avian predator. Pigeons meanwhile are rich pickings and keep the falcons well fed.
Peregrines take smaller birds in their talons as they fly, although it’s their powerful beak that will deliver the death blow. During spectacular 1,000ft swoops, they can reach speeds of 150mph. When courting they perform impressive aerial acrobatics and pass food gifts in flight. Beautiful, bold birds then, ones that are easy to become obsessed with.
Dave is a Barking boy and a steel fixer by trade. He’s been entranced by the peregrine falcon since seeing one while he was on a job. Work often involves being high up on building sites and bird watching opportunities arise often in such spots. His enthusiasm is infectious and his once unconvinced work colleagues are now also guilty of sky-watching.
For the last ten years Dave’s been monitoring London’s peregrines and his interest and expertise has grown to the point where he’s now consulted by landowners who find they have falcons on their buildings. Peregrines are a schedule one listed species, which means they have the highest protection possible under wildlife law. Dave advises on the obligations you have if a pair decides to nest on your property, and offers services like putting up custom built nesting boxes and platforms.
For some, having peregrines can be disruptive as it means areas become out of bounds during the breeding season. For others the birds are very welcome, mostly because of the peregrine’s penchant for the dirty pigeon. The Houses of Parliament are rather pleased with theirs and a plush nest box is planned for next year. The current pair have been christened Charlie and Augustus, and people who work in the building rely on Dave for regular updates.
London is a different place at dawn. Inexperienced at such early starts, I go to bed late and get up just a few hours later feeling pretty pained. Dave meets me seeming fresh and chipper, happy to be in town before most people are up. We stand outside Parliament peregrine watching and I start to wonder whether he attracts funny looks and possibly the attention of the police, armed as he is with telescope, binoculars and long lens camera.
He admits he gets some comments but people know who he is now, sometimes the police even like to have a look in his telescope. The other day he walked past a security guard who had feathers raining down on his head – the confetti like debris of a peregrine breakfasting. The guards enjoy the peregrines’ presence and have been known to indulge in a little bird watching too.
It may not seem like much, but simply keeping detailed records of peregrine numbers, their whereabouts and behaviour is really valuable. How else would we know the birds were on the increase in the city? The wildlife data collected by natural history enthusiasts like Dave is extremely valuable in painting a picture of how species are faring, both locally and nationally.
Peregrines inhabit structures across London, some as iconic as Parliament, some residential. Tate Modern and the O2 are two of the best known sites. In general the location of the birds is kept secret though, in order to protect them. Dave certainly feels a strong need to be discreet. As morning breaks we journey across London to see other areas where the birds are breeding but I’m asked to keep quiet about where they are.
Highly territorial birds, they will fiercely defend their patch from other peregrines. The average territory has a two to three mile radius and will often be near the Thames and include buildings with peregrine friendly ledges. Steel and glass aren’t ideal for the birds. Apparently Canary Wharf would love to attract some but Dave says the building would be a fledging nightmare. He knows, however, that peregrines do like to sit on the nearby and well lit Barclays sign in winter, no doubt because it’s rather warm.
At 7.30am I find myself on a sewage farm. Despite the stench, the place is carpeted in wildflowers and there are rabbits skipping about everywhere. Down by the river edge, thick mud gleams in the early sun, burning silver and turning the hundreds of water birds into dark but shapely shadows. There are oystercatchers, cormorants, common terns, plus many swans and gulls, and of course a family of peregrines.
This is one of Dave’s favourite spots. Somehow immune to the ripe smell, he glows as he tells me some peregrine chicks have just hatched in a large bird box of his making. We watch the adult male guarding the box where the female incubates her young. Safe at the top of the London food chain, peregrines do still get harassed by crows. Dave says one of his most memorable moments was witnessing this peregrine couple see off a gang of 24. It was brave behaviour from a pair of elegant birds.
So what does the future hold for London’s peregrines? Those that call the capital home are London born and bred, the urban landscape is their natural home and the only one they know. Dave thinks his and other people’s efforts to protect and encourage the birds could see many more pairs breeding in the city. I first met Dave high up a tower block a few months ago. From our cloud capped spot we watched a peregrine soar eastwards, pluck a pigeon from the sky near St Paul’s, before landing on a bridge to eat it. From our privileged perch, the city was suddenly revealed to me as a landscape where raptors roam, and thrive, far above the confusion below.
words © Helen Babbs / The Ecologist; pictures © Helen Babbs / David Morrison