Flying high: why peregrine falcons are kings of the urban jungle
By the four chimneys of Battersea power station, between tower cranes and builders’ cabins, is an unobtrusive metal mast. At the top, a watchful figure looks down upon the 3,000 workers bustling around this vast £9bn construction site.
“Female,” says David Morrison, with a deft glance through his binoculars. “She’s protecting her nest site. There was an intruding female about half an hour ago.”
Suddenly, she’s off, arrow-like, steepling down from her mast and over the Thames, in pursuit of an unlucky bird. This year, the first residents and businesses will move into the revamped Battersea power station, but the London landmark already has its first family. A pair of peregrine falcons have been nesting here since 2000. These fearsome wild birds of prey, the fastest member of the animal kingdom, are thriving in the capital. There were three pairs in London at the turn of the century; now there are 30, probably the second-highest density of peregrines anywhere in the world – after New York. The peregrine, once considered a bird of lonely rocky cliffs, almost fell extinct in Britain in the last century. Now it has reinvented itself as an urban creature. Pairs nest in many cities and towns, including Manchester, Derby, Coventry, Chichester, Ipswich and Norwich. The peregrine is safer in the city than the countryside.
It’s spring, and the peregrines of Battersea are laying eggs. We walk closer to the metal mast topped by a wooden nestbox. The peregrine peers over the edge, cocking its head to size us up with one enormous eye. This alpha female is the most powerful wild bird in London. Peregrines will bully and sometimes kill much bigger birds, from buzzards to crows. And the female is a third bigger than the male. Over the past three years, this bird has successfully fledged 11 chicks. “It shows she’s a very virile female. She’s in her prime,” says Morrison, admiringly.
Morrison is one of the reasons for the peregrine boom in London, alongside volunteers for the London Peregrine Partnership, which also monitors the birds. He was a steel fixer on a construction site in Battersea when he discovered they were nesting in the then derelict power station. He’d always loved birds, and knew that this rare bird enjoys the highest legal protection. He contacted Natural England, the government’s wildlife watchdog, and began surveying urban peregrines. Under his watch, pairs of this fiercely territorial bird have taken up residence on high buildings. Once they “hold” a territory, they sometimes struggle to breed successfully without a purpose-built nestbox, so Morrison provided some. Six years ago, he retired and became a full-time peregrine consultant and ecologist.
He faced his biggest challenge in 2013. Battersea’s peregrines nested just below one of its famous towers but the chimneys needed to be taken down and rebuilt as part of the power station’s transformation. The Battersea Power Station Development Company spent more than £100,000 on a relocation plan, building the mast at exactly the same height as the old nest in the quietest corner of the construction site. When the birds finished breeding that year, Morrison closed off their old nest and waited. It was a tense moment. “It’s nature, isn’t it? You can’t predict what they are going to do.” But the birds took up residence in his new nestbox and have successfully bred there ever since. “There are very few other species that would adapt and wouldn’t just go,” says Morrison. “They will even hunt from the cranes here. They are not going to move.”
They hunt at dawn, before work starts at 8am, and then “sit up there watching the world go by”, says Morrison. Alongside his nest sites, an all-you-can-eat urban buffet is the main reason the birds are thriving. As we gaze at the peregrine, flocks of feral pigeons scurry through the air just below her. If a particularly large flock breaks away, “it gets too much for the peregrines and they are off in pursuit”, says Morrison. “One of the most spectacular hunts I’ve ever seen is from the power station chimneys. They hunt from here every day.”
Peregrines target weaker pigeons but will also devour starlings, black-headed gulls and most migrating birds, which often follow the river. They are also partial to a recent arrival in London: ring-necked parakeets. Every winter, Morrison checks his nestboxes and cleans them: the strangest prey he has found up there is the remains of a hen pheasant.
The naturalist and “urban birder” David Lindo, who grew up in London, remembers having to travel to the coast as a boy to see peregrines. He first saw urban peregrines as a teenager, when he visited New York. “Now, virtually every city I visit I expect to see a peregrine,” he says. As peregrine numbers grew in London, he set up the Tower 42 bird study group to monitor the migration of birds of prey. “From the tower, you can see upwards of six peregrine territories across London,” he says.
Lindo’s motto is “look up”. Seven years ago, he turned up at Tate Modern with a large, empty picture frame, and set up a telescope. “I called my ‘picture’ Peregrinations. I had a queue of people looking through the telescope at peregrines. The kids were going, ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing,’ and the adults were saying, ‘Are they just here to cull the pigeons?’ They are wild peregrines. The most amazing predator on the planet. They are a symbol of power and speed, but also a symbol of urban birding. You can see some amazing things in the heart of the concrete jungle.”
Many city dwellers miss the peregrines above. Most London nests are also a closely guarded secret because they are still at risk from egg collectors and, occasionally, rogue falconers who steal peregrine chicks because wild birds tend to be better hunters than captive-bred individuals. But peregrines can be seen on Tate Modern and Charing Cross hospital, and a pair nest on the Houses of Parliament, too.
At Battersea power station, the workers have embraced the birds. They are a kind of totem for this new development of more than 4,500 homes, restaurants and businesses. When it is finished, the developers plan to put telescopes in its new park so residents and visiting tourists can enjoy watching them. Morrison is quite a celebrity on site. A middle-aged builder in a hard hat approaches. “Are you David? I’ve just seen them, just now,” he says excitedly. “One peregrine came over and tried to jump on the other” – a mating attempt.
Notices tell builders to look out for fallen falcons and all 3,000 workers have been briefed about the “falcon recovery plan” – what to do if a bird (usually a juvenile taking its first flight) is found on the ground. They may be masters of the sky, but peregrines can become stranded on the ground, where they are preyed upon by foxes. So workers are taught to guard the bird until Morrison or a trained colleague arrives. They take grounded juveniles to a high platform where the parents can feed them until they fly. Battersea’s chimneys have almost been rebuilt now, and the developer and Morrison have created a new nestbox behind a natural hole in the brickwork. When the building is complete in a few years’ time, Morrison will oversee the peregrines’ transition back to their old home.
It seems ironic that this supremely wild animal is safer in a busy city than the countryside. In rural Britain, peregrines are still illegally shot or poisoned. Conservationists believe that these birds of prey are illegally killed because they threaten the profitability of lucrative grouse shoots. Lindo also points out that pigeon-fanciers “absolutely detest” peregrines. “Any peregrine nesting in an urban area is less likely to be persecuted,” says Lindo. “Becoming more urban is a blessing, but they still face dangers when they wander. When the youngsters move off into the surrounding countryside, that’s where their problems start.”
Peregrine populations in provincial places are limited by the lack of high buildings, apart from cathedral spires. But as London becomes more high-rise, is there any limit to its peregrine population? Just as city-dwelling people adapt to less personal space, so do peregrines. According to Morrison, the average peregrine territory has shrunk from 2.5 miles (4km) in radius at the turn of the century to 1.5 miles today. “I get contacted a lot by people saying, ‘We’ve got pigeons, can we have peregrines?’” says Morrison. “Everyone wants them.”