The Peregrine’s City

2,340 total words    

9 minutes of reading

Skyscrapers and canyon cliffs are not usually associated with one another. We are more trained to think of wild, river-carved landscapes as sites where traces of humans remain only as faint boot prints or the scattered ashes of a campfire. But habitat is habitat and for that reason peregrine falcons have begun to nest and hunt the canyons inadvertently created for them in the city. A Chicagoan doesn’t need a set of climbing ropes to see peregrines in situ. The ability to climb a flight of stairs will do … or the even less strenuous punch of an index finger to turn on a computer.

For the last six years, for example, the Evanston Public Library has hosted a peregrine pair who have made an eyrie out of a nook beside a third-floor window. A live web-camera feed (“Falcon Cam”) currently broadcasts the parents’ daily fussing over four eggs. Affectionately named Nona and Squawker, the peregrine couple has returned this year, and now is the perfect time to see them, either on screen or through the windowglass.

Nona and Squawker are just one pair among many in the Chicagoland area. Across Illinois, twenty-seven peregrine territories are now monitored by the Field Museum, and the majority of their nesting sites are in Chicago and its suburbs; there are peregrine nests in the South Loop, Waukegan, Calumet, Millennium Park, on Wacker Drive, and at the Uptown Theater, among other urban locations. They’ve found Chicago homey enough.

Incongruous as it may seem to have a bird in the city that can reach speeds of over 200 mph (yes, 200 mph) as it drops toward a prey animal—called a “stoop,” a peregrine attacks by stunning or tearing at other birds in flight with its talons, and can prey on a bird the size of a Sandhill Crane—this wild being is in our midst.

I’m an amateur birder at best. Appreciative of serendipitous moments with the avian world, I’m an onlooker more than a life-lister. Birds of prey, however, hold a particular fascination for me, and I figured it would behoove me to know a little bit more about this aerial hunter. I turned to a classic source for understanding the daily life of peregrines, J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine.

Set in coastal, southeastern England and published in 1967, Baker’s book provides a remarkable literary account of one man’s obsession with tracking peregrines. Early in the book, Baker remarks that the differences in landscapes are “subtle, coloured by love,” and his writing style resembles the birds he so closely observes and tracks: mostly spare, few wasted movements, each word alive with precision and calculated beauty, but at times sweeping over the landscape and ranging upward in transcendent spirals. The meat of the book, where one follows Baker as he becomes more and more intimate with the nuances of the birds as well as the landscape, has a hypnotic effect—like the unfurling poetry of the Dao De Jing, it washes familiar scenes with new resonances.

The keenness of Baker’s writing is honed by his interactions with the peregrines themselves. As he observes, “Hawk-hunting sharpens vision. Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out for the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of a tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb” (p. 13). His daily learning process as he comes to understand the behaviors and personality quirks of particular peregrines mirrors the birds’ sense of immediacy: “What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch” (p. 13). The narrative also reveals the intensity with which one can understand a landscape, its subtle mood shifts, its violence, its ceaseless movement of color and light and shadow. Though the book details Baker’s wanderings through woodlands and a farm-studded estuary over the span of only a few winter months, he lays plain a point that could be applicable to any landscape at any time, including cities like Chicago where peregrines increasingly fledge their young and cleave the air with their wings: “I have tried to preserve a unity, binding together the bird, the watcher, and the place that holds them both” (p.14).

Baker wrote The Peregrine in the late 1960s. At the time, peregrines in England were winking out, nervous systems fatally compromised by pesticides, DDT-thinned eggshells too weak to hold a baby bird to term. In the United States, once denial turned to alarm, DDT was banned in 1972 (at least the domestic use of it was, though it is still exported). The Endangered Species Act followed a year later and provided critical federal protections. Researchers began to raise peregrines for release. And now, the peregrines are here, in the city’s canyons, hunting again.

The scientist in Chicago who may know more about these wild birds than anyone else is Mary Hennen, a collections assistant at Chicago’s Field Museum and a self-described “liaison” between peregrines and the many bird volunteers who have taken an interest in them. In addition to assisting with managing the Field Museum’s bird “library” that has “close to half a million specimens that represent around 90% of the species in the world,” Mary has been doing peregrine research for almost twenty-five years. Ornithology, however, wasn’t what she had her sights set on in 1987, when she was fresh out of school with a biology degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Her volunteer work at both the Chicago Academy of Sciences and, soon after, the Field Museum, was responsible for the turn toward birds, leading her into the enthusiastic orbit of a couple of top-notch ornithologists. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Mary remarked.  It was a time that intersected with the first peregrine releases in Illinois, an effort to recover peregrine populations in a region that, like all areas east of the Rockies, saw no more peregrines by the 1960s (the last peregrine nest in Illinois was recorded in 1951).

When the first releases occurred, the team at the Chicago Academy of Sciences had modest hopes: three breeding pairs in the state. There are now twenty-seven breeding pairs. In 1999, peregrines were federally delisted from the endangered and threatened species list; in Illinois, the birds went from endangered to threatened status in 2004, and Mary doesn’t think it will be long before they are delisted as a threatened species by the state. By any measure, this is a high-profile species success story, and Mary has been instrumental in both monitoring and education, banding and tracking Illinois’ peregrines.  Though most of the peregrines in Illinois maintain year-round territories, some have lived up to their scientific name (Falco peregrinus; Lat. “wandering falcon”), dispersing as far as Ecuador and Venezuela.

Mary’s work is not without its hazards. As we talked, she reached underneath her desk and pulled out a bicycle helmet. The helmet, she explained, keeps the top of her head safe from the taloned fists of aggressive peregrine mothers and fathers, who are not nearly as interested as researchers in the scientific benefits of having their babies banded. Mary has adapted, too—since peregrines are drawn to the highest point of an uninvited guest, a whisk broom held aloft by a partner is a surer way to keep one’s head free of peregrine-induced lumps (and to keep the birds safe, as well).

Mary demurs from taking credit for the success of peregrines in this area, and noted that she was particularly sensitive when people used words like “place” or “put” to describe the peregrine releases. “They are wild birds, they go where they want,” she explained, “it’s the birds finding places to breed on their own and doing that successfully,” though there have been some key factors in the birds’ resurgence: as noted, the United States stopped using DDT, which was a primary culprit in reproductive failure, and critical protections were afforded by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The other key factor may be the city itself. Peregrines are historically cliff-dwelling birds, and as Mary put it, “if you think of the city, it’s nothing but a pseudo-cliff, with lots of ledges, ample prey, [and] no competition for use of the space.” Mary is currently working on a book about peregrines, part of which aims to explain what kind of architectural features are most suitable to peregrine purposes, as well as to further understanding about adjustments that humans can make to ensure peregrines’ successful nesting.

In scientific language, “minor alterations to artificial environments can greatly facilitate colonization and habitat use by native biodiversity,” which creates “habitat analogues,” some of which could be critical to rare or threatened species (see Lundolm and Richardson 2010). The presence of peregrines in Chicago sheds light on a larger phenomenon—and perhaps an important new mindset—called “reconciliation ecology.”

Nature-loving Chicagoans are likely familiar with restoration ecology. Indeed, Chicago was an epicenter for citizen-led restoration projects, which can be traced back to early attempts in the 1970s to re-create or expand the habitat of conservative prairie flora. Restoration ecology, defined succinctly, is the (often sweat-intensive) process of bringing a historic ecosystem or landscape back to a condition resembling its former functionality and diversity (for a much more nuanced and complicated history, read the wonderful book Making Nature Whole, co-authored by Woodstock, Illinois, resident Bill Jordan).

In distinction, reconciliation ecology—a term coined and defined by evolutionary ecologist Michael Rosenzweig—“is the science of inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, or play” (p. 7).  In his book-length treatment of this topic, Win-Win Ecology, Rosenzweig offers up several examples of reconciliation ecology, situations in which people both intentionally (and unintentionally) have created critical habitat for other species, while still making a living themselves. So while restoration ecology involves diminishing human impact (in particular places) so that other beings can thrive or re-establish themselves, reconciliation ecology advances the position that humans can create and build novel systems that are suited to other species’ needs. In short, by knowing the needs of other species, we can deliberately create places of co-habitation.

Reconciliation ecology will work for some species and not others, so conservation still needs restoration and preservation in its toolkit to meet the needs of different species. Rosenzweig, however, has strong words for conservationists that he believes have misdirected their energies. By focusing on setting aside unpopulated acreages as a last hope, he argues, conservation work tends to neglect the areas that can put us into daily contact with wild animals. Maybe the preservationist strategy was an appropriate response at one time, but the world has grown smaller as the human population has grown larger. Nature reserves remain crucially important to some species, but as Rosenzweig puts it, “We must abandon any expectation that reserves by themselves, whether pristine or restored, will do much more than collect crumbs. They are the 5 percent. We need to work on the 95 percent” (p. 152).

As Rosenzweig’s research attests, we may be surprised at what kind of wild animals will live among us or in close proximity to us, if given the opportunity. In this respect, perhaps peregrine falcons should be considered a flagship species of Chicago Wilderness, a place where a remarkable amount of biodiversity is woven throughout the fabric of the United States’ third largest urban metropolis.

Ultimately, reconciling our needs to the needs of other species has the potential to teach us a great deal. This already happens in school gardens, in backyards, on rooftops, on abandoned “L” platforms—and it can happen at larger scales as concerned citizens work to reclaim brownfields, creatively alter post-industrial sites, and connect green infrastructure and riparian habitats through the heart of the city. To say reconciliation ecology is primarily an educational tool would be to undervalue it. When other animals are in our midst, their lives mean more than something in a textbook, or a children’s story, or a National Geographic special. Active reconciliation means trying to understand what other animals need, and what we can give. This can foster a kind of ecological empathy, opening up a space for the long-term work of living with grace and skill in our everyday worlds. It asks of us that we anticipate the impacts of our actions and take responsibility for our historical shortsightedness.

In The Peregrine, Baker reminds his readers, “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there” (p. 19). Peregrines are here, though many people still may not be aware of their return to the city’s canyons. Their return provides an opportunity not only to glimpse but to understand the living birds that make up the changing ecology of Chicago—and reconcile our habitat and theirs. The falcons are showing the possibilities.

*  *  *

Further Resources

If you are interested in volunteer opportunities at the Field Museum or further information about peregrines and peregrine educational programs, see the Chicago Peregrine Program homepage. Eyes (and iPhones) on the street, especially during fledging (June and July), can be helpful in keeping young city peregrines from harm if they need assistance getting back to the nest. Further questions, peregrine sightings, or photographs can be directed to Mary at mhennen[at]fieldmuseum.org

For those interested in further reading, Mary also recommends Derek Ratcliffe’s The Peregrine Falcon (1993, 2nd edn.).

Images (from top to bottom, excluding book covers)

* Peregrine male, from the south Loop pair; note the three eggs in the nest, which provide a nice illustration of how falcons might use existing architecture. Photo courtesy of Mary Hennen.

* Peregrine male (“Etienne,” who fledged from a nest in Canada), at the Wacker site in 2006. Photo courtesy of Mary Hennen.

* Mary Hennen in action, monitoring peregrine chicks. Peregrine adult visible to the right of the ledge. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Peregrine Program.

* Bravely holding the broom is Stephanie Ware. Photo courtesy of Mary Hennen.

* Peregrine male, from south Loop pair, in 2012. Photo courtesy of Mary Hennen.

* Peregrine female (“Harriet”), brooding one chick in 1989. Photo by Vicki Byre.

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  • Gavin Van Horn

    Gavin Van Horn is Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature Press. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), and co-editor of Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations (Center for Humans and Nature Press, 2021), Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017), and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

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