Pulse: Affairs: The Philadelphia Falcons

When he climbs into the towers of the Girard Point Bridge later this month, Art McMorris will be hoping their most notorious resident is having a good day. Said resident is cranky in the best of circumstances, and repair work to the bridge over the past year has only darkened her mood. Having a bunch of strangers climb up and mess with her kids—well, perhaps she can be forgiven for getting in McMorris’s face.

He’s only trying to help. As peregrine falcon coordinator for the state game commission, McMorris is charged with keeping an eye on Philly’s falcons: a pair each on Girard Point, the Turnpike Bridge, the Betsy Ross, the Walt Whitman, the Tacony Palmyra, the Ben Franklin and the Commodore Barry, with two pair on the Delaware Memorial—“because it’s a mile long,” McMorris explains, “which is the closest they’ll nest to each other.” The highly territorial raptors, which can reach speeds of 220 mph while chasing prey, hatch baby falcons in April or May. The fledglings are banded by McMorris and a handful of volunteers before they take their first flights.

Nearly wiped out in the ’70s, peregrine falcons are now off the federal endangered species list, but remain on the state list because the population here isn’t self-sustaining. There are just 12 pairs in Pennsylvania, and only two of those nest at traditional cliff sites. Falcons like bridges because they resemble those cliffs—with one big difference. On cliffs, baby birds take off, flutter down to a lower ledge, and are retrieved by their parents. For birds on bridges, says volunteer Matt Sharp, “Their first flight is usually their last flight. There’s a 40 to 50 percent mortality rate. They either hit the river or the road.”