It’s the Peregrine Falcon’s World

We’re just living in it.

peregrine falcons

Philly’s peregrine falcons are literally stopping traffic. Photograph by Joe Kosack/PGC

In the spring of 2020, frustrated commuters (including me) thought they could finally glimpse the end of the construction morass that was the Betzwood Bridge on Route 422 near Valley Forge. The $97 million project that had started in 2016 and had entangled traffic in Jersey barriers, hair-raising on-ramps and PLEASE SLOW DOWN signs for four long years was slated to end in May. Then the first whammy struck: COVID-19 abruptly shut down the nation, and construction companies weren’t exempt. For six weeks, work on the bridge was halted to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Then, just days before the original end date of the construction, the double whammy hit, in the form of two crow-size birds.

The birds were peregrine falcons — Falco peregrinus, fierce raptors who, with stoop speeds of up to 200 mph, are the fastest animals on earth. This particular pair of falcons was nesting on a bridge beam beneath what has to be one of the most heavily traveled stretches of road in the entire nation — maybe in the world. And because peregrines are a threatened species protected by the state Game and Wildlife Code, not to mention the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, an entire protocol involving the Pennsylvania Game Commission, PennDOT and the construction firm kicked into gear. While some facets of the bridge project could continue, other “primary work items,” as PennDOT put it, were prohibited until August 1st, when the eyases, as young falcons are known, would have hatched and flown away from the nest.

If you’re wondering who in God’s name would blow the whistle on a couple of birds dumb enough to nest under one of the most congested highways in America and bring a $97 million construction project to its knees — well, you haven’t met the Falcon Folk, as I like to call them. Peregrine falcons are fast, fierce, territorial, and utterly cold-blooded — they take their prey by kicking them and snapping their spines. And the people who track these falcons and chart their daily comings and goings?

They’re pretty much like that, too.

The common conception of a bird-­watcher — and that’s what the Falcon Folk are, albeit on steroids — is an elderly white woman in exceedingly sturdy shoes and a sensible cardigan, with a pair of binoculars strung around her neck. That isn’t F. Arthur McMorris — not in the least. McMorris, who lives in Bala Cynwyd, is a wiry retired neuroscientist whose idea of a good time is crawling along bridges hundreds of feet above rivers and highways while irate peregrine falcons dive-bomb his hard-hatted head.

A couple decades ago, McMorris, who was “looking for something to do with the natural world” in retirement from his research on cellular neuroscience, offered to keep an eye on a couple of falcon nests in the Philadelphia area for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. (Peregrines like high places, and McMorris was a rock climber at the time.) Before he knew it, he’d morphed into the commission’s peregrine falcon coordinator (“It’s not a full-time position, but between you and me, I put in full-time hours”), managing the program statewide. That put him in charge of the state’s contributions to the federal falcon registry, a sort of Ancestry.com for peregrines that involves banding and tracking them with the help of an army of staff and volunteers. And that’s how he knew a beam beneath the Betzwood Bridge wasn’t an unlikely spot for this female to call home: “Her parents nested in a flowerpot on the balcony of a high-rise in New York City. I think it was the 15th or 20th floor — it was pretty high up. From her upbringing, she saw commotion going on around her. She wasn’t bothered by the work that was going on.” (The Route 422 male, McMorris notes, is quite different: “When I approach, he just leaves. He’s a wuss.”)

It’s the banding part of all this that requires the hard hat. “It takes about an hour,” McMorris tells me, “and you have to time it exactly right.” The eyases have to be big enough to wear the bands but not yet big enough to evade McMorris: “Up until about 30 days, they just cower when you approach. After 30 days, they scramble to get away. And you can see, since they’re on a bridge, that can be a disaster.” McMorris, often with the help of specialized PennDOT equipment, sneaks up on a nest, tries to ID the parents, counts the chicks, gives them a quick health checkup (“There’s a parasite, trichomoniasis, that’s almost always fatal; I have an antibiotic I can give them in the nest”), and performs the banding. One metal band is color-coded by region, and another has a unique nine-digit code.

So why all the fuss about falcons? Dan Brauning, the state game commission’s wildlife diversity chief, gives me a quick rundown based on his four decades of work with them. Because they occupy the top of the food chain, apex predators like condors, falcons and eagles suffered disproportionately from widespread use in the 1950s and ’60s of the agricultural insecticide DDT, which turned their eggshells thin and brittle. (It’s also been linked to diseases like cancer in humans, as traced in Pennsylvania native Rachel Carson’s famous 1962 book Silent Spring.) After protracted government hearings and court cases, DDT use was phased out and finally banned in 1972. The ban, alas, came too late for peregrine falcons, which had been eliminated from the East Coast by then. But a dedicated group of ornithologists from Cornell University initiated an effort to revive the population using unexpected allies: falconers, whose birds weren’t wild-fed and thus didn’t suffer the effects of DDT. The falconers’ birds would be bred in captivity, and their offspring would be released into the wild. (Falconry, the taking of wild quarry with trained birds of prey, is one of the oldest sports in the world; there are depictions of it on Hittite stone slabs dating back to 1300 BCE.)

At first, the Cornell scientists tried introducing young captive-bred falcons into their natural nesting spots — ledges on cliffs alongside rivers and canyons. Unfortunately, without parents to protect them, the young falcons were getting wiped out by great horned owls, which are just about their only natural predators. (“Nature works by nature’s ways,” Art McMorris says philosophically. “I don’t hiss at owl people. I don’t take sides.”) So the scientists started thinking: What’s like a cliff, but not a cliff? Which is why the birds were then released in urban areas, where there were ample avian prey but fewer predators. Today there are peregrine falcon nests atop tall buildings in many bustling cities, including Philadelphia’s City Hall. “I refer to them as ‘man-made cliffs,’” says Brauning. “They replicate the features the falcon is looking for, to the point that architects even adorn them with little ledges like the ones on cliffs.”

There’s another big plus for peregrines in our cities, Brauning tells me: pigeons, a.k.a. rock doves or birds of peace. “They’re not indigenous to America,” he explains, “but they’ve been introduced all over the world. They’re tied to human populations. And they’re just a prime food item for the peregrine.” Every time we Philadelphians toss aside a bit of soft pretzel or Wawa hoagie roll that will in turn fatten up a pigeon, we’re doing our part for the peregrines.

And people like doing things for peregrines. “They’re the coolest bird on the planet,” Joe Kosack, a wildlife conservation education specialist for the game commission, tells me. Kosack, who took the photo for this article, has plenty more, including one of a ticked-off female sailing straight at Art McMorris as he bands her young. “People get their ideas of nature from Walt Disney, but nature isn’t like that,” Kosack says. “Nature can be pretty cold and brutal.” Of dropping in on nesting falcons, he notes, “You don’t ever go out there and find that they’re happy you’re there.”

A fellow falcon fan is Judy Stepenaskie, who started out as a mere hobby birder. “Back in 2011, I was on the Green Lane Bridge in Manayunk to look at the ducks,” she tells me. “There was another birder on the other side of the bridge. He spotted a peregrine up on the old railroad bridge, where the bike trail is now. We saw both the male and the female. After that” — I can hear the helpless shrug in her voice — “I found out about peregrines.” The next year, she learned there were fledglings in the steeple of St. John the Baptist Church in Manayunk. Art McMorris was there visiting, summoned by parishioners who’d reported stray — well, parts of birds. “When the parents are teaching their young to fly,” Stepenaskie explains, “one will kill a prey and then drop it, and the other parent catches it in mid-air. The young ones watch them and mimic them.” It’s when the kids miss that you find the parts.

Today, Stepenaskie, now one of McMorris’s peregrine army, observes the St. John’s falcons whenever she can. “You become really attached to them,” she says. “When you’re the main person keeping track through the year, you watch the whole life cycle. I love the care they take with their young. With other birds, it’s not so intense as this.” In nesting season, she spends hours nearly every day on the streets of Manayunk with her binoculars and a spotting scope. The best place to watch, she reports, is on Station Street: “You can see the front of the steeple, with the nesting box.”

Banding lets the game commission track each generation of newborns. The current St. John’s male isn’t banded, but the female came from a nest on the Union County Courthouse in New Jersey. One former St. John’s fledgling is nesting in York County, on the Route 462 bridge over the Susquehanna River. Another makes its home in Baltimore. Speaking of nature being brutal and cruel, in 2019, the male then ruling the St. John’s roost was found dead, one of his legs completely severed. Stepenaskie thinks it may have been cut off by a drone: “They’ll attack a drone.” “They’ll even chase small airplanes,” Art McMorris tells me. “Then when the plane flies away, they figure, ‘I won!’”

From another member of Art’s army, I learn that when it comes to peregrines, “nest” is really a misnomer. “They don’t build a nest at all,” scoffs Linda Rowan, who’s tracked the falcons at the Delaware River-Turnpike Toll Bridge between Burlington and Bristol for more than 20 years. “They don’t carry sticks or anything like that. They just lay their eggs right on a beam. They spend their time on other things.” Sometimes, she adds, when McMorris descends on a nest, he’ll put some gravel in, to help stabilize the eggs.

Rowan remembers having bird feeders when she was a kid, but what got her into falcons was joining a listserve with information on local birds. “Someone posted about falcons on the Turnpike Bridge,” she recalls, “and I lived a stone’s throw away from there. So I met up with the person, and he pointed them out to me.” She’s been watching them ever since, from her car in bad weather but perched on a guardrail if it’s nice out. “It’s a residential street,” she says of her post, “but it gets a lot of traffic.” In early spring, “I watch for the heads to poke out of the nest and get an accurate count. Last year, there were four. That’s the average amount of hatchlings. I love watching them. The first stage is just hopping and flapping. They don’t fly that well in the beginning.” That’s why more volunteers turn out in canoes at the early-flight stage — to rescue any babies that land in the water. “All over the state,” Rowan marvels, “people are out there watching these birds.”

Frequently, passersby mistake Rowan’s scope for a video camera and ask what she’s filming. “People stop out of curiosity, and I give them a lesson,” Rowan says. Every winter, she takes part in a local raptor survey: “We take a driving route and check off how many we see. There are 38 bald eagles from Bristol Borough up to just above Washington Crossing. One year, we had 96.” She mentions the peregrine Falcon Cam the game commission has set up atop the Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg; you can google “Pennsylvania Falcon Cam” and find it. You should be aware, though: Just like the Falcon Folk, you could end up hooked.

Around the time the bridge construction on 422 got put on hold, I stopped commuting into Philly from my house in the Far Northern and Western Suburbs, as Cecily Tynan calls them, and started working from home. To keep from going batty, I began to take walks every day. And I noticed … birdsong. A lot of birdsong. More than I’d ever heard before, echoing raucously through a town suddenly void of car and truck noise. I wasn’t alone. Scientists hurried to study the phenomenon and found that the lack of background clatter was making the birds’ offerings more complex, since they no longer had to exert as much energy just to be heard above traffic. As writer Steven Lovatt put it, “Finally, the Earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was birdsong.”

Perhaps as a consequence, people suddenly seemed to be paying more attention to birds. Reports of a snowy owl in Central Park brought hardened denizens of the nation’s biggest city hurrying to see the exotic visitor. A confrontation between Black birder Christian Cooper and a racist woman walking her dog off-leash went viral. The Trump administration had halted enforcement of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so that industries wouldn’t be fined for killing birds with oil spills or wind turbines. In came the Biden administration, which promptly clamped back down on the offending industries.

At home, I became more methodical about caring for the birds visiting my yard, refilling the feeder and putting out water every single day. And I noticed a new visitor: a Cooper’s hawk, preying on my mourning doves. After Joe Kosack helped me identify the guest, I asked him if I should stop feeding the doves so the hawk wouldn’t kill them. “I don’t want to sound cold,” he said, “but we just consider that bird-feeding on another level.”

We tend to think of humans as taking advantage of the natural world, warping it with our crassness, our thoughtless consumption, just as we nearly wiped out peregrines with DDT. But nature was here before we were, and it takes advantage of us, too. “Birds are very adaptive, just like us,” Keith Russell, Audubon Pennsylvania’s program manager for urban conservation, tells me. “They figure things out. They utilize the opportunities they see in the built environment. Sparrows love hedges; if they can’t find hedges, they’ll perch in a row of supermarket carts, because it’s like a hedge. Pigeons figure out how to go in and out of buildings and fly into subway stairwells — anyplace there’s food. All around us, birds are adapting to opportunities.”

The irony of bringing back the peregrines, Dan Brauning says, is that most of us will never see them: “You can’t attract them to your backyard. They have a narrow, stringent set of requirements. They don’t mess around close to the ground. You start hearing that they’re in people’s backyards, and it’s just not true. You could go over that bridge on 422 a thousand times” — which I have — “and never see a falcon.” But that’s no reason not to look.

Oh, by the way — that nest that brought construction to a halt? It failed. There weren’t any offspring. No babies to band, no fluffy fledglings learning to fly. “It’s a fact of life for wildlife,” Art McMorris says resignedly. “It happens often, and we don’t know why.” In a catch-up email in April, he tells me the pair didn’t return to the bridge this spring. (Too quiet now, maybe?) His army’s out there looking for wherever they wind up next.

And now, I understand why. My heart holds a small knot of joy because I know that intrepid female and her wussy mate are sailing somewhere above me — the fastest animals on earth! Nearly wiped out, but brought back with the help of falconers, modern-day practitioners of an ancient art. I’m happier for learning that a male falcon hatched and banded on the Walt Whitman Bridge in 2003, who was for years the star of the Falcon Cam on the Rachel Carson building, sired 54 eyases. Fifty-four! The freaking Genghis Khan of the peregrine world!

Like the rest of the Falcon Folk, this spring I watched the webcam avidly as a younger, more fit challenger to 18-year-old Genghis — known there by his more official name, W/V — engaged in an epic battle for the, um, heart of his lady. (No, falcons don’t always mate for life.) I was crushed when the rival was triumphant, driving W/V away. And I mourned when I saw on @FalconChatter on Twitter that W/V was found dead in March after flying into a building — “almost certainly,” Art McMorris wrote in a touching tribute on the state’s Falcon Wire News website, as a result of “territorial chases.” As Joe Kosack says, this ain’t Disneyland.

But the next day, the female in the Falcon Cam nest, 48/AE, who was born and banded on the Turnpike Bridge, laid her first egg of the season. Turns out the successful challenger, 85/AK, is the son of a female born and banded at St. John’s in 2013. That same week, a bald eagle was sighted near the Art Museum. And a coalition of Philadelphia organizations including the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, and local Audubon chapters announced a new program, Lights Out Philly, that darkened the city’s towers from midnight to six a.m. during this year’s spring migration and will do so again this fall, to keep birds drawn to the lights from ramming themselves to death.

“The first thing you learn from birding is how magnificent the universe is,” Keith Russell tells me. “You appreciate the beauty and richness of life, and that makes you want to protect it, not exploit it. We didn’t create it. We can’t re-create it. We can only protect it.” When Art McMorris started monitoring peregrines in 2004, there were 11 nesting pairs in Pennsylvania. Last year, there were 64. Maybe nature really is healing.

Fly, falcons, fly.

Published as “Here’s Looking at You, Bird” in the June 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.