Invasion of the falcons: The peregrine is back in town

After decades of declining numbers, the world's fastest creature is populating Britain's cities once again. One pair has even set up home at Tate Modern

A A A

For years, only the most intrepid birdwatcher could catch a glimpse of the world's fastest animal, the peregrine falcon, around wild crags, quarries or perched on cliffs thousands of feet above the sea.

But now the regal bird of prey is returning to Britain's cities in droves, with more pairs spotted in the capital this year than for centuries before.

The blue-grey falcon, with its yellow feet, black talons and white-goateed face, can travel at speeds in excess of 200mph when diving for its prey – mainly pigeons – placing it at the top of the avian food chain. Driven out of urban centres over the past 100 years, it is now back and nesting at spots such as London's Tate Modern, Manchester's Arndale centre and at Durham and Chichester Cathedrals.

The number of peregrines in the UK has increased more than fourfold since the 1960s when the population was devastated by the effects of organochlorine pesticide, which thinned the walls of their eggs and brought numbers down to about 360 pairs. There are now thought to be 1,500 pairs across the country, 24 of which live in London – the highest number recorded in the city for hundreds of years.

Paul Stancliffe, a bird specialist at the British Trust for Ornithology, said: "Since the banning of certain pesticides, the peregrines have bounced back. More and more are spreading out looking for new territories.

"They favour places with abundant food that are inaccessible to other predators. As those prime territories get taken up, young birds look for new spaces – buildings in cities and towns provide perfect cliff-like locations."

In what is being hailed as one of nature's "success stories", two of the peregrines that have recolonised London – the city's population has gone from zero to almost capacity in a decade – can now be seen perching on the chimney of Tate Modern.

Visitors to the river front have been taken by surprise by the sight of Misty and Houdini, two 11-year-old falcons, and their two offspring flying over the Thames, only to see them come to rest on a ledge of one of the world's most famous art galleries. However, since peregrines are fiercely territorial and mate for life, the pair are fast becoming the Tate's most loyal visitors.

Lyndon Parker, senior events officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), has been monitoring the pair for the past six years. He said: "It is incredible that people in the city get a chance to see these completely wild birds. People think we have introduced them, or that they aren't real. But we haven't, and they are. They are not ringed and we have no idea where they came from, but we are trying to show people there is amazing wildlife even in urban areas."

While peregrines are returning to Britain's cities, experts said the illegal persecution of the birds by gamekeepers in rural areas is still a cause for "major concern". People living in central Manchester now have a better chance of seeing the falcon than those in certain areas of the Peak District, where the birds frequently fall victim to grouse shooting. Between 1990 and 2009, there were 141 convictions relating to bird of prey persecution, with 98 individuals having game-bird interests.

There is also the issue of nest raids and the demand in the falconry world for birds of wild origin. Last year, a man was arrested as he prepared to board a plane at Birmingham airport bound for Dubai: he had 14 peregrine falcon eggs concealed in his socks and bandaged to his body. According to the RSPB, there were 26 confirmed or probable peregrine nest robberies in 2009, the last year for which figures are available.

The Government added the bird to its UK wildlife crime priority list in February this year. Jeff Knott, species policy officer at the RSPB, said: "We welcome that move, but we would like to see the Government release an actual plan of action to reduce persecution. We don't want anyone denied the opportunity to see the fastest bird in the world."

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick