Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: In a city of falcons, it's worth looking up

 

A A A

City of royalty, city of riches; city of poverty, city of squalor. City of billionaire Russian oligarchs; city of hate-filled Islamist preachers; city of English gentlemen's clubs. City of 300 languages. City of black cabs, red buses, green parks. City of blue plaques, marking the homes of its famous inhabitants. City of endless variety. London's been called all of those.

What it's never been called, so far as I am aware, is city of falcons. Yet it is a remarkable fact that over the last decade, more than 20 pairs of peregrine falcons, the world's most streamlined and spectacular aerial killers, have taken up residence and begun breeding in the capital, some of them in its very heart. Their dashing flight is a London sight; their screams, a London sound. Their "stoop", the vertical dive on to prey which makes the bird the fastest creature on earth, touching well over 100mph, now takes place above traffic-filled streets, and shopping crowds, and hurrying commuters ignorant of the violent death in the air above them.

In the city's 2,000-year history, this is new. Peregrines, the "wandering falcons", are naturally birds of coastal cliffs and mountainous crags; they like to perch on sheer drops of a couple of hundred feet or more, and while London was a relatively low-rise city, from the Romans until 50 years ago, there was no such place (other than the medieval cathedral of St Paul).

Yet the advent of really tall buildings, from the early Sixties onwards, transformed London, from a peregrine's point of view, into an ideal habitat, with the sheer sides of skyscrapers offering the same benefits as a cliff face: a secure place to nest, and a perfect vantage point to spot prey (in London's case, feral pigeons).

At first, the birds were unable to take advantage of the change, as in the Sixties they were undergoing a severe national decline caused by organochlorine pesticides, which built up in the bodies of songbirds eating worms, then built up in the bodies of the falcons eating the songbirds. The peregrine population crashed across the country, hitting a low point of about 350 pairs in 1962.

But after the chemicals were banned their numbers began to recover steadily – there are now about 1,400 breeding pairs in Britain – and in the late 1990s keen observers began to notice them in London skies. The first birds are thought to have bred in 2001, and in the succeeding 10 years their spread has been extraordinary; they can now be seen haunting many conspicuous London landmarks with their dash and élan, such as the Palace of Westminster, Tate Modern, Battersea Power Station and the O2 Arena. The last time I walked past the Houses of Parliament two birds were wheeling and screaming around the Victoria Tower, chak-chak-chak-chak-chak!

The falcons do not always breed on these well-known buildings, using them rather as roosting or perching places; the parliamentary peregrines, for example, breed in an office block on the south side of the river, and the Tate Modern peregrines in a block of flats in the City. But they can be seen nearly every day, in aerial acrobatics which give familiar tourist attractions a new fascination, just as they can be seen now further afield, in suburbs such as Lewisham, Sutton and Fulham; and nearly every breeding pair (and there are perhaps 23 of them, perhaps more), has a group of devoted human followers who watch out for their welfare, sometimes in secret.

My own local peregrines are the Fulham ones, monitored by a French scientist long resident in London, Nathalie Mahieu; after four years in local residence, they bred successfully for the first time this summer, producing three chicks on the top ledge of a 15-storey building on the borders of Fulham and Hammersmith. I went to see them yesterday on the way to work. Nathalie pointed out to me Charlie, the female, who has been around since 2007 and who, the ring on her leg reveals, was born on a sea cliff on the coast of Sussex. ("Funny," said Nathalie, who hails from Normandy, "we both come from the Channel coast and we both ended up in west London.")

Charlie sat on the top of a rail, 200 feet up. The sun caught her slate-blue back, and the pinkish-brown flush on her barred breast, and her black hood, while everything that was terrible about her shone yellow: the pitiless eye, the hooked beak, the implacable talons. She was a dealer in death. She surveyed the world beneath her like an empress.

City of falcons, indeed. There's always been magnificence in London, alongside the poverty and the hubbub of everyday life; now there is even more.

Birdwatching onthe terraces

The peregrine is the species I hope to add next to the list of birds, currently 13-strong, I have seen from Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham FC, unique among Premier League football grounds in that you can birdwatch from its terrace overlooking the Thames. I was at the Cottage last weekend and scanned the skies for peregrines in vain, although I did encounter an unforgettable sight: the final scoreboard saying Fulham 6, Queen's Park Rangers 0.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SEO Manager

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a white-ha...

Recruitment Genius: Operations and Administration Support Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading Solar P...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Specialist

£18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organisation is changing the way at...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Web Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Web Designer is required to join a f...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor