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
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all