Peregrines in a skyscraper

Loss of habitat has led to the falcons moving into our highrises. And abundant food and safe shelter mean these urban hunters are thriving now

Updated - May 12, 2024 05:49 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2024 12:50 pm IST


Minion | Photo Credit: Gnanaskandan, Project Raptor Watch

Aura is perched at the edge of an overhang 29 dizzying storeys above ground, like a Marvel superhero. Overlooking a dominion of wetland hemmed in by the city and a road rolling southwest, threatening more development. She drowsily scratches her chin, eyes closed to the burgeoning March sun. Aura is a female peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus calidus). Her distinctive dark hood, white cheek patches and slate blue back contrasts with a light underbelly marked with horizontal bars and arrowheads. A faint peach fades over her shoulders and breast.


Aura | Photo Credit: Gnanaskandan, Project Raptor Watch

I am here with members of Project Raptor Watch (PRW) of the Madras Naturalist’s Society, who have been tracking peregrines in Chennai for two years. PRW aims to document, study and monitor raptor species in KTCC (Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Cuddalore) districts. In likely the first such study in India, they identified >40 peregrines in a 35 city patch. Ten of whom use fully urban highrises as winter territory. This includes some Shaheens during the SW monsoon months. Shaheens (Falco peregrinus peregrinator) are a smaller, brighter plumaged sub-species resident in India which makes local movements. Unlike Aura, whose breeding grounds are far north, somewhere between the Eurasian Tundra and eastern Siberia. 

Dozing on another precipitous ledge to our right is a tiercel (male, smaller as is typical of bird hunting raptors), Minion. He is occasionally woken from his trance by some feral rock pigeons, irreverently cavorting a few feet from him. They may share a penthouse today, but peregrines and rock pigeons evolved together on their traditional homesteads — steep crags and cliffs. Both are designed for speed; bulky bodies and deep, muscular chests powered by pointed pinions and shortish tails. Pitted against prey with a specific skill set, peregrines evolved to kill birds in rapid flight mid-air.

Peregrine falcon banking against blue cloudy sky

Peregrine falcon banking against blue cloudy sky

Successful conservation

They hunt from high perches or soaring at great heights. Once a target is locked, they simply fall out of the sky. Wings folded back in a searing nosedive (“stoop”) to smite their prey with giant clenched talons as they whoosh past. Most birds are stunned or killed on impact, with the peregrine zooming back up to grasp the dropping bird. If they miss, the falcon will give chase in horizontal pursuit where zigzagging pigeons, plovers and swifts are more evenly matched in terms of sheer speed. Peregrines have been recorded performing stoops at an eye-watering 389 kmph!

A tiercel hunting plovers

A tiercel hunting plovers | Photo Credit: Sunil Rajagopal

Peregrines are symbols of both successful conservation efforts and sheer adaptability. By the late 1970s, they were in precipitous decline worldwide, with many local populations going extinct; decimated by overuse of pesticides like DDT that weakened their eggshells. Phasing out of DDT and painstaking breeding programmes pulled them back from the brink. When populations slowly recovered, a new trend was observed in the 1990s. Peregrines began moving into cities.

Where do living beings thrive? Wherever there is abundant food and safe shelter. The peregrines simply sought out places that were the best approximations of their natural cliff habitats: skyscrapers and apartments with ledges and overhangs, tall bridges and spires, and electrical pylons. Not just as vantage points but as nesting sites.

A survey by the British Trust for Ornithology in 2014, covering 1,769 breeding pairs in the UK, found that urban peregrines were doing better than in their traditional homes. With cities getting better lit, some peregrines became partially nocturnal, targeting flocks migrating at night. From personal experience, most prefer west facing highrises with shady ledges at least 15 to 16 floors high. Many choose pylons, especially near wetlands. Like the dark tiercel I saw last week, streaking after a flickering flock of plovers at Kelambakkam.

A peregrine perched on a high tension power line tower

A peregrine perched on a high tension power line tower

Breeding pairs and pigeon hunters

This movement also coincided with exploding feral pigeon populations. In India, their numbers went up by 150% in the last two decades, consequent to cities growing taller, astrology fuelled feeding and loss of green spaces. Some of the pigeons’ other predators, like the shikra which depends on tree cover, suddenly became less relevant.

Pigeons negatively affect local biodiversity by depressing the numbers of birds such as sparrows and mynahs (by sheer numbers and direct competition for food sources), and even food plants (they tend to attack saplings and grains). Worse still, they carry the threat of disease — there is an increasing trend of hypersensitive pneumonia among people overly exposed to pigeons. Making the presence of urban peregrines important; at places, pigeons form 80% of their diet.

A peregrine falcon spotted during phase two of the synchronised survey for terrestrial birds held in the Coimbatore Forest Division

A peregrine falcon spotted during phase two of the synchronised survey for terrestrial birds held in the Coimbatore Forest Division | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

What also helped is that people took kindly to having this charismatic hunter as a nesting neighbour. London has 30 breeding pairs, some with a live telecast of the nest! Shaheens have sporadically been reported nesting in Mumbai, our tallest city. But relatively little is known of peregrine numbers, movements and habits in Indian cities.

In Delhi, a handful of birds are known to frequent the same highrises annually. But most other sightings are from wetlands and individuals are not tracked. What about the jungle of vertigo inducing highrises spawning across the NCR? This is where dedicated and technically grounded citizen science programmes like the MNS come in, bridging the divide between the wild and us. Long may the peregrines rule our lonely, concrete sky islands.

The second article in a series that looks at urban spaces as havens for biodiversity and often overlooked species. Read the first here.

The author is a birder and writer based in Chennai.

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