A Highrise for Peregrines

The 37-year saga of Baltimore’s falcons has given conservationists an intimate portrayal of the species’ amazing recovery.

It was February of 1978 when employees of the United States Fidelity and Guaranty insurance company first noticed a small falcon hanging around Baltimore’s tallest skyscraper. The bird was perched on the southern ledge outside their office on the 33rd floor of 100 Light St. There’s a reason the winged visitor stood out—at the time, it had been a decade since anyone had seen a nesting Peregrine Falcon east of the Mississippi. The birds were facing local extinction since the 1950s due to DDT.

Falcons, like many North American birds of prey, were in serious trouble at the time. Their numbers in the United States had dwindled from nearly 1,000 documented American nesting pairs prior to the 1940s to around 40 in 1975, landing two subspecies—the American and Arctic—on the brand-new endangered species list in 1970. Subsequent conservation efforts that decade, including a DDT ban in 1972 and the release of approximately 6,000 captive-bred peregrines, aimed to set the species on the path to recovery. But it remained to be seen whether they would be successful.

When the Fidelity workers realized they might have a falcon inhabitant, they contacted the Peregrine Fund, a Cornell-based group that had been frantically working to reestablish populations since 1970. The Peregrine Fund staff recognized the visitor, an immature female, right away: She was one of the first peregrines born and raised in their lab, and had been released in 1977 at the U.S. Army’s wildlife refuge on Carroll Island, Maryland.

Named Scarlett by fund workers after the heroine in Gone With The Wind, the city bird had a lot on her shoulders—if she and a mate could hatch healthy eyases (baby falcons) they would be the first wild peregrine births documented in an Eastern city in roughly 30 years.

Craig Koppie, an eagle and raptor biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay field office and long-time caretaker of the nest at 100 Light St., says the young bird likely traveled hundreds of miles before dropping into Baltimore’s rising skyline.

In the year it took for Scarlett to reach maturity, fund scientists and office workers teamed up to built her a nest—a slight depression in the gravel (sand or dirt works. too) known as a scrape. The partnership remained steadfast through the years: USF&G employee John Barber, a former Smithsonian ornithologist, became a liaison to the fund and later vice president of the aptly called USF&G subsidiary Falcon Asset Management. 

From 1979 to 1983, Scarlett had five captive suitors, none of whom were around for long. Her first introduced tiercel (male falcon), Blue Meanie, was shot, while her second and fourth, Misha and Percy, were disinterested and returned to captivity. Her third potential hubby, Rhett, ate a poisoned pigeon, and her fifth, Ashley, was hit by a car—after recovering from a gunshot wound.

Living up to her name, Scarlett persevered, accepting healthy eyases born in captivity each year in exchange for her own lifeless eggs. She fostered 18 adoptees in total.

In 1983, a wild peregrine of unknown origins, dubbed Beauregard by a USF&G worker, crashed into Scarlett’s world. Shortly after his arrival, the pair began engaging in courtship behavior—flying wing tip-to-tip and interlocking talons while tumbling through the air. Eight months later, the new Romeo began bringing Scarlett meals.

The following spring, the couple mated, laying four eggs and sharing incubating duties. All four babies—three females and a male—then hatched and successfully fledged at the end of the summer, but this was fated to be the pair’s only clutch. Scarlett soon died at the young age of 7, 10 or so years earlier than expected; she died from starvation after sustaining a throat infection.

For days her widower cried out across Baltimore’s harbor for his lost mate, but within a week, a female from New Jersey named Blythe settled in. Beauregard went on to sire another 35 falcons, chiefly with Blythe, and then another bird, Felicity.

When a new owner took over the skyscraper in the mid-1990s, the peregrine stalking came to an end. But life in the nest continued uninterrupted, tracked only by a dedicated few, like Koppie and Barber.

In 2011, Transamerica took over the offices, and its employees took an interest in the nest. “The staff set up a sort of closed-circuit camera to watch the birds, and their eager stories spread all the way to us,” says Joel Dunn, CEO and president of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “We figured if we have the fastest bird in the world nesting here in Baltimore, people should know.”

With the help of the Shared Earth Foundation, Cogent Communications, the city of Baltimore, and the owners of 100 Light St.—plus new software from traffic-camera experts Skyline Technology Solutions and a small grant and new camera system compliments of Transamerica—the 24-hour, year-round feed went live online in March. So far the skyscraper’s newest family, Boh and Barb 2, have drawn more than 200,000 viewers, and there’s been no shortage of domestic drama, says Dunn. 

“Five weeks ago, Barb 1 showed up missing an eye, and then disappeared—replaced by Barb 2 with suspicious speed,” Dunn explains. “We’ll never know all the details, and it’s less eventful than the Kardashians, but more real.”

Barb 2 proved to be a good match for Boh, and the new couple laid three eggs together. “Now [that] all three eyases have hatched the stakes become higher,” Dunn says. Statistically, only half of all newborn peregrines are expected to survive.

Born blind and helpless, eyases double their weight in the first six days of life, as they gobble down strips of torn-up meat from the 450 different species that the falcon dines on. (Worldwide, falcons prey on close to 2,000 different animals.)

The hatchlings are now three weeks old—at about 10 times their original size, they're eating on their own. Brown juvenile feathers will soon start to show through their white, downy coats. They’re also doing a wing-strengthening dance: hopping, stretching, and flapping within the confines of their ledge home. 

Once airborneat around 12 weeksthe young birds will have to learn how to fend for themselves. Fortunately, their skyscraper home is plentiful with food (mostly pigeons) and protected from the elements, predators, and humans. It’s also a great launch pad, perfect for the bird’s 200-mph dives, says Dunn.

There have been little hiccups along the way. Koppie recently took the male eyas to a bird-rescue center in Delaware to be treated for a chest cold and dehydration. Though Barb 2 and Boh's offspring faces similar threats as their fore-feathered relatives, they stand a much greater chance at survival. In recent decades, falcons have made a remarkable recovery: They were taken off the federal list of endangered species in 1999. Today, the falcon thrives across the continent at historic population levels. In Baltimore alone, there are three other peregrine pairs gracing the city skies, Koppie says. And though not as rare as they once were, Dunn says that Baltimore’s peregrines exemplify that nature is self-healing.

To the delight of many, peregrines are being spotted in urban settings with increasing frequency. City dwellers should take a minute and look up—it’d be a shame if you missed out on epic peregrine drama.

* * *

Catch up on Boh and Barb 2's lofty adventures with this time-lapse video: