Early this spring and through most of the summer, I had one of the most remarkable wildlife experiences of my life: I watched a pair of Peregrine Falcons successfully rear a brood of young at Taughannock Gorge, outside Ithaca, New York. I live near the gorge and spent countless hours watching these graceful flyers as they hunted, making spectacular stoops at pigeons, swallows, and other prey, or sometimes just relaxed, preening while perched on ledges or fallen trees hanging over the cliff side. From across the gorge, peering through my scope, I saw them incubating their eggs in April and feeding their three downy chicks in May. Then, in June, I observed the young falcons make their first clumsy attempts at flight. Throughout the summer they would progress from dorky adolescents into sleek juveniles, rivaling their parents in beauty and aerial abilities.
Such an experience is extraordinary by any measure, but having it happen here was what made it so special. Why, you ask? Because Peregrines haven’t nested in Taughannock Gorge since 1946, and this place is important. Since their near brush with extinction in the late 1960s, Peregrine Falcons have bounced back strongly across their range—largely due to the banning of DDT and a massive recovery effort. They now once again nest throughout the lower U.S., Canada, and Alaska. But they somehow still hadn’t returned to Taughannock (pronounced tuh-GAN-uck). For almost 80 years, the gorge has been a beloved destination for generations of Peregrine Falcon aficionados—almost like a religious pilgrimage site—all thanks to a single black-and-white photograph taken by ornithologist Arthur A. Allen in the 1930s.
Artistically, the composition of the image could not be more perfect: Three young Peregrines rest on their nest ledge in the lower-left corner as their mother perches on a branch diagonally from them in the upper-right corner, standing guard as the gorge's mighty Taughannock Falls—one of America’s most picturesque waterfalls, plunging 215 feet—thunders down in the background. What a colossal image; what a perfect depiction of the world of the Peregrine Falcon. I first saw the picture in a battered old copy of A. C. Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey when I was 12 years old, and I’ve loved it ever since. Countless people I’ve met over the years have told me they feel the same about Allen’s image. And they always ask about Taughannock Gorge: Do you ever see Peregrines there? Will they ever nest there again? Can I visit Taughannock with you?
I know how they feel. When I came to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 1990 to be interviewed for the position of editor-in-chief of Living Bird magazine, I asked if someone could take me to Taughannock Gorge, about 14 miles away. Scott Sutcliffe, then executive director of the Lab, happily obliged, and I spent a wonderful afternoon there, imagining what it must have been like to see Peregrines nesting in the gorge. It was an exhilarating experience—sweetened only by me later finding out that I got the job.
s far as anyone knows, the first birders to see the Taughannock Peregrines were famed bird-artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes and ornithologist Elon Howard Eaton, who heard the loud calls of the birds echoing up the gorge and tracked down their eyrie in 1909. They no doubt told Arthur Allen about their discovery the same day. The three were close friends. One of my favorite old Ithaca birding photographs is of Fuertes and Eaton standing together as Allen climbs to a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest—the first one found in central New York State. A frequent birding spot for them, they dubbed it “Sapsucker Woods.” Decades later, the area would become the home of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which Allen founded. But Allen was still a grad student in 1909. He would receive his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1911 and go on to become a professor of ornithology there, the first in the United States, and teach many of the greatest ornithologists of the 20th century.
The year after finding the falcon eyrie, Fuertes made an oil painting of an adult Peregrine perched on a cliff at Taughannock with a fresh-caught Bufflehead. It now hangs in the Fuertes Room at the Cornell Lab. Fuertes was a remarkable artist—regarded by many as the successor to John James Audubon.
The first in-depth article about this nest—“The Duck Hawks of Taughannock Gorge” by Allen and H. K. Knight—appeared in 1913, in the National Audubon Society’s Bird-Lore, precursor of Audubon magazine. (Peregrine Falcons were called “Duck Hawks” in North America at that time.) Allen and Knight provided detailed descriptions of the falcons hunting Northern Rough-winged Swallows. It was fascinating, more than a century later, to see numerous Northern Rough-winged Swallows in the gorge and witness the same kind of pursuits they described. I saw the parents feeding swallows to their young several times in the months I watched them, though they more often brought pigeons to the nest ledge.
The Bird-Lore article also contained several pictures of the gorge and its falcons—but not the famous photograph. The world would have to wait a couple more decades for that. Allen and his friends had taken numerous pictures of the Taughannock Peregrines in the years they’d been watching them, but he was frustrated that he couldn’t get a picture that adequately captured the grandeur of the location. “For years I carried in my mind’s eye a picture of the Peregrine against the Falls and finally, when the Peregrine moved its eyrie to the south side of the gorge about 300 feet from the Falls, my opportunity came,” he wrote.
The nesting ledge was some 40 feet down the cliff, but Allen had an excellent view from a nearby lookout point where he erected his blind. From that vantage point, he was able to arrange the composition to include the nest ledge and Taughannock Falls. But he felt something was still missing. The picture he wanted included an adult Peregrine perched on a branch right in front of the falls. Although there were many fallen trees hanging over the edge of the gorge—then as well as now—providing numerous perches for the Peregrines, there was not one where he needed it.
“So with the help of Miles Pirnie, I hauled a dead tree to the edge of the cliff about 30 feet in front of the blind and fastened it in such a way that the Falls would furnish the natural background,” he wrote in a 1963 article in Living Bird. “Returning in about a week, I could see that the bark on the tree was disturbed by the bird’s talons. I climbed into the blind and, in half an hour, secured the accompanying black and white photograph of the Peregrine in its magnificent setting.”
At the time, this kind of manipulation was common in wildlife photography, and I’m sure Allen viewed it as a win-win situation: The adult Peregrines gained a nice perch from which to view and protect their young, and he got to take the picture he had imagined. Remember, this was at a time when peregrines were not protected, and he no doubt felt that a beautiful image of the birds would help gain sympathy for them among the general public. But altering the area around an active nest is not something an ethical photographer would do today.
Allen wrote about the Taughannock Peregrines at several points in his life, the last time in the early 1960s, not long before he died. He said something that shocked me: “Often one of the birds was shot by an irate poultry man but the survivor secured a new mate and, although the exact location of the eyrie sometimes changed, seldom (if ever) was Taughannock Falls without its Peregrine until 1946.” The fact that he said “often”—not “sometimes,” not “occasionally,” not “once or twice,” but “often”—says a lot. Of course, in those days anyone could legally shoot them. The actual culprit in the poultry farm attacks was more likely a Cooper’s Hawk—the ultimate sneak-attack specialist—but the showier Peregrines got the blame and paid with their lives.
The kind of mate replacement Allen described is the normal state of affairs in a healthy wildlife population. At any given time, a floating population of non-breeders exists, ready to take over if a falcon loses its mate. But if the surplus dwindles, a species can run into problems—which is what happened when DDT was later thrown into the mix.
Allen was clearly bothered by the persecution so many Peregrines faced. In his 1934 book, American Bird Biographies, he lamented the treatment of the birds in a chapter dedicated to them. This chapter, “The Peregrine’s Story,” features several photographs of the Taughannock falcons, including an image of a dead one, strung up as a warning to frighten hawks away from a hen yard. The caption reads: “An ignominious end to a noble bird—killed as ‘vermin’ and used as a scarecrow.”
What made the Peregrines abandon Taughannock Gorge? Was it strictly persecution—or was this eyrie an early victim of DDT contamination? More than likely, the answer is both. Of course, 1946 was very early in the DDT era. The U.S. military had used DDT in World War II, often spraying it on Pacific islands prior to invading them. But people already had significant concerns about what would happen to wildlife across America as farmers began using it extensively as a pesticide on crops.
In the spring of 1945, The New Yorker visited National Audubon Society headquarters in New York City and asked Richard Pough—an ecologist with the organization who wrote its first bird guide and was one of the great conservationists of the 20th century—about the possible harmful effects of DDT. Pough did not mince words: “If DDT should ever be used widely and without care, we would have a country without fresh-water fish, serpents, frogs, and most of the birds we have now.” His prediction proved prophetic—and remember this was 17 years before Rachel Carson raised the alarm on DDT in her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring.
As DDT use spread across the land, numerous small birds consumed contaminated insects, and the pesticide accumulated in their fatty tissue. These birds in turn were eaten by raptors, which built up staggering levels of DDT in their bodies. Later research showed that this affected their calcium production and caused them to lay thin-shelled eggs, which often cracked while being incubated. The same was true for Ospreys and Bald Eagles, which consumed fish contaminated by polluted runoff from agricultural fields. As a result, raptors across the country were going through the motions of breeding but not producing enough viable young to provide replacements. So when birds like the Peregrine pair at Taughannock Gorge were killed, there simply were not enough unattached falcons available to replace them.
It’s difficult to imagine how bad things were for the Peregrine Falcon in the late 1960s. At that point, only a handful of eyries existed in the Lower 48 states, all of them in the West. The bird had already become extinct as a breeding species east of the Mississippi. Even in the remotest regions of northern Alaska, the Arctic Peregrine population was beginning to plummet. In 1969, the bird was officially listed under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the precursor to the Endangered Species Act. It was a dire time.
Then entered Tom Cade. An esteemed ornithologist, Cade became the key figure in the recovery effort for the American Peregrine Falcon. A professor at Syracuse University in the 1960s, Cade accepted a job offer from Cornell with the proviso that the university commit to building a falcon-breeding facility somewhere near the campus. The place they ultimately chose was a field adjacent to the Lab of Ornithology and Sapsucker Woods, about four miles from the main campus. Cade erected a huge facility with individual chambers to house each pair of captive Peregrines.
The birds came from a variety of places. Many were the personal birds of falconers, who donated them to the effort. It cannot be overstated what an enormous part of this effort was accomplished by falconers—they just could not imagine a world without Peregrines. Many of the original researchers and volunteer workers (including Cade and Jim Weaver, who ran the breeding program) were avid lifelong falconers. Together they formed a new conservation organization called The Peregrine Fund, with Cade as president, dedicated to saving the Peregrine Falcon and other threatened raptors.
Only a handful of falcons had ever been bred in captivity when Cade began his project, so the prospects were daunting. But he and his team persisted, and finally, in 1975, they had enough captive-bred Peregrines to begin the reintroduction effort. It was no surprise that they chose Taughannock Gorge as the first site to release young birds. The place was so important to everyone who loved Peregrines, and they wanted nothing more than to see them breeding there once again.
I remember having a long conversation with Tom—we were close friends—about the Taughannock Peregrines on an expedition together in Greenland many years ago. (He was retracing the steps of Danish ornithologist Alfred Bertelsen, who had mapped out dozens of bird nest colonies at the turn of the 20th century.) He told me how important it had been to him to re-establish the Taughannock eyrie—what a symbolic and hopeful event it would be.
Unfortunately, the reintroduction ultimately was a failure. For the attempt, Cade’s team used a “hack box” installed on a shale cliff at the gorge. The term “hack box” and the entire concept of “hack” are borrowed from falconry. Medieval falconers would place young falcons in boxes, raised high above the ground, and feed them unseen. This gave the birds a chance to fly around and gain some life experience before the falconers started training them. But there was one important caveat: The minute the falcons were able to start catching birds themselves, they had to be taken up. Otherwise they would quickly disperse and be lost to the falconers. Cade turned the concept around: He deliberately left the birds out at hack until they returned to the wild.
The young falcons at Taughannock were placed in the hack box with a caged door until they acclimated to their surroundings and recognized the site as a feeding shelf. A long metal tube running from the edge of the cliff delivered food to the birds without them associating the meals with humans. When the falcons were old enough to fledge, the hack box door was opened, and the three birds, each fitted with a radio-transmitter, began making forays up and down the gorge, always returning home when they were hungry. Everything seemed to be going perfectly. And then one of them vanished. Following the beep, beep, beep signal with a telemetry receiver, the researchers eventually tracked down the transmitter—in a Great Horned Owl pellet the bird had coughed up after eating and digesting the young Peregrine. A day later, the same thing happened again, so Cade called off the Taughannock release. He and the others made a frantic effort to recover the last remaining falcon and successfully captured it.
In many ways, what happened at Taughannock Gorge was a staggering setback for the recovery program. How could they ever get Peregrines to reoccupy abandoned eyries if they could not safely release young falcons at the sites? So many of the traditional Peregrine eyrie cliffs had Great Horned Owls present, especially in the East. And in the West, Golden Eagles were killing some of the falcons they released. Without parents to protect them, the young falcons were vulnerable to attack by these raptors.
At the time, the outlook for the Peregrine’s recovery seemed grim—until Cade and his team came up with a new idea. In addition to continuing strategic releases in the wild, they would begin releasing Peregrines in cities, where they were far less likely to be attacked by owls and eagles, and there was the added bonus that more people could get enjoyment from watching them. Cade’s hope was always that many of the young birds born in cities would eventually disperse into other areas and begin breeding at many of the traditional eyrie cliffs that had been abandoned for so long—including Taughannock.
The plan has worked enormously well. In New York State alone, the birds now occupy cliffs in the Catskills and the Adirondacks. New York City, meanwhile, has the densest concentration of breeding Peregrines in the world. The story is the same across North America, with the Peregrine population far exceeding its historical numbers, thanks to the banning of DDT in 1972, a massive Peregrine recovery effort that resulted in 7,000 captive birds being released across the United States and Canada, and an end to the persecution of Peregrines by humans.
In 1999, the Peregrine Falcon was removed from the federal Endangered Species List. I was there at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, when then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt made the announcement. What an amazing moment—undeniable proof of the value of the Endangered Species Act to threatened wildlife.
New York State has been more cautious than the rest of the country; the Peregrine Falcon is still officially listed as an endangered species here. But it has been proposed for down-listing this year, and that’s a good thing. The bird’s population in the state is healthy and expanding every year, so after decades of effort, it’s time for everyone who was involved in the Peregrine recovery in New York to take a victory lap for the great work done to save the species.
Now, as the final icing on the cake, the Peregrines have returned to Taughannock Gorge. I do wonder why it finally happened this year. I’ve been going to Taughannock every spring since I moved here 30 years ago, just hoping some Peregrines might show up. Could it have something to do with the COVID-19 lockdowns? I wouldn’t be surprised. Taughannock Falls is a popular tourist destination. Each spring and summer, thousands of visitors come here, hiking up the gorge or along the rim trail. This year was different. During a key period in early spring—right about the time that falcons would be searching for a nest site—Taughannock Gorge was a virtual ghost town as businesses shut down and local residents sheltered in place. And in early March, both Cornell University and Ithaca College shut down in-person classes, sending students home and reducing our local population by thousands. This might have clinched it for the Peregrines.
Later, as restrictions were eased, people began returning to Taughannock, albeit in reduced numbers, walking far apart and wearing facemasks. By then, the falcons were already feeding their young. I went to the gorge almost every day for weeks. It was so amazing just to stand there watching the three young Peregrines flying high above me, chasing each other up and down the gorge, screaming loudly whenever they glimpsed their parents, while Taughannock Falls roared loudly in the background. It was like a beautiful dream. I only regret that Tom Cade was not here to share the moment with me. Sadly, he died last year at the age of 91. He would have loved it—the final culmination of his lifelong efforts.