The Cutest Things at 693 Feet

Peregrine Falcon chicks thrive on NYC bridge towers.

There’s not much to be said for commuting in New York City—bumper-to-bumper traffic (even in the EZ-Pass lanes), honking horns, and insanely high tolls. But for the observant driver, several NYC bridges offer chance sightings of Peregrine Falcons. Every year, pairs of peregrines raise chicks in nesting boxes placed by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and every year, DEP research scientist Chris Nadareski scales the bridges to tag the chicks. 

This year, falcon pairs are raising 12 chicks in total: four on the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, four on the Rockaway tower of the Marine Parkway-Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge, and four atop the Bronx tower of the Throgs Neck Bridge.

Nadareski is tasked with banding these bundles of white fluff as part of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Program (he started tagging the birds when he worked for the NYC Parks Department in 1986, and continued when he switched to DEP in 1992). Peregrine Falcons were added to the endangered species list in the 1970s, when their numbers dipped to 324 known nesting pairs. Today they’re off the list, but Nadareski says it’s important to keep tabs on these majestic raptors, which still face threats from power lines and collisions. “They have adapted so well, not just to survive, but to really thrive in these environments," he says. Nadareski has tagged 26 Peregrines in the five NYC boroughs so far this year—“considered a very good year."

Peregrine Falcons are generally attracted to cliff ledges or other high places that give them a hunting advantage—so the top of a bridge is actually a perfect nesting spot. Because peregrines don’t build nests—they just find a convenient place, like a cliff ledge, to tuck in—the DEP provides nesting boxes that help prevent the eggs from rolling off the edge and disappearing into the swift water below.

To tag the baby birds, Nadaraski must ascend each tower at least three times annually—first to determine when the eggs have been laid, then to see when they hatch, and finally to perform a general health inspection and band the birds. About a week ago, he climbed to the top of the Verrazano’s Brooklyn tower, 693-feet above the New York Bay to band the three-week-old chicks.

The chicks’ parents have a pronounced lack of appreciation for Nadaraski’s visits.

“Keep in mind that falcons are very aggressive,” said Nadareski. “They are so amazingly swift and agile that they can twist and turn in and around the smallest of spaces to protect their young in the nest.”

It is not uncommon for Nadareski to perform his duties with another worker who holds a broom above Nadareski’s head as a shield against the protective parents.

“Each bird has a different tolerance for disturbance, almost like a different personality,” said Nadareski. “I’ve had birds that literally sit a few feet away and watch me work and others who dive through ladder rungs to get at me while I’m climbing up the bridge.”

The baby falcons will remain in their cozy shelter for approximately another three weeks after they are banded, until they are ready to embark on their first flight. At that point, they will be considered fledglings and their downy white feather patches will have been replaced with a coat of brown feathers necessary for flying (and what a first flight!).

“I think the thing I love most about my job,” said Nadareski, “is that I am working with a truly wild bird, trying to protect it, and to increase its population.”