PROVIDENCE — We look down at the pavement, lost in our thoughts as we walk through the city — missing the drama and pageantry that soars above us each day.
The skyscrapers in downtown Providence, the hills of the East Side, the dome of the State House, the turreted Armory in the West End — these form the urban cliffs and canyons sought by winged predators watching for prey.
Maybe the hawks and falcons that course through the city skyline would seem to be more at home in the mountains and forests.
But with an abundance of slow pigeons and fat rats, the city is a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet for raptors. Go to the top of a parking garage with a pair of binoculars and scan the skies of downtown Providence, or just stroll through Burnside Park and watch the pigeons, and you’ll witness the hunt.
You don’t actually have to look that far, or wait very long. What would be an extraordinary scene in nature is a regular sight for the RIPTA drivers and daily commuters passing through Kennedy Plaza.
Peter Green, a graphic designer who lives in a loft in downtown Providence, has been documenting the local raptors for a decade, ever since catching a glimpse of them from his windows on the sixth floor. He posts stunning photos of the raptors on his blog, providenceraptors.com, and in his new self-published book, “Providence Raptors: Documenting the Lives of Urban Birds of Prey.”
“There’s a thing called five-mile radius birding — it’s an ethos that I’m 100 percent in favor of,” Green said. “There are amazing things happening five miles from where you live.”
From the rooftop deck of his loft building, Green has the birds-eye view of the downtown buildings, where the raptors like to scan for prey, and Kennedy Plaza, which attracts throngs of pigeons oblivious to danger. He looks out toward the Industrial National Bank Building, known locally as the Superman building, where peregrine falcons have been raising chicks in a box outside the 29th floor for about a decade.
And, just standing with Green for less than an hour, we see the hunters of the skies.
The peregrine falcons resembled the fighter jets whose design they inspired as they whipped around the buildings and speed-bombed fluttering pigeons. One punched a pigeon and grabbed it in its talons in mid-air, carrying it upside-down to its chopping block high on the Superman building.
A bulky red-tailed hawk chased a cloud of starlings around the State House dome and settled with a scowl onto the head of the Independent Man.
A Cooper’s hawk barreled through a flustered bevy of pigeons and sparrows, flying low over the RIPTA bus terminal and settling into a tree near the Bajnotti Fountain, where the ground is cratered with multiple rat burrows.
And the people on the ground went about their business, waiting for buses, nodding off on park benches, or walking through without noticing anything.
“If there was a coyote or wolf on [the] ground hunting and killing things, everyone would be going nuts,” Green said, “but because they’re up in the air, they can hunt and kill things [without attention]. … It’s like this wild discovery program, and it amazes me that people aren’t seeing it.”
What people are also missing is a Rhode Island success story. Since the banning of the pesticide DDT decades ago, Rhode Island is seeing raptors spreading throughout the state.
Ornithologist Charles Clarkson, who teaches at the University of Rhode Island, has just completed five years of work on the Rhode Island bird atlas, mapping out the distribution and abundance of all birds in the state. In the 30 years since the last bird atlas in the state, Clarkson said, there’s been an incredible increase in the distribution of raptors in Rhode Island.
The distribution of ospreys has increased by 771 percent, the distribution of red-shouldered hawks is up 273 percent, and red-tailed hawks are up 95 percent, he said. However, the distribution of kestrels has declined by 67 percent, as their grassland habitats are overtaken by forests, he said.
Rhode Island now has five nesting pairs of peregrine falcons, including the couple who live at the Superman building. And, young eagles are being documented in Rhode Island for the first time, likely exploring new territory as the population in northern New England grows. Unlike the north, Rhode Island’s bodies of water generally don’t freeze over, so there are more opportunities to hunt and fish during the winter.
While this is raptor migratory season, Rhode Island generally doesn’t get those rivers of hawks in the sky. “We have a lot of nomadic movements — birds that prey on other birds,” Clarkson said. “They become largely nomadic by following the food species, and the food primarily happens to be at people’s backyard bird feeders.”
This is the time of year that people will report seeing Cooper’s hawks and sharpshinned hawks, at least through the winter, until they move a little further down to New Jersey and Delaware, he said. But some raptors overwinter here, staying for the plentiful food supply of birds and fish, and small mammals.
“It bodes well for our little state that these raptors will be with us for many years to come,” said Clarkson.
And this is a great time to see them, says Green. The young hawks born in the spring are learning how to migrate and hunt, some a little clumsily, as they tear after birds and young squirrels.
As the leaves disappear from the trees, it’ll be easier for the raptors to see the scurrying squirrels and rats, and the crowds of pigeons on the ground, Green said. And, it’ll be easy for observers to see the show, too.
Get your pumpkin spice and take up a new fall hobby, watching the wild show in the heart of the city.