The fastest animals on earth — peregrine falcons — live right here in the Boston area. These legendary birds of prey are able to reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour when in a full dive, or stoop, as it’s called.
A group of local birders and photographers spent last spring and summer observing a pair of falcons nesting on a rocky ledge in a quarry in Middlesex County. The photographers amassed a collection of beautiful and dramatic photos of the falcons flying, hunting, and raising their four chicks.
A photo exhibit and contest chronicling the falcons’ nesting season was held last month at Hunt’s Photo in Melrose. Proceeds from an online auction of the photos were donated to the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton, The exhibit also is being moved there.
The idea for the show came from Winchester resident and bird photographer Craig Gibson, who has a special interest in peregrine falcons and has been observing, monitoring, and photographing them locally since 2011.
“I was inspired to create this exhibit to share the beauty and grace of these rare birds of prey,” Gibson said.
Tom French, assistant director of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for the Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, was a guest speaker at the exhibit’s opening reception. He said the purpose of the photo exhibit was to highlight the conservation and comeback of peregrine falcons, and the life cycle and breeding cycle of this particular pair. He said local birders saw the falcons, word spread, and people started observing and photographing them.
Peregrines disappeared from the eastern United States by the mid 1960s, falling victim to DDT, a widely used pesticide, which caused their egg shells to thin and break, explained French. Thanks to a ban on DDT in the 1970s, and a reintroduction effort in the 1970s and 1980s that involved raising falcons at Cornell University and later releasing them at various locations, peregrine falcons are once more found in Massachusetts.
“Prior to the ban on DDT, the last active nesting pair of peregrine falcons in Massachusetts was in 1955,” French said. “But they are fully recovered now, and doing wonderfully.”
The first nest in Massachusetts since the falcon recovery program began was at the Custom House Tower in Boston in 1987, French said. There are now 41 known nesting pairs in Massachusetts, and Mass Fish and Wildlife is considering changing the falcons’ status from threatened to species of special concern.
Norman Smith, director of the Blue Hills Trailside Museum, said there are about six pairs of falcons in Massachusetts nesting on cliff sides and in quarries, and the remaining pairs nest on bridges and sky scrapers in cities like Boston, Lawrence, Lowell, and Springfield.
“The Department of Transportation loves it,“ said Smith, “because it keeps pigeons away, and pigeon droppings are corrosive to bridges. Also, there are no great horned owls in urban areas, which will kill and eat falcons while they are sleeping, so urban areas are safer for falcons.”
Falcons feed on other birds such as pigeons, starlings, and gulls, which they catch while the birds are flying, said Smith. He said falcons have been clocked at speeds of up to 242 miles per hour when they’re in a full dive.
While flying fast is helpful in catching birds on the wing, it also has its downsides.
“Normally, falcons live about 10 to 12 years,” said Smith, “but if they make a mistake at that speed, it’s usually fatal.”
Gibson announced the winners of the photo contest – Leigh Scott of Lowell, Gregg Ohanian of Woburn, and Ken Proulx of Carlisle.
The 40 or so attendees at the photo exhibit were thrilled to see that Smith had brought a live falcon with him. The female falcon, which was about the size of a crow, was injured when it flew into a building in Rhode Island and broke its wing. Smith said the Trailside Museum brings it to schools to teach kids about falcons.
“Falcons are a conservation success story,” said Smith. “They were saved from extinction. When DDT was banned, the birds were brought back. It shows you can do something to help save wildlife.”
Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to firstname.lastname@example.org.