THE PEREGRINE FALCON : Amid Concrete Canyons of Los Angeles, an Aerial Superstar Finds a Home

Times Staff Writer

Quick now, where’s the best wildlife show in California?

Riding boats off the coast to watch the California gray whale migration?

Watching wintertime arrivals of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl to the huge federal refuges on the California-Oregon line?

How about watching pronghorn antelopes race across the flatlands of Modoc County?

All good, no doubt about it. But, believe it or not, the best California wildlife show may very well be in downtown Los Angeles.

There, where the buildings rise the highest, a pair of peregrine falcons puts on high-speed air shows daily. And there is no admission charge.


The other day, at a well-windowed workout room at the downtown Stewart M. Ketchum YMCA, a stationary bike rider happened to see one of the peregrines dive from the top of Crocker Center straight down onto some pigeons, covering about 40 floors in less than a second.

“Hey, now there is a world-class bird,” the rider said.

If the Blue Angels even dreamed they could fly like this, they’d apologize. Step right up see the birds falconers call the Rolls-Royce of birds of prey. You think jets can fly? You should see these two scoot. We’re talking flying here. Would you believe 200 m.p.h., straight down? Top gun? No, top bird.

The other day, a peregrine falcon was perched atop the 55-story IBM tower in Crocker Center. It spotted a pigeon, far below, flying lazily over the World Trade Center, roughly two blocks away. The peregrine--it’s pronounced para- grin--launched itself off the IBM Tower, flapped its long, tapered wings hard a couple of times, half-folded its wings for streamlining, went into an angled dive--and covered the distance in less than two seconds.

The falcon missed the pigeon, but got a big hand anyway from several exercyclists at the Y, watching the show.

Los Angeles could bill its downtown peregrine show as the best urban wildlife show in America, except that the same act appears daily in other large North American cities.

The peregrine, in the midst of a comeback from near extinction caused by DDT after World War II, is a big hit with office workers in cities that have tall buildings and, more important, fat, slow pigeons.

The pair of Los Angeles peregrines currently knocking pigeons out of the sky are nesting atop the 40-story Union Bank building at 444 South Figueroa St. The peregrines’ aerial displays have thrilled office workers in downtown high-rises since 1981, when the first falcon appeared.

Experienced peregrine watchers, particularly those with window seats in the Union Bank building, have seen not only the birds’ awesome aerial displays, but also the sight of a peregrine, pigeon clutched in its talons, landing at a window ledge, where it tears the pigeon into bite-size pieces.

“We get to see more of them because our building has a ledge at every floor,” said Ellie Craft, a Union Bank secretary. “Most of the newer downtown buildings are flat-sided and don’t have places for the birds to perch.”

John Harrigan, Union Bank chairman, has become such a peregrine addict that he joined the Peregrine Fund, a national wildlife organization that raises money to support peregrine projects. He also has an eight-inch TV set on his bookshelf that gets just one station, the Peregrine Network. It’s wired to a TV camera five feet from the peregrines’ nest on the building’s 38th floor ledge.

The jury is still out on how Union Bank stockholders feel about the top man watching birds instead of the balance sheet from his 38th-floor office, but Harrigan indicates that the joy he gets watching the sleek birds reduces job-related stress.

The peregrine “nest,” he pointed out, is really a wooden tray with gravel three inches deep. In a more natural environment, peregrines nest in cliff sides and mountaintops, laying eggs in scraped-out depressions.

“I see the birds in the nest five or six times a day,” Harrigan said. “The frustrating thing is, I’ve never seen them stoop (a biologists’ term for the manner in which peregrines dive on pigeons). But lots of people in the building have, and so have a lot of people in the ARCO building.”

Some downtown peregrine-watching tips:

--Peregrines are relatively small raptors, smaller than red-tailed hawks. Adult females, about one- third larger than males, weigh roughly 1 3/4-2 1/2 pounds, and are 17 to 20 inches long. They are blue-black on top, buff-cream on their chests, with short, gray bars.

In flight, the peregrine appears larger than it really is, because of its long--about 30 inches--wings.

--The plaza area beneath the Security Pacific building, across 4th Street from the YMCA, offers a good view of the tops of the ARCO building, the twin towers of the Crocker Center and the Wells Fargo building. From there, with some patience, your chances of seeing a peregrine in flight are better than 50%.

--Look for the birds perched on the highest ledges of the Union Bank building, the rooftop corners of the 44- and 46-story towers of Crocker Center, 333 S. Grand Ave., the 42-story AT&T; building at 611 W. 6th St., and the ARCO sign and red logo atop the 51-story ARCO building, 515 S. Flower St.

--Sometimes the peregrines soar over the City Hall area, looking for unwary pigeons.

--When you see pigeons behaving erratically, such as flying a few feet off the pavement or flying into windows, look up. Chances are, the cause of their terror is in plain view. Also, when you see pigeon feathers drifting down, be ready to step lively. A pigeon carcass may be coming down, too.

A peregrine’s typical killing procedure is for the diving falcon to deliver a fatal blow to a pigeon from above, striking the pigeon with closed talons. Seconds later, the falcon rolls over on its back in mid-air, grabs the pigeon with its talons, then flies off to a feeding area.

In the Crocker Center recently, several pigeons, flying too high for their own good, were spotted by the two peregrines. Seeing peregrines descending upon them, the pigeons panicked and began flying directly into the building’s windows. Peregrines streaked down on them, like dark comets, all to the cheers of the people at the Y.

Peregrines have been likened by biologists to great white sharks, as creatures so perfectly formed, so efficient and so finely tuned that they seem to have reached the limits of evolution.

Peregrines, the world’s fastest birds, are nature’s air-to-air interceptors. They can hit speeds of better than 200 m.p.h. in their straight-down attack flights on pigeons, starlings, mockingbirds and other prey. Sherry Teresa, a Department of Fish and Game biologist who keeps tabs on Southern California raptors, says a peregrine was once clocked with a radar gun at 207 m.p.h.

Once, they were headed for extinction at almost that speed.

Peregrines are an endangered species, and their nest sites at two other Los Angeles area high-rise buildings are watched carefully by state and federal biologists. At the top of the food chain, peregrines, like bald eagles and brown pelicans, were vulnerable. Peregrines began laying thin-shelled eggs, many of which were cracked before hatching, and went into a steep decline in North America.

Most of the news on the peregrine front today is good, though, partly because biologists discovered decades ago that the sleek birds do surprisingly well in big cities with high-rise buildings. Peregrine chicks hatched in captivity, as well as peregrine-prairie falcon hybrids, have been put into nests of urban, adult peregrines and been successfully raised.

In recent years, peregrines have nested in downtown New York, Norfolk, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, Washington--fittingly, atop the Interior Department building--Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Baltimore, Salt Lake City, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Some of the bad news:

--Peregrines prefer pigeons, which are DDT-free, but also sometimes eat swifts, which aren’t. Swifts travel to and from Mexico, where DDT still is used. Los Angeles peregrines also kill and eat mourning doves, starlings, cliff swallows, mockingbirds, meadowlarks and English sparrows. Biologists have even found parakeet carcasses in their nests.

--A profitable black market for peregrines and other North American raptors exists in the Middle East, where wealthy falconers covet peregrines. The profit for a peregrine thief who can get a bird to the Middle East ranges from $30,000 to $40,000.

--Peregrines are detested by pigeon fanciers. Many, if not most, of the pigeon remains biologists find at their feeding areas are banded pigeons. Some of the pigeon raisers, wildlife law enforcement officers believe, have shot and killed some of the peregrines. A federal investigation is under way because of a peregrine shooting in the Los Angeles area.

The comeback of the falcons is the result of captive breeding efforts by federal and state biologists, supported in part by several raptor study centers. The Peregrine Fund coordinates and partially funds peregrine projects nationwide.

Brian Walton, coordinator of the Peregrine Fund’s West Coast captive breeding facility at UC Santa Cruz, said the sight of peregrines on man-made structures is far from new.

“Peregrines used to nest on top of the castles of Europe and the Egyptian pyramids,” he said. “They’ve always been comfortable around high, man-made structures.”

The comeback of the peregrine in California is a continuing, good-news story, he added.

“In 1970, there were two pairs of peregrines in California, one in Morro Bay and another in Sonoma County,” he said. “We counted 77 pairs in 1986. It’s a rare story of an endangered species expanding its numbers and range. But we have a way to go. Before DDT changed everything, before World War II, there were 200 to 300 pairs in California.”

At the UC Santa Cruz facility, eggs taken by biologists from the nests of older females--dummy, wooden peregrine eggs are left as substitutes--with a history of laying thin-shelled eggs are brought to the facility to be hatched. The chicks are then put in the original nest. In addition, UC Santa Cruz staffers release young, captive-bred peregrines into the wild.

Walton said that Los Angeles has more downtown peregrines than any other city, with at least seven. San Francisco is next, with six.

DFG biologist Teresa, on top of the Union Bank building, poked her foot through a clutter of feathered pigeon parts, in varying stages of decay.

“This is where they return to eat much of the time,” she said, pointing to a small platform on the roof’s corner. “They’re not very tidy, are they?”

She looked across the way, through binoculars, at the red ARCO logo just under the roof of the ARCO building. Inside the R a peregrine, the female of the pair, sat, watching the visitors on the Union Bank roof, near the nest. The male was perched atop the ARCO symbol.

The male flew to the female, fluttered briefly above her, then the two mated. The male flew back to his perch, then the process was repeated, several times.

“It’s that time of year,” Teresa said. “When we looked in the nest box, a depression was scraped out of the gravel, a sign there’ll be some eggs soon.”

Teresa checks on Los Angeles’ peregrines frequently.

“We know of seven birds in the greater L.A. area now,” she said. “They’re very territorial, and we might not ever have many more than that. There’s this pair, another nesting in the mid-Wilshire area and another on a Westwood building. We also know of a single bird seen flying in the Marina del Rey area and another single peregrine in Glendale.”

Not long ago, Teresa received a weekend call at home that sent her racing into town. An ARCO employee had called the Department of Fish and Game to report that a dead peregrine had been found on the sidewalk, in front of the building.

“It was a falconer’s bird,” Teresa said. “It was a peregrine-prairie falcon hybrid. When we performed a necropsy, we found two shotgun pellets in its body. We couldn’t tell if it was shot downtown or had been wounded by the shot and then flew into a building.”

Teresa, who has worked with peregrines in the wild for years, still finds the bird’s powers of flight difficult to believe.

“For my master’s thesis, I studied the peregrines in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado,” she said. “I’ve never gotten over the fact that in Utah, their primary prey species are white-throated swifts, which is an extremely fast, agile bird. To think that a peregrine can consistently pluck them out of the air . . . well, it’s really hard to believe.

“In the cities and in rural habitats, peregrines have a high chick mortality rate. We figure one chick in four makes it through the first year. One thing in their favor in cities is that their principal natural predators, great horned owls and golden eagles, aren’t common in cities. Those two, in other environments, prey heavily on peregrine nests.

“Probably the area in the West with the highest numbers of peregrines is the Glen Canyon-Lake Powell area, where there might be as many as 20 pairs. So naturally, that’s where you might find poachers trying to steal eggs or chicks. Some of them have even chartered helicopters to steal them. So wildlife law enforcement people get busy real fast when they see a suspicious helicopter flying around those cliffs.”

For raptor biologists, the most fulfilling sight possible in their work is that of a young peregrine, out of the nest and in the air, learning to hunt.

In a 1986 report on Los Angeles peregrines, Peregrine Fund biologist Paul Young described the first days of flight for a chick, hatched in a nest on top of a mid-Wilshire area building:

” . . . The young male took its first flight on May 15 and was seen on June 9, playfully attacking kites flown in the vicinity of the La Brea tar pits area.”