One day in 2013 my grandson and I were in the back yard. “What’s that spooky noise, Grandpa?” Jay asked. Above the rumble of morning traffic down Cable Street, we could hear a series of haunting screams like a soul in torment: “Keerk, Keaak, kaak, kak, kak!” What could it be?
“Look, Grandpa, up there – something on the crane.”
I fetched the binoculars. Perched above the crane we saw not one but two beautiful birds with long blue-grey wings, dark heads, hooked beaks, yellow legs and barred chests, the female much bigger than the tiercel (male). Peregrine Falcons – the fastest creatures on earth!
Over the last decade 30 pairs of these denizens of sea-cliffs, quarries and crags, have settled in London’s urban jungle – some above the Tate, the Millennium Dome and Battersea Power Station. Now they have arrived in the East End, establishing their eyrie, or “scrape”, amongst the elegant towers of St Georges in the East, on The Highway, one hundred yards from our back yard.
By the end of the 1900s, falcons were on the edge of extinction. Many were killed during the World Wars to protect message-bearing carrier pigeons; some by gamekeepers on grouse shoots; but most by the widespread use of agricultural chemicals (like organo-chlorides) in the 1950’s, accumulating in the flesh of pigeons to cause drastic eggshell thinning and adult mortality among falcons, eventually wiping out 80% of Britain’s peregrine population by 1963.
Falcons are raptors. They kill and eat other birds. They hunt early in the morning or evening for pigeons, starlings, black-headed gulls, smaller birds and lately for our latest avian immigrants, ring-necked parakeets. Once the prey is spotted, peregrines begin a steep swoop downwards at speeds of up to 200 mph, folding back their tails, wings and feet and smashing into the prey in mid-air with clenched feet- the impact stunning or killing most. Falcons eat the smallest prey on the wing but carry the rest to a “plucking perch” – a branch, rooftop, or the windowsill of a nearby block of flats (very popular with local residents!) – to be plucked, disembowelled and its flesh consumed.
Since their arrival we gather that our Mrs Peregrine has produced a series of Eyasses, her fluffy, ravenous chicks. Will they survive? Where will they end up?