Ed. Note: Sometimes, just sometimes, you realize that there are topics other than beer available to you to write about. Periodically, they may show up here. We will almost certainly return you to your regularly scheduled beer blogging in the next couple of days.
A couple of years ago, one afternoon when I was sitting on a downtown patio enjoying a pint and waiting for a friend to show up, I looked up into the sky and saw a very large bird. It seemed odd at the time, mostly because I’m used to seeing starlings and pigeons at Yonge and Bloor. I still sometimes tell the story of a man whose lunchtime activity was apparently to feed pigeons with breadcrumbs and then have at them with a nine-iron when they got close enough. For an animal murdering psychopath, he had a nice backswing.
This bird, on the other hand, was very much larger than a pigeon and it described a lazy gyre over midtown. It barely flapped its wings and seemed to hover in the sky. At the time, it was all I could do not to hop over the patio railing in order to get a better look, since it kept disappearing behind the edge of the building. I didn’t, for the reason that I was the only one looking up and everyone else on the patio would have thought I was unbalanced; that, and the fact that I didn’t want to give up the table.
The bird was a Peregrine Falcon.
There are a number of them in Toronto at this point, which frequently amazes me. Aside from Douglas Adams’ Last Chance To See, I haven’t really paid a great deal of attention to conservation efforts. I’m relatively sure that as a child some aged relative may have sponsored a zoo animal or a parcel of Amazon rainforest in my name as an alternative to giving me more lego for Christmas. It never really caught my imagination. Even a couple of years ago when a girlfriend lent me a copy of Carl Hiassen’s Hoot, a children’s novel about burrowing owls being ousted from their natural habitat by a crooked real estate developer, it never really dawned on me why people got worked up about conservation.
That was before these birds made the apartment towers at Yonge and Davisville part of their hunting territory. If you can look out the window and see bloody great birds of prey going about their business, it’s the kind of thing that’s at the very least worth a google.
Peregrine Falcons were endangered until 1999. The amount of DDT in the environment had a Silent Spring sort of effect on them. They were at the top of the food chain and everything below them in the chain was full of detrimental man-made chemicals. Organochlorines would build up in their body fat and their eggs would become brittle because of the lack of calcium in the eggshell that that caused.
Despite all that, here they are, adapting to the landscape. I don’t know where they nest, exactly, but I see them perch on the roof of the building across the way.
It makes sense that they should hunt in the area. There’s a steady supply of nearly inert feral pigeons. The primary indicator that the falcons are out and hunting is when the pigeons begin to panic in mid-air and run into each other. No matter what you may read about biological swarming, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t seem to happen outside my window. The pigeons just bolt in whatever direction is available. You would too, if you were a pigeon.
The average pigeon weighs a little over a half pound and has a wingspan of just over two feet. The Peregrine Falcon, on the other hand, might weigh three times that much and have a wingspan of over a meter. It’s a raptor and has evolved to the point where its entire job is to kill and eat small birds. If you’re an urban pigeon, your primary defense mechanism is pooping on statues and walking along the sidewalk bobbing your head. You don’t stand a chance.
The Peregrine Falcon has been recorded at just under 252 miles per hour in a high altitude dive. That’s nearly 400 kilometers an hour, making it the fastest animal on the planet. And it is aiming for your wing, since its hunting strategy is to cripple you as quickly as possible without any collateral damage and then feast on your entrails. This drama plays out daily, as evidenced by the bloodstained pigeon tracks on my windowsill.
It’s no wonder the flocks of pigeons start to behave like Abbot and Costello confronted by the mummy.
I would be terrified out of my tiny little lizard brain too. It’s worth noting that they have the same effect on people. I saw a woman drop her bags outside the Sobey’s the other day when one of the Falcons cried. It’s a legitimately terrifying sound even if you’re not in any real danger.
I don’t know why other people are interested in conservation. Some are probably interested because the animals are cute. In the case of something like the Western Lowland Gorilla, there’s the potential for psychological and behavioural research and the fact that they’re one of the species that most similar to us and therefore there’s a sense of obligation from a neighbourly perspective. For the most part, I suspect it’s because biodiversity makes things more interesting and that homogeneity is dull.
All I know is that the efforts of past conservationists mean that I get to see a life and death drama play out on a daily basis from my balcony. I get to enjoy whatever cunning the pigeons are able to muster when the falcon stoops. I get to stand gazing in awe at the majesty of this incredible predatory bird that is causing people to hide their very small dogs. I get to see the double takes people do when they realize that the silhouette they’re seeing in the sky isn’t a very large crow. It’s the kind of thing you look forward to on a day to day basis, and it has me seriously considering donating to further conservation efforts.
Next time you’re out walking in the downtown core, keep an eye out for them. You’re almost certainly not hitting your majesty quota.