Everything You Need To Know About London's Peregrine Falcons

By Zoe Craig Last edited 42 months ago

Last Updated 07 November 2020

Everything You Need To Know About London's Peregrine Falcons
Peregrine falcon in flight. (c) Sue Tranter

Tate Modern's got a pair; so has the Houses of Parliament. There's a bespoke nesting box on top of the Leadenhall Building.

And the developers at Battersea Power Station spent £100,000 looking after their resident duo: here's everything else you might want to know about London's extraordinary peregrine falcons.

1. They've come back from extinction

Peregrine Falcons are referenced in Shakespeare's plays, and other written records of Elizabethan London.

But by the late 20th century, they were considered extinct in London.

Why? A combination of persecution, habitat change and widespread use of chemicals in the environment meant there were no peregrine falcons living in London.

A handful of the beautiful birds had clung on in Wales.

Once DDT and other harmful chemicals were controlled, their numbers started to rise again; the birds now living in London probably have Welsh ancestors.

2. They used to be a security threat

The MOD spent thousands of pounds shooting and killing peregrine falcons during the world wars.

A peregrine's favourite food is pigeon: this made the birds a wartime security threat, as they kept killing and eating the carrier pigeons responsible for delivering important coded intelligence messages during the wars.

3. London's got lots

There were just three pairs of peregrine falcons in London in the year 2000.

Now there are about 30, meaning London has the second-highest urban peregrine population anywhere in the world, after New York.

4. They love tall buildings

Hoping to spot peregrine falcons in London? Look up!

The birds tend to nest on tall buildings, like Tate Modern; Battersea Power Station; the OXO Tower; the Leadenhall Building; the Houses of Parliament; and Charing Cross Hospital.

A peregrine falcon nesting box on top of the Cheesegrater. Photo by Matt Brown.

5. They enjoy a rather varied diet

London's peregrine falcons eat pigeons, starlings, black-headed gulls and most other migrating birds, which can often be found following the river Thames.

They'll bully and eat bigger birds too, including buzzards and crows.

They are also partial picnicking on London's more recent avian arrival: ring-necked parakeets.

Parakeets on Peckham Rye. Photo by Sloetry.

6. They're London's fastest animal

In fact, they're the fastest member of the animal kingdom, full stop.

Peregrine falcons achieve their highest speeds not in horizontal level flight, but during their amazing, characteristic hunting 'stoop'.

While stooping, the peregrine falcon soars to a great height, then dives steeply at speeds of more than 200 mph (320 km/h).

A peregrine falcon in flight. Photo via wikicommons.

7. The original London peregrines moved into Regent's Park

Misty and Houdini were the original London peregrines; the first to return to, and breed in, the capital.

The peregrine pair originally made their home in Regent's Park.

But Misty didn’t like the nest site chosen by Houdini, so they moved house in 2004. Their permanent London home was on the northern side of the Thames at an undisclosed location, protected by law. From here, they made regular trips to the Tate Modern chimney and roof to perch and hunt.

Misty and Houdini vanished in 2014/15 but their territory was taken over by the current occupants, possibly their offspring. This suggests Misty and Houdini lived to the ripe old peregrine age of about 14 years.

Peregrine Falcon leaving St Paul's Cathedral's pineapple. Photo by John Esslinger.

8. Today's Tate Modern peregrines

Misty and Houdini's heirs have continued the tradition of haunting the Tate chimney.

The pair were named Amy and Sheldon by visitors to the RSPB viewing area in 2005.

Amy and Sheldon successfully raised three chicks in 2016. Once fledged, the juveniles are sent off to find their own territories, never to return. This happens remarkably quickly – over the space of three to four months.

9. The Battersea Power Station peregrines' rather expensive retreat

In 2013, peregrines nested just below one of the Battersea Powers Stations famous towers.

But the chimneys were earmarked for demolition and rebuilding, as part of the new development at the power station.

According to the Guardian, the Battersea Power Station Development Company spent more than £100,000 on a relocation plan, building a mast with a nesting box at exactly the same height as the old nest in a quiet corner of the south London construction site.

Happily, the birds liked their new home, and have bred there successfully ever since.

A peregrine falcon enjoys the view from the Barbican. Photo (c) Peter Kenyon

10. Despite these success stories, they're still endangered

The British Peregrine is no longer facing extinction; but it is still a vulnerable bird.

In fact, the British peregrine falcon has the same CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) status as the Tiger. If you spot or find an injured or grounded peregrine falcon in London, contact the London Peregrine Partnership.

11. Where to see peregrines this summer

The RSPB's free Peregrine Watch runs through the school summer holidays.

The team has telescopes and binoculars which you can use to see the peregrine falcons; volunteers will be on hand to explain more about the birds, their London lifestyles and how they've adapted to urban life.

RSPB Peregrine Watch runs daily near Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge from 14 July to 3 September.

With huge thanks to Tim Webb from RSPB for much of the information in this article.