In an Aesop’s fable, a county mouse returns to its rural lodgings, after a misadventurous — in precise terms, life-threatening — stay in an urban environment. Having been invited by a town mouse (a cousin) to his plush diggings at a villa in a metropolis, with the promise of plentiful food, the country mouse is also inadvertently introduced to the cost at which these sumptuous nibbles arrive for the urban rodents. It is the constant fear of being swatted to death, the fear continually fed by movement of human feet.
A mouse is a land-crawler, and substitute the creature with a high-flyer, the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and the fable changes its plumage dramatically. In their breeding and wintering grounds, peregrine falcons are shifting from sequestered settings — somewhat similar to that country mouse’s — to sky-touching vertical concrete structures in urbania, the move fed by the twin promises of a tall hunting perch and easy prey. There are two examples close in time and space to reach for. As this article is being written, a peregrine falcon is in all likelihood eyeing a flock of pigeons from a posh perch — a ledge it has taken to, at Trellis South, a gated community in Vadapalani.
With permission from the residents association at Trellis South, Gnanaskandan Kesavabharathi, a member of Madras Naturalists Society and a birder with a keen eye for raptors, is studying the peregrine falcon that has taken over the ledge without the Association’s nod.
The Association is obviously not griping over this intrusion, and is hoping the peregrine falcon would make that ledge its permanent winter home.
On October 14, Gnanaskandan got a few residents to take a closer look at the falcon through his binoculars.
Similarly, earlier this year, The Leela Palace in MRC Nagar had a free-loader, a shaheen falcon (Falco peregrinus peregrinator), the doppelgänger of the peregrine falcon.
Gnanaskandan notes the shaheen falcon’s presence was first brought to light by Sanjeev Menon. As an avid eBirder, Sanjeev diligently recorded the sightings in the citizen science platform. Gnanaskandan himself later saw the bird cosied up in its perch at a building in the hotel.
A subspecies of the peregrine faclon, the shaheen falcon is found in the Indian subcontinent, and is also known as the Indian peregrine. Non-migratory, the shaheen falcon however takes “short vacations”, essentially local peregrinations. Based on citizen science data, in Chennai, the shaheen falcon is usually sighted between May and August.
In contrast, the peregrine falcon is a migratorial winter visitor, and sightings of this exciting high-perch hunter usually surface in Chennai from October onwards.
From the field notes
Up until this point in time, Gnanaskandan Kesavabharathi has watched the peregrine falcon with a gimlet eye for three days, which includes lengthy parts of two days. A stay at a facility in Vadapalani enabled Gnanaskandan to watch this bird for two days, as it would sit on a ledge at the neigbouring Trellis South, a gated community. From this perch, the bird would sally forth to take a pigeon as its snack, with its characteristic speed. The third-day sighting happened at the community (Trellis South), with the residents’ association agreeing to host him for a detailed study of the visiting raptor.
Here are Gnanaskandan’s jottings in his field notes.
* I have seen three hunts being carried out by this peregrine falcon so far, and in each of them, the prey was a pigeon.
*Just across the Trellis South building, beyond the Vadapalani Metro station, pigeons are found in spades.
*Flocks of pigeons, racking up hundreds, fly east beyond the Vadapalani metro, and I noticed the peregrine falcon watching every moving flock.
*The peregrine falcon was not following any of the pigeon flocks with its wings, only with its eyes. It would take just two to three short rounds just to startle them.
*From my observations of its hunts so far, the raptor does not make a random rush for a flock to grab one pigeon, but with great intent and purpose, targets a lone pigeon.
*The duration of the attack, from the launch to the return to the perch, was a ridiculously quick-fire eight seconds. The first time I clocked it, I was not ready and therefore clumsy in my recording: It was approximately 10 seconds. The second time I was ready with a stopwatch, and the timing was eight seconds flat.
*From the ease with which this peregrine falcon hunts down its prey, it is clearly accustomed to the urban environment both in its breeding and wintering grounds.
The rural-urban divide
In the West, particularly the United Kingdom, studies underline the ease with which peregrine falcons carve out “homes” in urban environments, building nests there, and observations have emerged that they even fare better than their rural counterparts. One of the recent studies is “Breeding habitat selection of urban peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) in London” by Brandon Mark, Robert A Francis, Michael A Chadwick that can be accessed at the online space of Journal of Urban Ecology.
Gnanskandan Kesavabharathi, member of Madras Naturalists Society (MNS) who handles its raptor watch programme, underlines the theory that birds breeding in urban environments instinctively take to similar settings in their wintering grounds.
Gnaskandan is currently tracking the movements of a peregrine falcon that has to all appearances selected a ledge at the upper limits of a tall building in Trellis South, a gated community in Vadapalani, as its winter hangout. He notes the dexterity with which this peregrine falcon tracks potential prey — pigeons — and gets them with a zero failure rate suggests the bird is familiar with the urban milieu in its breeding grounds as well.
Residents can provide continual data
Ganaskandan Kesavabharathi, a member of Madras Naturalists Society, shares what he told residents at Trellis South: “If what I suspect is true, you should be seeing this peregrine falcon in your premises next October as well.”
There is a strong likelihood the bird would make the building at this community its regular wintering space.
“If residents at this community and others nearby are enabled to see this peregrine falcon at least once with guidance, they could serve as steady providers of data about the bird’s movements,” observes Gnanaskandan. “They are in a position to watch the bird day in day out, and their observations about its presence or the lack of it can be helpful data.”
Ravi Swaminathan, secretary, Trellis South Flat Owners’ Welfare Association, recalls how the residents were excited about watching the peregrine falcon through the binoculars, with one morning walker after another trooping in for the visual treat. They were keen on learning about the bird’s behaviour, he adds. The Association secretary notes Gnanaskandan was requested to organise an educational session about the peregrine falcon for the children at the community, and he agreed.