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Peregrine Falcons and the Adirondack Rock Climber

Facts for Rock Climbers

  • peregrine falcons
    Peregrine Falcons are an endangered species protected under state law;
  • Human disturbance within the territory of a breeding pair may result in nest abandonment and/or death of any young;
  • Certain rock climbing routes in the Adirondacks are closed by the DEC during the breeding season and are illegal to climb; and
  • Falcons are very territorial and will utilize their razor sharp talons in defense of their domain, including attacks on humans.

Peregrine Falcon - A New York State Raptor

On a beautiful spring day in the Adirondack Mountains, a dark, crow-sized bird is slowly sailing in front of a sheer rock cliff face. Without warning, the bird folds its wings and drops downward with incredible speed. Suddenly, there is an explosion of feathers, and a smaller body is observed tumbling toward the ground. You have just witnessed a strike by one of the superlative hunters of the bird world - the peregrine falcon.

The peregrine falcon is a remarkable bird, one perfectly adapted to its role as a predator. Adults weigh about 2 pounds, are about 15 to 20 inches in length, and have wingspan of about 40 inches. Although the sexes are similar in plumage, the size difference is considerable; males are 1/3 smaller than females.

A mature peregrine is slate blue-black above, with a white underside marked with dark barring. The legs and feet are yellow with talons that are razor sharp, sickle shaped. Peregrines have a distinctive facial feature - a blackish "sideburn" below each eye, reminiscent of the glare-reducing black applied under the eyes of some athletes. The wings are long and pointed, and the tail is relatively long and narrow. This bird is built for speed.

Their keen eyesight and exceptional speed are essential adaptations for locating and pursuing their prey - birds. The falcon approaches its quarry from above, dropping from the sky at speeds approaching 200 mph. Small birds are simply plucked from the air, while larger birds are knocked out of it. When attacking larger prey, the peregrine rakes its victim with its hind talons just as it begins to climb out of its "stoop" or attack dive.

In the Eyrie

As a general rule, peregrines live in mountain ranges or cliff areas along the coast or in river valleys, though some can be found among the skyscrapers of New York City and other cities. New York offers choice peregrine habitat in areas like the High Peaks region of the Adirondack Mountains. Peregrines first mate when they are 1 to 3 years old, building nests on high cliff ledges 20 to 200 feet off the ground. The same nesting ledge, called an eyrie, may be used year after year. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs in a nest, called a scrape, which consists of a shallow depression in the gravel found on the ledge. These eyries are aggressively protected against predators, and humans, by both the male and female peregrine.

The young hatch after a 28 to 33 day incubation period. Each chick will stay in and about the nest until it fledges at 35 to 45 days of age. Young will stay with the parents for few more weeks to perfect their flying and hunting skills. As cooler weather approaches, peregrines begin to migrate south. In the spring, peregrines have a tendency to return to the same region from which they fledged.

Wild peregrines may live 12 years or more, although an average lifespan is half that. Adult peregrines have few natural enemies, but great horned owls and raccoons prey upon eggs and young. Human disturbances, such as rock climbing on cliffs containing eyries, can be a potential problem.

An Endangered Species

Like many birds of prey, peregrine falcons have suffered from the use of pesticides, especially DDT. These pesticides caused eggshell thinning, which dramatically lowered breeding success. By the early 1960s there were no breeding peregrines in the state. As a result of their limited numbers, New York State has listed peregrine falcons as an endangered species. This listing gives the bird legal protection form hunting or disturbance.

With the banning of the use of DDT by New York in 1971, efforts began to reestablish a breeding population of peregrines within the state. The Peregrine Fund initiated a reintroduction program utilizing a technique called "hacking" in 1974. This program ended in 1988, with a total of 159 peregrines being released. Some of these birds have since established eyries in the Adirondacks and the New York City area. Once again the falcon is breeding within the state.

Peregrines and Rock Climbers

Though the peregrine falcon population within New York State is on the upswing, it is still fragile. The breeding population is still small and located primarily in 2 areas of the state - the Adirondacks and the New York City area. As a result, disturbances at nest sites or the loss of habitat or individuals can have a significant negative impact on the population.

In order to evaluate the status of the population within the state, the DEC annually monitors existing nest sites as well as historic eyries for signs of breeding activity. Protective measures are also utilized to help ensure the success of any peregrine pair which might attempt to breed at a location. In the case of eyries located on the cliffs of the Adirondacks, the regional wildlife staff will close specific rock climbing routes which would bring climbers near the nest site. The actual areas of the cliff quarantined represents a balance between the recreational interests of rock climbers and the need to protect the breeding and nesting activities of this endangered species. That is why individual rock climbing routes rather then entire cliffs are closed.

Impacts by Climbers

Interference during raptor breeding periods can result in reduced reproductive success. Peregrine falcons are particularly sensitive to human disturbance. While some peregrine pairs are more tolerant than others, persistent rock climbing activity near potential, or existing, nest sites can lead to abandonment.

Having established a nest site, peregrines still face a number of perils which can cause nest failure. Eggs and young are particularly vulnerable to chilling, overheating, and dehydration while the parents are kept away from the nest. While feathered young, which are not yet ready, to fly can be scared out of the nest prematurely.

In summary, Adirondack rock climbers need to be aware of certain facts concerning peregrine falcons:

  • They are an endangered species and are protected under state and federal law;
  • Human disturbance within the territory of a breeding pair may result in nest abandonment and/or death of any young;
  • Certain rock climbing routes are closed and illegal to climb during the breeding season; and
  • Falcons are very territorial and will utilize their razor sharp talons in defense of their domain, including attacks on humans.

Help from Climbers

Adirondack rock climbers have been helpful in providing the DEC with peregrine sightings and in helping to identify climbing routes which should be closed to protect the breeding birds. The DEC would like to thank the Adirondack rock climbers for their much-appreciated cooperation!

To report falcon sightings please contact NYSDEC Region 5, Bureau of Wildlife, P.O. Box 296, Ray Brook, New York 12977-0296, 518/897-1291.

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    Ray Brook, NY 12977
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