ITHACA, N.Y.—Suddenly, from the steep, shale-covered hills surrounding Taughannock Falls State Park, a dark gray bird with a white face, cream-colored underbelly and blue-gray wings dives toward movement near the end of a tree branch a few dozen feet down the cliff.

Peregrine falcons, known for their diving speed of up to 200 miles per hour, typically hunt mid-flight and prey on other birds as well as bats, only occasionally going for a small rodent or insects.

Andy Johnson, conservation film producer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, first discovered that the birds were back in early 2020.

“Ever since I had first gone to Taughannock and learned that the peregrine falcons used to nest there, for years, since I’ve been visiting,” Johnson said. “I’ve been imagining peregrine falcons being there, but it just didn’t seem like a possibility. It was incredible to hear them calling as they flew up the gorge that first time in March 2020; then, indeed, they ended up nesting.”

Because of their pattern of nesting in high places, these birds can be seen on the ledges and cliffs of Taughannock Falls.

“They exclusively nest on ledges, essentially,” Johnson said. “They don’t actually build a nest, they just lay their eggs on a place where they are not going to roll off the cliff, or the skyscraper, as it were. […] They have been prominent parts of those landscapes forever until, basically, the post-war era, when they started rapidly disappearing.”

Between the 1940s and ’70s, widespread use of DDT-containing pesticides resulted in species deterioration in the eastern United States and Canada. Peregrines were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1969, then again in 1973 when the Endangered Species Act was passed.

“Peregrine falcons were a big part of the formation of the Endangered Species Act in the first place,” Johnson said. “[Taughannock] State Park is doing a great job of managing that place to make it a suitable home for peregrine falcons just as it was a century ago. That’s an important consideration for people visiting and watching the falcons, is to respect their distance, especially as a state-listed endangered species.”

In 1970, Dr. Tom Cade of Cornell University cofounded The Peregrine Fund with the mission “to conserve birds of prey worldwide.” For the next 20 years, the organization worked to reintroduce the falcons through captive-rearing and placement in artificial nests and released approximately 1,600 fully-fledged peregrines into the wild.

Since 1974, 6,000 American peregrine falcons have been released in North America, and thanks to these recovery efforts, peregrine falcons were federally declassified as an endangered species in 1999, according to nature.org.

“There’s this trajectory of recovery after rapid decline and an incredible effort to get to the bottom of what was causing the decline and turn it around, very much thanks to Tom Cade and the Peregrine Fund rooted at Cornell and Sapsucker Woods,” Johnson said. “It culminated, in a way, with the delisting of species, and that was, in a lot of ways, mission accomplished.”

Peregrine falcons can be found on all continents excluding Antarctica. Because of their diet of other birds, they thrive in open areas along the coast but also commonly inhabit expansive landscapes of fields and deserts. Nests can sometimes be found on skyscrapers and bridges in large cities, but rocky escarpment is typically preferable.

“Now that they’ve come back, I’ve been hearing that a lot of people are seeing them even in the winter,” Johnson said. “The birds are really calling Taughannock home, so there’s always a good chance of seeing them flying through the gorge or perched on the cliff sides.”

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...