Broadway's high-flying act: a falcon

The late, great Florenz Ziegfeld, creator of the Ziegfeld Follies, might have been awe-struck. Broadway has a new star -- the slate-blue, peregrine falcon, the fastest creature on earth.

Ornithologists and serious bird watchers are aflutter with the news that one of three baby peregrine falcons released from the Manhattan Life Insurance Company Building here last summer is believed to have returned to the city and was last spotted from the 43rd floor of a skyscraper at 165

Charles Recorr, a loan specialist for Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc., saw the peregrine "doing all sorts of acrobatics between the buildings. If you could get him up on 42nd street he would do a Broadway show."

The peregrine's "return engagement" is part of a serious and painstaking nationwide effort to return the peregrine falcon to the US skies, especially the Eastern US. By the time the federal government banned the insecticide DDT in 1972, the peregrine had become extinct east of the Mississippi where DDT use was extensive. Before DDT had taken its toll on the peregrines, there were an estimated 250 mating pairs in the East, with about a dozen in New York's Hudson River Valley, including a few in the city.

In the mid-1940s, a pair of peregrines roosted on the roof of the regal St. Regis Hotel, according to Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy, a biologist with the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. He and other bird experts say that the falcons are really fond of the man-made "cliffs" of city skyscrapers.

Dr. Thomas J. Cade, a professor of ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., says the city cliff habitats are, to a large extent, even preferable to perches in the wilderness. There are no owl predators with which the falcon must compete in the city and there is an abundance of food, mainly pigeons and starlings.

Having successfully launched a number of breeding programs in the salt marshes of the US East Coast from New Jersey to Maryland, scientists have turned to New York City.

Actually, however, Cornell ornithologists first successfully introduced a pair of peregrines in Baltimore where they continue to live on some of that city's tallest buildings.

Charles Recorr, who is also a dedicated birdwatcher, was on hand last July when three peregrine chicks settled into new quarters atop the Manhattan life Insurance Company Building on Manhattan's West 57th Street. He helped feed them until they were old enough to fly out of their cages to search for their own food in Central Park, a few blocks to the north.

In these programs, ornithologists gradually reduce the food they feed the falcons so the birds will be forced to hunt for their own food. Scientists hope that birds fed in this way will develop an attchment for the so-called "hawk barn" and return there in the spring even after they fly south in the fall.

Dr. Cade explains that peregrines usually like to be on the tallest of buildings and the Metropolitan Life Building may be too short to lure them back. Nevertheless, he believes the return of one of the peregrines is a major success for the university's program to restore the bird to its native habitat. More falcon chicks will be released from two New York Skyscrapers next month and the university is getting offers from birdwatchers with high-perched offices in other buildings to use their offices as well. A pair of falcons will also be introduced to the Philadelphia skies around the same time.

For his part, Charles Recorr still can't get over the fact that he was the first one he knows of to spot a peregrine back "home."

"They have great eyes," he said. "Maybe the peregrine saw me on the subway going downtown."

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