When baby falcon fell, he swooped in to help 

Brian Farrell has been fascinated with peregrine falcons since childhood. He even spent a summer as an undergrad in the 1970s raising and releasing the then-endangered birds. So the Museum of Comparative Zoology entomologist and Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America watched with interest in 2015 when state wildlife officials installed a peregrine falcon nesting box high above Harvard’s Cambridge campus, in Memorial Hall’s tower. 

Late last month, he was walking by the tower hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the birds when he spotted a still-downy chick flutter to the ground. Farrell knew just what to do. Then one rescue led to another. 

How did you wind up saving one of Memorial Hall’s peregrines?

I was meeting a friend in the Square. I swung by Memorial Hall to see if I could see any peregrines and just as I was crossing the street, I got a glimpse of a bird a few feet off the ground, gliding. I thought, “That’s weird, that looks like a peregrine but it’s so close to the ground. They’re never near the ground.” 

I found it at the base of the stairs, trying to fly. It could fly well enough to control its descent but couldn’t fly up to the nest. This is a threatened species, and it would be illegal for me to touch it without permission, so I called the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and spoke to the crew that installed the nest box. I said, “It looks healthy enough, I think I can find the building manager to let me in.” So, once we had a plan in mind — I know how to handle the birds — I grabbed it, which got me a few scratches, but I knew it would. 

And you brought it all the way back up to the nest on the tower?

Yes, I found the Memorial Hall production manager Tina Bowen and then did a one-handed climb up the steep ladder. During the actual release — we got the video — I could hear the female screaming protectively. So all was well. The former Memorial Hall Director Ray Traietti went up with Dean Hopi Hoekstra after this bird was returned. They didn’t see the chick, but you have to be at the right spot, and they could hear the parents yelling their heads off. They were clearly protecting something. So that chick was no doubt still there.

And two days later, you had another encounter?

Yes, I heard a report that there was another bird on the ground so I came back. I looked up and the adult was folding its wings and zooming down from Memorial Hall directly for Busch Hall. It perched right on that red tile roof, and I thought, “That’s too low for a peregrine. It’s looking at something.” I knew it must be a chick below. The building was locked, so I rattled the doors. Someone was inside so they let me in. The chick was in the courtyard and had been there all day. This is chick number two. The adult was there, and it was safe. I was in touch with a local volunteer and peregrine fan, Susan Moses, who called Fish and Wildlife, and it was picked up and brought to the clinic, just to check it out, before they returned it.

Peregrine bird.

Do we know how many chicks are up there?

I took photos of three. The one that I picked up was the youngest of the three. You can see in the photos that it was covered with down. Turns out there may even be a fourth chick too, so this was a very successful year. 

It almost looked sick in the photos.

No, it’s just growing out its flight feathers. That’s how they look before it sheds them. The second bird had much less down — it was losing it in the courtyard. The third bird had very little down. 

What happens is that the birds lay their eggs, one at a time, every few days. If they start incubating with the first egg, then that’s the first one to hatch, and it’s a little bit further along than the second, and then further still from the third. It also tends to get more food since the first is the biggest one.

Is it unusual for them to take these kinds of test flights?

It’s hard to know, but it seemed like they were a little early for test flights, since they couldn’t return to the nest. But on the tower, they don’t stay in the nest box. They’re running around and jostling for food above the gargoyles that surround the tower. They’re jumping up and down. And if one jumps off, another will see that and get the idea. They’re just antsy and right at the edge of being able to fly. 

At this stage, does a day or two make a big difference? 

Yes, and they were within a few days of being able to do it, so our goal was to get them back up high. The birds are very robust and the young are pretty robust, which is why there was a successful reintroduction program here. 

Why did they have to be reintroduced?

They went extinct in Massachusetts because of the pesticide DDT. They disappeared in the East by the early 1960s. There were still a few populations hanging on in other parts of the world, in the Western U.S., in Alaska, and up in Canada. But they were extinct in the East where pesticide use was very intense.

You worked with peregrines as a student at University of Vermont?

I was contracted by Cornell in 1978 to work in the summer reintroducing them into New Hampshire. They bred for the first time in the East nearby in 1984. It was possibly our birds.

What is the history of peregrines at Harvard?

They nested the year before the nest box went up in 2015 but it was unsuccessful. There was a gap for a few years when they moved over to Boston University, but they did successfully nest here last year and raised three young, which were fun to watch all summer. I think these are younger birds since there isn’t a long nesting tradition at Harvard, and the birds tend to return to the same place. Ed Wilson had told me in 2014 that he remembered they last nested on Memorial Hall in 1955 when he was still a grad student in the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

What makes Harvard’s Cambridge campus attractive to peregrines?

They’re the fastest creatures to ever fly on the planet — they’re just spectacular in the air — yet they’ve always nested in cities. Cities are canyon-like, with tall buildings. They need wide-open space with a high perch so they can dive-bomb on birds, because that’s what they do. Cities are filled with pigeons, so they have room and board. One wonderful thing about Harvard is that there are folks who care — and who are watching — if they fall to the ground.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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