Bank Helps Falcons Find Happiness Over Wall St.

Wall Street has long been inhabited by sharks. Now falcons have decided to move in.

Five months ago, a pair of rare peregrine falcons took occupancy on a ledge in the tower of Bank of New York Co.'s 35-floor headquarters on Wall Street.

From a wooden nest built by bank carpenters, the birds scan the financial district, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting pigeons -- the ones that fly.

A State-Supported Effort

The falcons are one of 10 pair of peregrines living on tall buildings or bridges in the New York City area, the fruits of a program to reintroduce them to New York State after the pesticide DDT almost caused their extinction.

The birds take a real shine to Manhattan because its skycrapers resemble their natural habitat. The skyline provides cliffs and deep canyons in which the peregrines -- among the world's fastest creatures -- can swoop down on New York's endless supply of pigeons.

"It's exciting to see a falcon dive bomb at 200 miles an hour and see it spear its prey," said Margaret Southerland, a public relations officer who, as the daughter of two ornithologists, serves as the bank's unofficial bird expert.

Naming the Offspring

The arrival of the falcons has caught the imagination of the bank's employees, who hope the pair will eventually produce offspring. The bank is holding a contest to come up with names for them. And even chief executive J. Carter Bacot, whose office is some 30 floors below the falcons' nest, has taken an interest in the pair. "How are our birds doing?" he often asks Ms. Southerland.

Mike Gilsenan, vice president and building manager of the headquarters at 48 Wall St., has an office just below the nest and has a chance to catch sight of the birds more often than anybody else.

"They give a shriek before they fly, and then streak past the window," he said. "We used to hear them clawing and scratching and making eeeewah sounds." That was in the spring, during courtship time.

"They are nice neighbors," says Mr. Gilsenan. "I'm glad they picked our building."

The female, pictured on page one, has grey plumage, while her mate has brown feathers. Falcons measure 15 to 19 inches head to tail, with males at the lower end, and can have a wingspan of 40 inches. An adult female weights about two pounds; males are usually about one-third smaller. Both have hooked beaks with a tooth -- or notch -- at the tip that helps them snap the necks of prey while in flight.

Falcons were first spotted in the area two years ago when a different pair of peregrines tried to make a home on the narrow ledge of a nearby building. The two often flew over to perch on the water tower of the bank's 62-year-old headquarters.

Because the birds had shown a liking for the tower, falcon experts from the Endangered Species Unit of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and from The Peregrine Fund approached the bank about building a shelter.

The bank's carpenters were happy to oblige, constructing a three-foot-square wooden box in the shadow of the bronze eagle that sits atop the building. The nest was filled with gravel and crushed stones, which falcons like for nesting. But the effort did not entice the pair to take up residence.

Last year, the female was sighted flying in the area, but she again ignored the shelter.

This year, though, she and a new mate set up housekeeping. It's a May/December romance: She's about two years old, the male probably less than a year. The age difference likely accounts for her not laying eggs this spring, despite some amorous rumblings.

The birds did make a scrape, which means they hollowed out a part of the gravel in which eggs could be incubated. The bank will have to wait until next spring for its two high-flying customers to settle down and deposit an egg.

Eyes Are on Next Year

"There's an excellent chance for next year," said Barbara Loucks, who heads the falcon program for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. "They are just getting warmed up," she said.

Between 1974 and 1988, the state agency and the Peregrine Fund let loose 159 falcons bred in captivity. Many found homes in New York City, which boasts more peregrines than any other city in the Eastern United States.

The effort has attracted attention from afar. In May, the British Broadcasting Corp. filmed a documentary in New York on how man and animals interact in an urban environment.

But Bank of New York's falcons, perhaps camera shy, were not sighted during the shooting. The photographer, filming from the old Irving Bank Corp. headquarters at One Wall Street, used a trained falcon (see photo on this page) for the show, which will be broadcast in the United States on PBS this fall.

Feasting on Pigeons

The Bank of New York birds have spent the warm summer days riding the winds over Wall Street and perching like statues atop the World Trade Center.

Each kills one or two pigeons a day. Stripped pigeon carcasses litter the ledges, rooftops, and sidewalks of the Wall Street area.

The birds can become aggressive during mating season, according to falcon specialists, but no bank worker has ever been pecked or dive bombed.

Though falcons also have a taste for blue jays, mourning doves, starlings, and sparrows, pigeons make for a particularly healthy meal, according to Chris Nadareski, fish and wildlife technician with the Endangered Species Unit. Because pigeons do not migrate, they have had little contact with DDT, he said.

No Migration Expected

In fact, because pigeons are so plentiful in the winter, which tends to be moderate in the city, the bank's falcons won't fly south. Mr. Nadareski points out that scarcity of food is the major reason that birds of prey migrate.

So the bank may just have a couple of permanent residents. So far the falcons, which can live 12 years or more, have shown no interest in receiving ATM cards or signing up for the Christmas Club, but who knows about next year, especially if there are chicks. Perhaps a home improvement loan?

PHOTO : TV BIRD: Trained falcon scans Wall Street during BBC filming. Bank of New York birds were camera shy.

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