How falcons are turning cathedrals into shacks to survive
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Sometimes, wild life sounds like a rainforest. Sometimes it sounds like wilderness. But more and more often these days, wildlife sounds like a city. Take the Norwich Cathedral for instance. Energetic school children rush past. Car engines roar. Airplanes buzz overhead. Church bells ring. And sitting snug as a gargoyle on the Norwich Cathedral’s 250 foot spire is a peregrine falcon with its blue-grey back, black head, and signature moustache.

“We’ve got a peregrine falcon. It’s now coming in. Here we are!” exclaimed Nigel Middleton, Conversation Officer for the Hawk & Owl Trust, in the cathedral parking lot. “See's now flying round. That's the male. You can see just from the size. It's Look at that.”

When the falcons were first spotted in 2009, many of Norwich’s bird enthusiasts looked up at the sky wondering if they were seeing a falcon, a dream, or just an astonishingly falcon-like pigeon. Middleton was excited, but not surprised.

“This is not a new thing if you look historically,” Middleton said.

In medieval times, if you were a king, you had an eagle. If you were a nave, you had a kestrel. The peregrine falcon was somewhere in the mix. There were no guns. The birds of prey did the killing. The peregrine falcon might be slower than a pigeon when flying, but when it dives in for the hunt, it’s one of the fastest – if not the fastest – beast in the world.

“There's something historical about them as well. You know, they've been connected to every...every religious building, castle, all have a statue or an icon of some type of birds of prey.

Then pesticides started killing them. In the 1960s, there were thought to only be about 360 pairs in the country. Now there are over 1000, many of whom have flocked to cities.

“This phenomenon has happened whereas falcons have decided to nest on tall buildings in cities and towns,” Middleton said. “And they usually pick churches or cathedral spirals.”

After they were spotted in Norwich, Middleton helped install a nesting platform on top of the Cathedral with the help of off duty Norwich firefighters. Since then, they’ve been back to breed every year. Every day during breeding season, 100,000 eager viewers watch the falcon on a live webcam, waiting for new falcon babies to hatch.

“There is a group of people on the forum who really are obsessed,” Middleton said. “They will give you a minute by minute account of what’s going on. It’s alright watching a survival programme where they filmed lions in a desert, but they know that in Norwich, there’s wildlife in their own background even if they can’t get out and see it.”

Julie Carl, who spotted the falcons flying over her house years ago, now takes weekly trips to the Cathedral to see how the falcons are doing. She loves showing them off.

“I come through about three times a week just to see how they're...just to see if there's any feathers or anything, any indications as to what they're eating,” Carl said. “It's just lovely sharing it with the public as well, and just telling the public about what's on their doorstep as well. A lot of people still don't realise that they're here. And it really is worth coming down to see.”

Carl says that, with the falcons around, the other birds have more of a chance to survive the wrath of the feral pigeons – the falcon’s favorite dish.

“There's more of a balance in my garden, naturally balance,” Carl said. “And I've got more house sparrows and finches and blue tips now then I've ever had before.”

With less space to roam, falcons are increasingly finding their way onto our doorsteps. It’s not just the Norwich Cathedral. nested in London's Tate Modern, Manchester's Arndale centre and many more cathedrals. Some might see it sad that these birds are no longer in their usual, natural habitat. But Middleton thinks cathedrals are necessary habitats.

“There's no way that humans are gonna start sacrificing areas for wildlife to live. You know, we all have got to exist on this planet together,” Middleton said. “We're gonna be here for however long we keep the planet alive enough for us to live on it. And lots and lots of bird, and wildlife, are adapting to living in a human sort of environment as well.”

Middleton isn’t sure if the peregrines will keep coming back to breed. These days, when it comes to wild life, almost anything goes. Birds are turning cathedrals into nesting grounds while people watch from their living rooms, crossing their fingers and hoping that each newly hatched falcon survives.

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