Atop Brady Sullivan Tower, a peregrine falcon success story
A peregrine falcon photographed at the Brady Sullivan Tower nest box. (Credit: Chris Martin)
It’s an average morning at the high-rise Brady Sullivan Tower in downtown Manchester. The 12-story office building is filled with employees starting their workday.
Suddenly, outside the windows, plunging from the top floor is a blur of feathers and talons: a descent close to 200 mph. The carnivorous bird pierces the plump body of a pigeon in midair and flies it back to the top of the tower, ready to tear it apart inside a gravel-lined nesting box.
The latter part of that saga can be watched from three different angles via live video feeds broadcast on YouTube.
The 1750 Elm St. building has been a successful peregrine falcon nesting location for 23 consecutive years, producing a total of 74 chicks since 2001 and an average of 3.22 annually, according to New Hampshire Audubon. This year’s breeding season was no different, as the urban nesting platform fledged four chicks.
Statewide, there are just 27 documented peregrine falcon pairs. The species is classified as threatened in New Hampshire and used to be endangered nationally.
Chris Martin, a conservation biologist at New Hampshire Audubon who works with peregrines, has been watching the success story atop the Brady Sullivan Tower since the beginning. It’s indicative of a long, concerted conservation effort to bring the predatory raptor back to the Granite State, after the now-banned insecticide DDT nearly wiped them out.
DDT not only poisoned adult falcons, but also prevented offspring from developing in the egg.
“We were at the point in the early 1980s when there weren’t any successful peregrine nests in the state,” Martin said.
The population is on the up, he said, but it’s been gradual. The 2023 breeding season marked the 43rd “in the post-DDT recovery era,” and its total of 48 young fledged was the most ever documented in New Hampshire in any one season. The 27 documented territorial pairs tied last year’s record high.
Four nesting sites – the Brady Sullivan Tower, Holts Ledge in Lyme, Polar Caves in Rumney, and the abandoned Westmoreland Quarry – produced four young each this year, New Hampshire Audubon found, and seven more nests fledged three young apiece.
Eggs laid at nesting sites at Rattlesnake Mountain in Rumney and Swenson Granite in Concord failed, and Audubon biologists continue to search for possible nest sites in Dover, Hampton, and Seabrook, where adult peregrines continue to be spotted during the nesting season.
For those helping to compile these yearly tallies, it’s not always easy. Peregrines can be elusive.
“It’s always a challenge because even when these birds nest in urban settings like Manchester or Portsmouth or Concord, they try really hard to put their nests in places where people won’t find them,” Martin said. “They’re secretive about their activities and the nests are hard to pick out. Imagine going to Franconia Notch and looking for an 18-inch long bird on those rock cliffs. They benefit from that.”
Peregrine falcons in NH
Since the early 1980s, staff and volunteers at New Hampshire Audubon and the state’s Fish and Game Department have worked to restore the peregrine falcon population – through captive breeding of peregrine subspecies, training young birds to reach their hunting potential, and artificial nest site provisioning. Today, the two entities continue to partner on the species’ management in the state.
The way Martin describes the raptors is indicative of someone who has spent much of his career admiring, respecting, and studying them. They are “dramatic-looking birds,” extremely skilled fliers, and acrobatic, he said. Instead of pouncing on prey, they attack in midair – often pigeons, songbirds, and ducks.
Two hundred mph is the number often batted around when talking about a peregrine falcon in a diving pursuit.
“They’re really striking when you see them perched because they have this black stripe over their eyes, kind of like the marking football players put on and it actually has the same function,” Martin said. “That black stripe keeps reflection down so they can see what they are going after.”
While DDT, a leading cause of the decline of peregrine falcons, was banned by the federal government in 1972, Martin said there are still concerns for the population. A study published in 2008 by a group at the College of William and Mary in Virginia looked at 114 eggs collected from 35 nests in New England from 1996 to 2006 – with more than half from New Hampshire. The results showed unusually high levels of PBDEs, a class of flame-retardant chemicals.
Another worry is human activity around nesting spots on cliffs, a favorite location for peregrines. Oftentimes, Martin said, biologists have to partner with rock climbers in order to access these particular nests and band the birds.
And while peregrines breed mostly in the White Mountains, New Hampshire has both cliff-nesting and urban-nesting pairs.
Urban areas, Martin said, have everything a peregrine falcon needs, particularly lots of available food of the right size – medium-sized birds and small mammals. And when they nest on buildings, there’s always a sheltered side out of the wind.
Across the state, peregrines are also breeding on interstate bridges and power plant smokestacks.
Nesting on the Brady Sullivan Tower
About 30 years ago, Martin and now-retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Michael Amaral came up with the idea to install a nest box on the Brady Sullivan Tower after some peregrine falcons had been spotted around downtown Manchester. Throughout the 1990s, the box didn’t have “any takers,” Martin said, except pigeons. At one point, they closed it up.
But when falcon activity appeared to be picking up around 2000, they reopened the nesting box, which was handmade by Amaral and his son in their basement. As an amateur woodworker, Amaral said he enjoyed making nesting boxes and trays to better suit building ledges and bridge girders for peregrine falcon nesting.
“It is so cool for us to tune into the live webcam and see the birds still successfully using this box that we made so many years ago,” Amaral said.
In the early 2000s, Martin said they monitored the Brady Sullivan birds with an employee in the building who would take his lunch breaks to walk upstairs and peer through the glass. Today, anyone can view what’s going on there by simply clicking a link to a livestream channel called Peregrine Networks.
“It’s getting a lot of attention,” Martin said. “It’s great to have the camera there and let people see what’s going on basically inside the nest.”
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