Officials rescue falcon from Whitestone Bridge

By Kathianne Boniello

Thousands of travelers cross the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge every day, but few choose to stick around the busy East River crossing that connects Queens to the Bronx.

Last week, however, one flighty visitor stayed on the bridge so long she had to be rescued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Bridges and Tunnels and the city Department of Environmental Protection.

A female Peregrine Falcon became trapped underneath the Whitestone Bridge and was freed Friday after DEP Wildlife Biologist Christopher Nadareski and maintenance workers from the bridge climbed out to the caught bird.

Peregrine Falcons are on the endangered species list in New York state and were nearly extinct after World War II, according to the DEP, because of the widespread use of pesticides that disrupted the birds’ reproductive cycles.

The falcons feed on other birds, particularly pigeons, blackbirds, starlings and blue jays, the DEP said, and can fly at speeds ranging from 99 to 273 miles per hour. Female falcons can grow as long as 20 inches, the DEP said.

In the last 20 years, the falcons have made city bridges and some tall buildings in the metropolitan area their homes, resulting in a strong comeback for the nearly decimated species.

The DEP said there are a dozen active falcon nests in the city, including one on the Queens side of the Throgs Neck Bridge, which also connects Queens and the Bronx and stands just a few miles from the Whitestone.

But the falcons have not been known to hang around the Whitestone, bridge General Manager Raymond Webb said this week, adding that the falcon was trapped underneath the roadway level of the bridge.

“We were alerted by our engineering department that there was a bird under the bridge that seemed to be in distress,” Webb said. “We thought it was injured.”

Webb said the rescue took all of about 15 minutes as Nadareski and the workers located the trapped bird and the biologist caught the falcon by the legs, placing it in a wicker basket until it could be freed.

“It was relatively calm,” Webb said of the falcon.

Dr. John Charos, a veterinarian who works at clinics throughout Queens as well as at the Alley Pond Environmental Center in Douglaston, said the city’s bridges provide a nearly ideal habitat for the falcons.

“It’s very natural for them to be around there because of the pigeon population,” Charos said. “It’s a good source of easy food.”

It was not until the early 1980s that the Metropolitan Transit Authority became aware of the falcons’ use of the city’s bridges as nesting areas.

At that time, MTA Bridges and Tunnels Maintenance Supervisor Ed Peters was one of the first to discover the falcons’ nesting habits. Peters, who has since retired, was a member of his local Audobon Society and had just seen a lecture on birds of prey that included Peregrine Falcons when he made a regular visit to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The Verrazano connects Staten Island and Brooklyn.

“The first one was the Verrazano. I was talking to one of the guys who mentioned that a bird was dive-bombing him as he climbed the cables,” Peters said, referring to the suspension cables which hold up the bridge.

Peters helped identify the aggressive bird and later learned falcons had also been nesting on the Queens side of the Throgs Neck Bridge.

“It was pretty neat,” he said.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at [email protected] or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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