Each spring in recent years, a pair of red-tailed hawks have nested on an old cooling tower at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, delighting onlookers as they shriek and soar and teach their fledglings to fly.
Since 2000, a pair of peregrine falcons have returned each spring to their nesting box on the old Fleet building downtown, making history in a state where no peregrines had nested for 49 years.
In the city’s West End, a pair of red-tailed hawk newcomers soar over the Cranston Street Armory and feast on rodents.
And of late, a pair of peregrine falcons have been observed around Pawtucket City Hall, possibly scouting for a nesting site, according to Mike Tucker, an Audubon Society naturalist and manager of the Caratunk Wildlife Refuge, in Seekonk.
Urbanization usurps natural habitats, spelling trouble for, or even contributing to the demise of, some wildlife.
But certain raptors are adapting to cities. And with their impressive talons, fearsome beaks and feats of flight — peregrines swoop and dive on prey at speeds of up to 200 mph and red-tailed hawks soar on 4-foot wingspans — they can captivate seasoned nature lovers and neophytes alike.
“It’s a very positive development for conservation and mankind,” said Daniel E. Varland, co-editor of the book Raptors in Human Landscapes. Varland lists peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, osprey and Cooper’s hawks as among those birds of prey that are surviving in cities. In some parts of the country, he said, small falcons called merlins have moved into urban areas.
Tucker notes that eastern screech owls nest in some Rhode Island cities, and bald eagles hunt in winter along the banks of the Seekonk River in Providence. He has also seen an American kestrel during the winter and a great-horned owl breeding in the city.
“The fact that they’re in these cities … allows us to associate with them and learn about their behavior and appreciate them,” said Varland. “There are a lot of people that really never get out of the city, and this allows an exposure that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
University of Washington researcher John Marzluff, who studies how birds respond “to the loss and isolation of the remaining patches of forest,” because of urbanization, said, “The typical story that conservation biologists have been telling is that when urbanization comes in everything goes extinct. Or that people who are really interested in nature go outside the city.”
But Marzluff said his research, and that of others around the country, tells something of a different story.
Peregrine falcons, cliff-dwellers that were pushed to the brink of extinction by DDT exposure, are now nesting on skyscrapers and bridges. (A 1972 ban on DDT and subsequent captive breeding and release programs led to their recent removal from the endangered species list.)
Marzluff noted “Pale Male” and “Lola,” a famous pair of red-tailed hawks that nested on an exclusive New York condominium building, captivating city-dwellers who bonded over the birds and celebrated with champagne toasts when the chicks fledged.
“Those are neat, big powerful birds that attract people’s attention — especially for kids, to see a hawk catch and kill something” can be riveting, says Marzluff. In fact, Marzluff said, urban ecology studies “have been showing that evolution happens very, very quickly in response to living with people. Some birds have changed plumage or even color or behavior within 20 years … that process of adaptation is what allows them to live” in proximity to humans.
Urban life is not without peril for raptors. Though their nests on skyscrapers and building ledges help protect them from human predators, they can die from ingesting poisoned pigeons, get electrocuted on power lines, or collide with traffic — particularly fledglings.
Still, many are either holding their own or increasing in numbers.
“There is still a lot of nature in cities, and it’s a good way for people to become engaged, because it’s right there in your backyard,” he said.
TUCKER, MANAGER of the Caratunk Wildlife Refuge, leads many major bird-watching trips locally and around New England. As such, he knows where the city raptors nest.
On a recent summer morning, Tucker brought a reporter and a photographer to Slater Park in Pawtucket, where he knew that a pair of red-tailed hawks had been nesting. The nest is gone, but the hawks are still around, he said.
Just as Tucker pointed out where the nest had been, a man sitting 20 feet away in a parked car pointed toward a red-tailed hawk in a tree.
The man was Wolé ÁlÀdé, an Attleboro resident and professor of literature at Quincy College and Roxbury Community College. ÁlÀdé said he often visits the park “to read, to take a walk, and at the same time, commune with nature.”
He has been watching the red-tailed hawks at Slater Park for at least three years, and owls as well.
“If we could only listen to what they say, they’re actually trying to talk with us,” he said.
Tucker’s next stop: an asphalt parking lot behind an industrial area in Pawtucket.
“See the osprey?” he said, pointing to a nearby cell tower. As Tucker focused his birding scope on the tower, crows began mobbing the osprey and chased it out of its nest.
In small locust trees nearby, Tucker identified a family of downy woodpeckers; a family of black-capped chickadees, a northern mockingbird, an American robin, an American goldfinch, and a mourning dove. “What I liked about that,” he said later, “is that it demonstrates how a small patch of vegetation in an urban area can attract birds.”
Tucker also points out that there is a bigger picture here.
While some raptors are adapting to urban environments, “there are many more birds in serious decline because of loss of habitat. There are birds out there that need large expanses of mature forest or specific kinds of wetlands. Many birds in the Northeast are declining rapidly because they need grasslands,” he said, such as northern bobwhite, grasshopper sparrow and bobolink. The American kestrel is an example of a raptor that is declining in the Northeast, he added.
MANY OF THE official bird counts in Rhode Island focus on sanctuaries and other favorite resting stops for migratory birds. Those include Roger Williams Park, which attracts many spring migrants, Swan Point Cemetery, and Lonsdale Marsh on the Central Falls-Lincoln line.
One urban birding club, the “Brown Boobies,” has kept tabs on birds seen around Brown University on College Hill since 2005.
The nearly 100 species on their campus bird list includes a number of raptors: turkey vultures, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, bald eagle; peregrine falcon, merlin and osprey. (Some birds were migrating through, but others have been seen regularly on campus, according to the group’s Web site, www.brownboobies.org.)
Tucker also receives anecdotal or firsthand accounts of interesting and unusual birds in the area, including raptors.
About a month ago, a man sent Tucker some photographs he took outside Pawtucket City Hall. In his e-mail to Tucker, the man wrote “that he has seen these two birds hanging out around City Hall, perched up high. He didn’t know what they were.”
But when Tucker studied them, he said, “I was surprised to see that they were peregrine falcons.”
A volunteer Tucker sent to check out the situation spotted the peregrines outside the City Hall. Tucker believes they are not the peregrines from downtown Providence, and “they seem interested in the area, so who knows.” With luck, they may nest there next year, said Tucker, explaining that if they haven’t nested by now, they’ve missed the window for this year.
And, Tucker has also seen an American kestrel, a species of falcon, “hanging out where Route 195 branches off of Route 95 north” for several years in a row, during non-breeding seasons. “It is certainly a migrant that has made that area its winter territory,” said Tucker.
Tucker also knows of a great horned owl that nests “near a congested area near Routes 295 and 44, and a pair that nests on the East Side of Providence.
And, several years ago, someone phoned him from North Providence to report they’d found a baby owl stuck in their chimney.
“I’m on a list of people allowed to rescue or recover birds of prey. I gathered all my stuff together, I hopped out of my car in this urban sort of neighborhood — people were standing out on the front lawn sipping drinks as if it were a social occasion,” he said, noting that the screech owl “had attracted a lot of interested neighbors.”
Inside, he found the owl “sitting on a log behind the fireplace screen, calm as could be. It was healthy, so I took it to one of Audubon’s refuges to release it.”
To learn more about the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, visit the Web site www.asri.org.