Bird’s iView: Streaming Falcons in the City
Peregrine falcons living in a Melbourne office tower have become famous, thanks to a webcam allowing human viewers to watch the birds feeding, nesting and snoozing live. But what, asks Harry Saddler, do the falcons make of us?
It's a warm October Sunday afternoon in Melbourne. The city's settling into a pre-summer torpor. I've finished the weekend newspapers. The cat's asleep. I turn on my laptop and settle into the sofa. On the screen, a bulky bird – black hood, white chest, finely barred belly and huge yellow feet – is shuffling over two tiny, cotton-white chicks. It stomps side-to-side like the T-rex from Jurassic Park.
Peregrine falcons are the fastest animal on earth. They're apex predators and cliff-nesting hunters who, right across the world, have followed their pigeon prey into cities, nesting in skyscrapers. Peregrine falcons first nested at the top of 367 Collins Street, a prime-location CBD office tower, in Melbourne in 1991. A camera feed from the nest has been beamed to a screen in the building’s lobby for years, but in September 2017, the feed went online.
It's said that if you see a falcon, the falcon's seen you.
Suddenly, anybody could watch the peregrines. Most of the time nothing happened. When a parent brought food, the chicks devoured it, but they'd quickly settle back into the subdued rhythms of waiting, and growing. Watching the nest from my sofa in the warm air, I was reminded of watching cricket on TV: the rhythms were the same, the languor was the same. For hours nothing happened, and then everything happened.
Interest in the webcam spiked when the chicks hatched on 4 October this year. That's when I found out about it, and started watching it myself. They say it takes a village to raise a child; the parent falcons were raising their chicks by themselves, but a village of observers quickly built up around them. All over social media, Melburnians expressed a common excitement about the falcons. There was a feeling of shared ownership: look what our city's done. We delighted in the two fluffy white chicks who were growing before our eyes, and we delighted in the pigeon bones piling up around them, too. The falcons were engaging: often they seemed to be staring straight at the camera.
They probably were. Falcons notice everything. Their eyesight's much better than ours. The parent falcons constantly observed, too: jerking their heads up, panning across the sky. Falcons have the wakefulness of cats, always ready to pounce.
They may not know they are being watched but they know they are sharing the world with us ... no animal can afford to be indifferent to our presence.
It's eye-opening – if you'll forgive the expression – to watch the daily life of another visual hunter like ourselves. Falcons use their eyes like we do. We can't imagine what it's like to dive towards a pigeon at 300 kilometres per hour but we can imagine what it's like to spend hours just watching the world. Our language is suffused with visual metaphors: I see what you mean; I'll look into it. We call this imagery.
When I talk about non-urban peregrines I find myself saying that they live 'in the wild' – as if the peregrines at 367 Collins Street aren't living lives as full of risk and freedom as any other falcons. But there's a wild precariousness to their lives. After less than a month, abruptly, both chicks die – the first on 18 October; its sibling a week later, just as its flight feathers were starting to poke through the down.
For the watchers, it's desolation. The peregrines were a placebo, convincing us that things weren't so bad. Peregrines are a striking example of animals adapting to urban life – but in the aftermath of the death of both chicks, it's hard not to reflect also on the the plummet towards extinction of many, many other species in the face of of human activity. As aloof as they may seem, the remaining peregrines aren’t indifferent to us. They may not know they are being watched but they know they are sharing the world with us.
No animal can afford to be indifferent to our presence, and if there's one thing that truly separates us from other animals, it's our capacity to exhibit such indifference to the myriad species we share the planet with – or refuse to share it with. If we have difficulty imagining peregrine falcons on the side of a building in the middle of a city as ‘wild’, it's because we've so thoroughly dissociated ourselves from the natural world. We don't think of ourselves as wild animals, but that's what we are. Animal needs drive our lives: food, shelter, security.
It's said that if you see a falcon, the falcon's seen you. The peregrine chicks at 367 Collins Street might not have known exactly what they were looking at when they gazed down the camera. But if they'd survived to take their first unsteady flights from the nest out over Melbourne's lunchtime crowds, they would surely have understood, in their way, that they were flying over scores of other animals.
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