Photo by Lucy Brzoska
Wild Barcelona City Raptors home
A young peregrine falcon sunbathing on the cliffs of Montjuic
In 1973, the pigeon fanciers who killed Barcelona’s last nesting pair of peregrine falcons thought they had got rid of the hawks for good. But thanks to a reintroduction project, four pairs are once again nesting in favoured vantage points: the Montjuïc cliffs and the more urban precipices of the Besòs Mar power station, a factory chimney in Poblenou and one of the Sagrada Familia towers, where an extremely popular webcam annually records the rapid transformation of four cuddly white chicks into powerful birds of prey (www.falconsbarcelona.net).
Finding food in the city is not a problem. Barcelona currently supports around 256,000 pigeons, regularly fed by an army of well-wishers. The peregrines’ feed on them and their diet also includes parakeets, swifts and, in fact, any bird they might encounter on the wing. Artificial urban lighting extends their hunting schedule, allowing them to snatch prey while soaring at night. Many non-urban birds are caught in Barcelona’s skies, revealing the importance of the city as a point along the migratory route down the Mediterranean coast for many species. The nests of our peregrines have revealed feathers of birds such as Scops owl, snipe, bar-tailed godwit, teal and the rare Baillon’s crake. A total of 29 different species of prey have been recorded since 1999, although pigeons make up 52 percent of their diet. Clearly, however, Barcelona’s four pairs of peregrine falcons make no dent on the city’s multitude of pigeons.
The young falcons are dispersing now, but if you’re quick, a prime spot to observe them honing their renowned powers of flight is Montjuïc’s Camí del Mar. Peregrines are the fastest creatures on the surface of the planet and in a dive can reach speeds, for a split second, of 300 kilometres per hour. They pass at lightning speed, sometimes at eye-level, and perform aerial acrobatics. On one occasion, we observed two plummeting to earth, the legs of one sibling held in the bill of the other. The scream of the upside-down falcon resonated over the port. After a last-minute separation, they ricocheted skywards again. Soon their parents will drive them away to establish their own territories. One of Barcelona’s peregrines, born last year, travelled south along the coast and has found a new home on those man-made cliffs, the skyscrapers of Benidorm.
Another successful Barcelona bird of prey is the kestrel, whose nesting sites include mobile phone masts and window ledges. In open areas, kestrels are known for their ability to hover motionless while scanning for prey. In the city, they’ve developed a different hunting technique: visiting balconies to prise pet birds through the bars of their cages, leaving the mystified owner to come home to only a handful of feathers.
Nick Lloyd and Lucy Brzoska write for www.iberianature.com and run nature tours in Barcelona.
First published July 2009.