Pittsburgh Stories and Tips

The Pittsburgh Falcons--Not a Ball Team!

The Walk to West End Overlook Photo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


As powerful wings move the air above us, our guide looks up and guesses that a turkey vulture has invaded our space. Then she recognizes it as a peregrine falcon and remembers that these raptors are always in Pittsburgh’s news. Everyone knows that they roost atop the Gulf Tower.

"What’s happening?" I have to turn around to see it and catch only a streak zipping down to the Ohio River. (I understand that they can dive at speeds around 200 miles/hour.) As high as we are above the water, though, I must correct her: "I believe we are invading his space!" High above Fort Pitt Tunnel, this is his kingdom, and only those curious Georges who want to see what the city looks like from his perspective venture up this walk.

Pittsburgh really didn’t have to plan "greenbelts." More likely, greenbelts planned Pittsburgh. Only problem is, most of the woods around the center city are too steep for walking, hiking, biking, or even climbing without equipment. However, that is what makes this metropolis feel so cozy, and one might argue that the absence of humans on these steep riverbanks is what protects the wildlife who make it their home. The critters do their part to enchant the greater metropolitan area of 1.5 million people, who feel that they have the best of both worlds: urban and natural. Enter raptors! They don’t possess the handicaps that limit human forays onto these cliffs.

And they certainly don’t respect the wildlife in the waters, as we do. I am very sad to report to those who have enjoyed ducks along these waters that I haven’t seen a single quacking Anatidae at Gateway Clipper’s dock or anywhere else along my cruise course this weekend. Now, I have learned from West Virginia Public Radio that these Pittsburgh Falcons--you see, they are talking about them all the way down in West Virginia!--sometimes bring beheaded ducks to office windowsills at the Gulf Tower, where they pluck them and devour them in front of God and secretaries. Obviously, they haven’t heard that "a duck may be somebody’s brother."

Now, to make matters worse, I understand that the duck-hawks have been there more than 10 years and that occupants of the Gulf Tower have no intention of shooing away their murdering, raptorial guests. Instead, they have placed a roosting box on their roof and cooperated with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Pennsylvania Game Commission to form a society to protect the falcons. These three rivers of empire and steel are wild once again, and conservation is now a prime goal of this city. The National Aviary has established a second falcon nest on the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland. This second project was the brainchild of a biology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. At one time, he believed that the two falcon populations were far enough apart that the birds wouldn’t become territorial and fight one other. Wrong! They probably have.

So, what chance has a duck-lover against all the biologists in a city well-known for its preservation efforts that include those of the National Aviary? What about the local scientists involved in biotechnology? Just as Pittsburgh’s preeminence in iron and steel was unquestioned in other decades, the city’s biotechnical leadership is recognized today. Couldn't researchers devise a microbe that would make ducks less tasty to nonhuman predators? Like Marie Antoinette (kind of), I say of the falcons, "Let them eat snake!

"Furthermore, thanks to the leadership of Carnegie Mellon University, the city is the foremost center for robotics in the world outside of Japan. Maybe this would work… could we have duck robots?

Okay, I have to admit that peregrine falcons are pretty exciting. Their home in Pittsburgh is a done deal, and it is helping to reverse their near extinction. The original Pittsburgh parents, Boris and Natasha, have had 18 babies, most of them banded, tracked and virtual celebrities with their own webcam. You can see them online, or if you would rather see them soaring above the city, spend time on the rivers. At least one of their children lives in Detroit now and one in Cleveland. Heck, before long, every city within a hawk's flight will have a few--thanks to the Gulf Tower and Cathedral of Learning nests. (Say "goodbye" to your web-footed friends!)

You won’t see Boris anymore, for those two nests in Pittsburgh probably did become territorial. A younger male from the Cathedral of Learning nest probably killed Boris. As a result, the female at Gulf Tower abandoned six eggs (Boris’), took up residence with her new mate (a young stud from the Oakland nest), and produced four new eggs.

As you can imagine, Pittsburghers have been interested in the shenanigans of the predators from the beginning of the Gulf Tower nest. That’s how residents of this city are--proud that their hometown is first. The nest at Gulf was the first falcon nest in Pennsylvania in over 40 years. (It’s now over 10 years old, but it still gets a lot of press.)

If you want to keep an eye on the Gulf Tower while you are in town, look at the photo.

See the tallest building? That’s US Steel Tower on Grant Street. The Gulf Tower is the one in front of it on the left. It’s the older art deco skyscraper on the corner of Seventh and Grant. The roost is on 37th floor.

If you want to capture a really neat shot of Pittsburgh, do this. Find the West End Overlook. Perhaps the Duquesne Overlook will do--it’s easier to find on Carson Street. You can even walk to the incline, about a mile from the Station Square subway stop, or drive to the parking lot. (Duquesne Incline has its own.) Be patient. Make sure the bird is high in the air above buildings with a clear backdrop of sky--but include the famous skyline! The National Aviary on the Northside is known for its raptor program, so the photo would be especially definitive of Pittsburgh. It’s the skyline shot that not many get.

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