Endangered species lists don't have many happy stories but the peregrine falcon is an exception. This magnificent animal was brought back from the edge of extinction by a small group of dedicated individuals and thanks to the internet anyone with a computer can get an intimate look at the life of a bird that has lived with mankind for thousands of years and is literally the fastest animal on the planet. By the end of this article I hope you'll consider joining the ranks of the "falconatics".
Peregrine Falcons, Back From The Edge.
After World War II the increasing use of pesticides such as DDT was decimating birds of prey, called "raptors". Raptors are the top of the food chain. Whatever small mammals and birds ingested would ultimately end up in far larger concentrations in raptors like the peregrine falcon. DDT has several harmful effects but the worst was the thinning of raptor eggshells until virtually no egg could survive incubation without cracking and killing the chick inside. By 1970 no nesting pairs of peregrine falcons could be found east of the Mississippi river and only two nesting pairs were counted in all of California. Desperate biologists resorted to desperate measures which involved taking eggs from nests and hand incubating them, then raising the chicks in so-called "hack" boxes where the chicks were fed with minimal contact with humans in the hope they would leave the sites and survive in the wild. The biologists were forced to guess and improvise but with the banning of DDT and the extraordinary efforts of groups like the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group (SCPBRG), formed in 1975, the peregrine falcon was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999. A recent California census showed 179 nesting pairs!
Rise of the Urban Falcons.
With increasing numbers of falcons comes increasing competition for prime nesting sites. When a female chooses a nest site it will defend it throughout the year. Peregrines don't build nests like the song birds you see in your back yard. Peregrine nests are called "scrapes" for a reason. The female will just push a small amount of gravel together or take over an abandoned raven nest. Humans have lived with falcons for thousands of years and it looks like the falcons have decided to move in with us.
Increasing numbers of falcons are choosing to nest in manmade structures like buildings, bridges and cathedrals. Apparently, to a peregrine, a tall building looks like a cliff face and some buildings make excellent nest sites. In 2003 a pair of falcons, named George and Gracie, starting nesting in the Pacific Gas and Electric building in San Francisco and SCPBRG installed a gravel nest box for them. And In 2006 a nesting pair were seen on San Jose city hall just down the peninsula from San Francisco. SCPBRG installed a nice nest box filled with gravel on a fairly inaccessible roof on city hall and the falcons moved in. Bay area bird watchers loved watching the falcons and the chicks they raised so with San Francisco and San Jose being the two end points of the high tech "silicon valley" you can guess what happened nextâ¦web cams!
Webcams, The Ultimate Nest Accessory.
Internet cameras with full pan/tilt/zoom capability were installed in both the PG&E and the San Jose City Hall nest site. Human operators manned the camera controls and have gotten very good at tracking and zooming in on anything of interest that happens in the nest. The result was a huge increase in visitors to the SCPBRG web page. Falcon lovers from all over the world were watching the yearly drama of the falcons and thanks to the efforts of a lawyer for the City of San Jose, Evet Lowen, the mayor's office began holding naming contests for children to submit names for the new chicks after they've been banded and their sex determined. Ms. Lowen formed a California 501( C ) (3) non-profit: the San JosÃ© Peregrine Falcon Alliance, to fund raise, publicize and assist the SCPBRG with the San Jose falcon nest box and breeding program. This focus on publicity really paid off, in February of 2010 a second camera was added to the City Hall nest site which allows the young falcons to be followed even after they've started flying.
The First Big Event: Egg Laying.
Mating activity will begin in February with the male falcon displaying fancy dives and aerial displays and the pair deciding on nest location and other details. The camera operators typically declare the cameras open for business on Valentine's day. On the first week or so of March, the San Jose female, known as Clara, will usually lay her first egg. Experienced camera viewers can tell when the time is close. Clara gets "dumpy" as one observer put it. Clara gets slow and walks in circles in the nest with her head down looking sleepy. When the first egg appears the discussion boards light up with cheers. The other eggs come about every other day or so. With the last or next to last egg, Clara will start "hard" incubation where she sits continuously on the eggs. Clara will do most of the incubating but occasionally the male will take over egg sitting duties but since males are smaller than females it can be amusing to watch the male attempt to cover a large clutch of eggs with his wings.
The Hatching Drama.
Not all eggs hatch but most will after about 30 days or so of incubation. Falcon eyed camera watchers have been known to capture the tiny beak of a chick just as it breaks through the shell. I've been lucky enough to see it and dedicated camera watchers will also be capturing camera feeds and saving the video for later uploading so you can see it yourself in case you missed it during the day. As you can imagine, the number of people viewing the web camera increases dramatically from this point on. Once hatched the chicks still have to fight for food. Sadly, some chicks may "fail to thrive" as it is known and they'll grow weaker every day until they can no longer keep their heads up and push to the front for food. It is sad to watch but a reminder that you are watching wild animals, not pets.
Don't Miss The Banding Of The Chicks.
The surviving chicks grow fast and at some point they'll have to be banded which requires a brave worker from the SCPBRG to rappel down to the otherwise inaccessible nest box. Clara the mother is NOT amused by this. Some of the most dramatic pictures of female Peregrine Falcons are taken when their chicks are being banded. The mother is in full threat display with a ferocious gaze and feathers spread and dive bombing the head of the person messing with her chicks. This all unfolds in real time on the camera and experienced wildlife photographers know this is the ideal time to get the most dramatic picture of a falcon in flight.
Fledging, A Leap Of Faith.
The big event is fledging, that's when a juvenile falcon takes its first flight. The chick's down has been replaced with juvenile feathers and the rapidly growing birds have been spending more and more time on the ledge of the building looking out and practicing their wing flapping. But at some point the bird has to take that first jump and there really is no way to tell exactly when that will happen. In general, the smaller males will fledge first but anything is possible. A falcon might flap madly for half a minute then launch itself or it might just sit there quietly and with no warning just jump off the ledge. San Jose camera watchers still talk about the fledge of Hiko in June of 2007, a small male who was accidently pushed off the ledge by his two larger sisters! He was 18 stories up and observers say he fell for three stories then started flying with his mother, Clara, guiding him to a landing. Hiko went on to fly more that day and proved a strong flyer. Happily Hiko was discovered on a bridge in Alameda and he met a nice female falcon who has been named Haya and they've started raising their own chicks. As a side note, observers say Hiko's first son is a chip off the old bird. Hiko's son's first flight was falling off the beam he was standing on and landing on his back on another beam about three feet below!
Hiko's fledge was a happy one. Unfortunately in the wild it's estimated that 60 percent of falcons don't survive their first flight. Even if they fly well they typically don't land well. And once on the ground they are fair game for any predator. In the urban environment, dogs and cars will take their toll in addition to the ever present danger of flying into a glass building. To combat these dangers fledgewatch was born.
Fledgewatch To The Rescue!
Every year a group of falconatics volunteer for fledgewatch training. They learn how to safely handle a falcon who has landed on the ground at the end of its first flight. If the fledgling is in a dangerous spot it gets bundled into a box and takes an elevator ride back up to the nest. SCPBRG member Glen Stewart tells stories of rescuing juvenile falcons from slick trash cans and even swimming out in the San Francisco bay. In fact, one nest on the Oakland bay bridge is so dangerous for first time flyers that chicks are often taken from the nest to prevent their first flights from landing in the water. The discussion boards are filled with reports of fledgewatch volunteers reporting locations and fledging status. In San Jose, volunteers set up a falcon watch headquarters on the top floor of the fourth street garage where fellow falconatics can gather and look through some extremely expensive spotting scopes that falcon watchers bring to the garage. I've talked to volunteers from several states like Montana who come to the bay area to see their grand kids but seem to spend an awful lot of time on top of the fourth street garage watching falcons. It is addictive. After fledging the young birds still have to learn how to fly and hunt and the parents will be begin mid air food transfers to stretch the young falcons flying skills. I still remember my surprise in seeing a young falcon suddenly flip upside down and take a bird from the talons of a parent. Eventually the young juveniles will leave and start their own nests but not for several weeks much to the delight of the falcon watchers on the fourth street garage.
These Are Wild Animals.
Keep in mind these are wild animals, not pets. It is hard to watch a falcon return to the nest with a one legged limp after being injured from a 100 mile (or faster!) collision with prey. And I notice that a lot of the birds being ripped up to feed to the chicks are pure white so I suspect those weddings where the bride releases a flock of white doves as part of the ceremony are partly responsible for the thriving of urban falcons. Parents with very small children should think about that before telling the kids to just go watch the cute little falcon chicks. Feeding time can get a little gross.
Become A Falconatic.
By now I hope I've interested in you becoming a falcon watcher. Even if it isn't mating season the web page of the SCPBRG has archived videos of key moments in last season's nesting activity which is fun to watch and starting on Valentine's Day I encourage you to join the discussion list and read the reports of the volunteers on the ground and at the 4th Street garage in San Jose. The peregrine falcon is a true success story showing what a small group of dedicated individuals can accomplish when they work together. (Note: It's January 2011 as I write this and I see Clara and her mate are clearly picking out a nest position in the gravel box so activity has already started and some volunteer is moving the camera to follow the birds.).
The first place to start is the falcon nest camera page of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group. From there you can go to a web page dedicated to the camera at each web site. Be sure to click on the "YouTube videos of this nest" link to see last year's videos. I'm partial to the San Jose City Hall nest as that is my home town and the site has two cameras so I encourage a visit to the San Jose Peregrine Alliance for info and news from true falconatics. For lovers of wildlife photography I recommend visiting Glenn Nevill's web page for peregrine falcon photos. I've met Glenn on the 4th Street Garage and his ability to catch key moments in the life of a falcon is just superb. One of his pictures, in the form of a magnet, is in my kitchen right now.
And finally, for those of you who feel the world can't be changed and everything is getting worse, I recommend this lecture by Glenn Stewart on "Celebrating The Return Of The Peregrine Falcon". It's an inspiring story that should be shared. I'll end this article with the writing of Glenn Stewart from one of his many inspiring posts on the San Jose falcon discussion board:
face into the wind / make your cliff your own / live like a peregrine â Glenn Stewart.