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Nestings of endangered falcons increase

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 2:06 a.m.
Photo courtesy Mike Faix, National Aviary trainer
This Peregrine falcon fledgling is perched on a pickup truck in downtown Pittsburgh. The bird, still learning to fly, landed on the truck and hitched a ride to the National Aviary. Other falcon fledglings are not so lucky, sometimes being killed by downtown traffic.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission reports a 27 percent jump in the number of confirmed nestings of the endangered Peregrine falcon in the commonwealth in the past three years.

In Pennsylvania, the number of Peregrines reported at nest sites and offspring successfully leaving the nest continue to climb steadily as this majestic and aerially dynamic bird recovers from near extinction.

However, the majority of falcon pairs in the state have been choosing to nest on man-made structures such as buildings and bridges in urban environments, which continue to be deadly places for young falcons learning to fly.

A network of “fledge watch” volunteers and Game Commission officers rescued and saved a number of the birds this year shortly after they left leaving their nests.

The young Peregrine falcon — which will grow up to be the world's fastest flyer at 200 mph in a dive — has trouble negotiating the many obstacles in an urban landscape. It'll land on roads, in rivers and at other dangerous sites.

Last month, the driver of a pickup truck in downtown Pittsburgh found a young Peregrine perched on top of his truck bed.

After the falcon didn't flush, the man drove almost two miles — the bird not moving the entire time — to the National Aviary, where workers captured the Peregrine, according to Kate St. John, a monitor of local falcons and the author of a blog on local wildlife, “Outside My Window.”

A Game Commission officer then took the bird safely back downtown, close to its nest site, according to an Aviary spokeswoman.

In Harrisburg at the Rachel Carson Building, all four of the Peregrine fledglings there have been rescued at least once this year, according to Art McMorris, Peregrine falcon coordinator for the Game Commission.

‘Not a stellar year' for region

This spring, the Game Commission visited nest sites throughout the state to verify nesting and to band as many young falcons as possible.

They confirmed the nesting of 38 pairs, a jump from the 32 pairs reported in 2012 and 2011 and the 30 pairs in 2010, according to McMorris.

Although an additional pair of nesting Peregrines was found in the Pittsburgh area this year at a water tower in Green Tree — nudging the tally from seven to eight nest sites in the region — half of those nests either failed or the fledgling didn't survive long.

“It has been an OK, but not a stellar year,” McMorris said of the Pittsburgh area nesting season.

Although, he adds, there's still time to find more young falcons at a few locations.

Nests at the Tarentum Bridge, Green Tree water tower and the McKees Rocks Bridge failed, while the sole fledgling at the Cathedral of Learning nest on the University of Pittsburgh campus died earlier this month on Forbes Avenue.

Pulling the numbers down this year are two female falcons at the Cathedral and McKees Rock Bridge nests that are 14 years old. They aren't expected to produce many more young.

Bringing up the tally: Three young birds fledged from the Neville Island Bridge nest; four fledged from the downtown Pittsburgh building nest, but one died hitting One Oxford Centre; there's one young falcon at the Westinghouse Bridge in Turtle Creek; and nest monitors are still waiting to see the results of a pair of Peregrines that moved from the Monaca Bridge to a nearby railroad bridge.

City hard on young

Part of the Peregrine falcon's successful comeback nationwide is its adaptation to city life, where there is an abundance of its favorite food: the pigeon. The Peregrine has been nesting in major cities throughout the country such as New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

However, survival rates for young falcons in urban areas for their first year is about 40 percent, compared with about 50 percent for young Peregrines in natural nesting areas such as cliffs, according to a study about a decade ago by the Peregrine Fund.

Here in Pennsylvania, about 60 percent of Peregrine fledglings in urban areas were either killed or rescued in collisions with buildings and automobiles, falling into a river and other mishaps, according to the Game Commission.

It's an issue in the state because most Peregrine nests are on man-made structures, including all of this region's.

Of the 38 pairs of nesting Peregrines in Pennsylvania, only four pairs were found on natural cliffs, which was the Peregrine's preferred nesting habitat in the state before the population crash, according to McMorris.

Those cliff sites included two nests in Luzerne County, one in Northampton, and one in Berks County. The Pittsburgh area is outside the Peregrine's historic breeding range in Pennsylvania.

“The extra hazards in the urban area make an extra challenge for the growth of the population,” McMorris said.

McMorris and his colleagues at the Game Commission aren't sure why so many Peregrines have opted to nest on bridges and buildings in Pennsylvania.

“There could be half a dozen factors leading to it,” McMorris said. “It could be ‘nest site imprinting' (birds raised on man-made structures), abundant prey, and it could be changes in land use. It's sure to be a combination of factors.”

The Game Commission and volunteer nest monitors such as St. John organize “fledge watches” to rescue the young Peregrines.

St. John posts calls for volunteers on her Internet blog, trying to attract people to visit Peregrine nests during the first week or so of the new birds leaving the nest and flying on their own.

The fledge-watch volunteers are trained to rescue the birds from a number of urban disasters such as landing on a road and in other dangerous places.

Cause for heartache

St. John has been monitoring local Peregrines, especially the nest atop the Cathedral of Learning, since 2001.

“Anytime that you expend a lot of effort and spend a lot of time, you care about that thing,” she said.

Recently, she had the pleasure of watching the sole offspring of the Cathedral of Learning's Peregrines, dubbed “Silver Boy,” learning the intricacies of catching and passing prey.

St. John posted on June 12: “Our youngster is in the ‘chase me' phase. If he had brothers and sisters he'd be chasing them. Instead he chases his parents, who willingly oblige.”

However, Silver Boy was found dead on Forbes Avenue.

“Nature is rough,” she said. “You get attached to them, but you have to remember not all of them are going to make it. Watching the babies, you know there will be heartache.”

St. John's blog continues to attract new falcon devotees as the urban landscape provides a big audience of watchers.

“The more you watch nature,” she said, “the more you understand we are all connected.”

As St. John and other volunteers have watched the parent falcons stay at the nest to incubate the eggs, feed, teach and fly with the young, they say it's easy to see the connection.

“We don't have a corner on the market for taking care of children, for feeding our young,” she said. “We don't even have a corner on the market for emotion.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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