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Talon contest atop Cathedral of Learning riveting video

| Wednesday, March 21, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

Erie still rules the roost -- for now.

Rare footage of the male peregrine falcon defending its man-made aerie in a bloody territory battle atop the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning has bird enthusiasts fluttering.

"The Department of Biological Sciences at Pitt is abuzz about this incident," said Anthony Bledsoe, a lecturer and ornithologist in the department. "From my experience it's unique for the state of Pennsylvania and it very well may be unique for the U.S. as a whole" to have footage of a peregrine falcon territory battle.

The fight broke out Sunday morning when a male peregrine falcon intruded on the 40th-floor nesting box occupied by Erie and its mate, Dorothy, since 2002. The pair has raised 18 young on the Oakland skyscraper, and Dorothy is expected to lay eggs in the next few days.

That nest and another atop the Gulf Tower, Downtown, are managed by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the National Aviary.

Sunday morning, Kate St. John, who volunteers with the conservancy, visited a Web site that broadcasts live images from a camera posted outside the nest and saw the fight underway. She began recording the images.

"For me it was scary because I've watched these birds for so long," said St. John, who was concerned that the intruder might kill Erie.

At the Gulf Tower nest, 12-year-old Boris was decapitated in 2003 by Louis, an offspring of Erie and Dorothy. Louis then became patriarch of that nest.

Such fights are a rite of spring among highly territorial peregrine falcons, Bledsoe said. It's the time when young falcons search for ready-made nests and fertile females. Erie has fended off potential usurpers before, but the battles haven't been caught on camera, he said.

For much of Sunday's fight the two falcons locked talons and attacked with their sharp beaks, struggling in the exact location where the eggs are usually laid. Dorothy was in the nest, inches from the battle, but did not participate.

The end of the fight happens off-screen.

"They lunged at each other and started rolling around in a ball and then rolled off the edge into a gully," said St. John. "The last picture is the female looking in the direction that they fell into. She looked there and then she looks up in the sky, so I think what happened is that the intruder flew away."

The conservancy hasn't positively identified the remaining male, but Bledsoe believes it is Erie.

"The behavior of the male that is currently at the site is identical to the behavior of the male that was there before the fight," he said. "There is no additional courting behavior with the female, and if the interloper had won, we would have expected to see a lot more courting behavior."

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