A pigeon flaps lazily above the University of Pittsburgh campus. Suddenly, a streaking peregrine falcon dives toward its unaware prey at 100 to 150 miles an hour.
Weighing two pounds and just 15 to 20 inches long, the raptor tucks its wings—usually 3Q feet across—close to its body for maximum speed. The capture is quick, and the pigeon is no more, suffering the fate of the many small birds, mammals and insects that compose the peregrine’s diet.
Witnessing such strikes in Oakland or Downtown has increased, thanks to an ambitious local program launched in the early 1990s. Peregrine falcons were once one of the most widespread birds in the world, but the use of pesticides such as DDT resulted in thin eggshells that often cracked during incubation. By the 1960s, peregrine populations had crashed in much of the world, and in 1974 they went on the endangered list.
A nationwide recovery program led to a comeback, and in 1999 they were taken off the endangered list, with as many as 1,650 breeding pairs existing in the U.S. and Canada. In Pennsylvania, falcons are still listed as endangered. However, several local groups have been working to enhance that recovery.
The first regional peregrine falcon nest box was installed in 1991 at the 37th floor of the Gulf Tower, downtown. (A similar box was installed at the same time at Philadelphia’s City Hall.) In 2002, funding from the Pennsylvania Game Commission allowed the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to erect a box outside the 40th floor of the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.
Peregrine parents do not build a “nest” in the usual sense. The bottom of the box is filled with pea-sized gravel, and the parents create a shallow depression where they lay three to five eggs each spring. They take turns incubating the eggs, with chicks hatching in about 30 days and flying after 40 more. Their average life span is 7 to 15 years, with some living as many as 20 years.
Wild peregrines have used both Pittsburgh boxes since they were built; the same pair returns each year, with a new mate sometimes appearing. The best estimates are that 39 young falcons—including four this year—have hatched and launched from the Cathedral of Learning, with 73 chicks emerging and fledging from the older Gulf Tower box, including five this year. Unfortunately, until and unless the young birds learn the urban ropes, a few fly directly into a nearby window, because the reflection looks like open space. Some die; others recover.
The young falcons disperse, but when they reach sexual maturity in about a year, many nest on bridges, tall buildings and cliff sites in the tri-state area. Nesting pairs have been seen on the Monaca-East Rochester Bridge, as well as on the McKees Rocks, 62nd Street and Westinghouse bridges. While National Aviary and Game Commission experts declined to guess how many falcons exist locally, the success of breeding programs is undeniable.
“The program is helping propagate the species, and we keep track,” said Steve Sarro, the Aviary’s director of animal programs. Keeping track involves a delicate spring ritual in which Game Commission experts carefully lift chicks from their nests, bring them inside for weighing, veterinary examination and the attaching of identifying leg bands. Experts also examine nest debris to learn more about the feeding habits of the “Pittsburgh peregrines,” a messy but important task. During it all, the diving and swooping of the disturbed parents makes TV news each year. It’s the mother, the larger of the two parents, who appears most upset at the intrusion.
The peregrine’s mating, incubation, hatching and feeding is captured live on very popular streaming video with sound, broadcast from both nest box locations and viewable at the National Aviary web site, aviary.org/falcon. Though Aviary and Game Commission experts wouldn’t give an absolute time frame, one project organizer predicted that the nest box maintenance and banding will likely end after next spring’s operations. The cameras, however, may continue providing views of falcon life in the wild. The program’s possible reduction is a testament to its success in re-establishing a peregrine falcon population as it once was in Pennsylvania. From now on, it’ll be up to the birds.