For nearly three decades, a pair of peregrine falcons have claimed the Golden Triangle as their home and the skyscrapers as the cliffs where they nest.
But May 8 marked a first for the current pair, Louie and Dori, who had four chicks in their Third Avenue nest this spring.
Humans had visited the nest before to band the chicks, so they could be tracked, but this was the first time they didn’t bring the chicks back, said Kate St. John, who monitors the falcons on her blog, Outside My Window.
The chicks were removed after a developer working on student apartments at 319 Third Ave. asked the Pa. Game Commission to move the four chicks from their nest on the building next door to the construction project, after reports that the adult birds were buzzing workers to defend their young, per TribLive. A spokesperson for the developer told TribLive that construction on the roof stopped “out of concern for the safety of the falcons,” but workers couldn’t wait for the chicks to naturally leave the nest in about a month.
Falcons “definitely don’t like us near their kids,” she said. If a person happens to be near a chick, the adult bird might dive bomb them to scare them off.
“People freak out when that happens, but it’s not personal,” she said. St. John said she heard the birds would also fly above people on high balconies near Third Avenue as if to say, “I own this.”
Commission officials removed the chicks May 8 and relocated them to Humane Animal Rescue’s wildlife center in Verona.
The chicks couldn’t fly yet, so “this is the equivalent to a predator getting to the nest,” St. John told The Incline, adding that the birds’ main predators are great horned owls — and humans.
St. John isn’t an official monitor of the birds, but has become the local expert since starting her blog in 2007, with the National Aviary citing her blog on its website. Ever since she first saw them, St. John said she’s been fascinated by the peregrine falcons and their speed. From their high perch, they can dive on prey at 200 miles an hour and “turn into bullets,” she said.
And while there were some who were upset at the decision to move the chicks, St. John wrote on her blog that there was a “silver lining.”
The silver lining for the chicks is this: These four won’t face death at fledging time. I have seen too many die gruesome deaths because the Third Avenue nest is too low. Half die within two weeks, sometimes slowly and painfully before they are discovered.
These four chicks will do well.
Meet the parents
Now that the chicks are gone, there’s really nothing for Louie and Dori to do, she said, adding that it’s too late in the season for them to have more chicks, as they only lay eggs once a year.
Dori is the second mate to Louie, an “old man of 16,” St. John said. They spend about a third of their time at the Gulf Tower, but they have other nests Downtown. Their territory extends from the Golden Triangle to the North Shore and along the Monongahela River.
After a while, they’ll go back to hanging out in different areas of their territory, she said. Today, St. John noted on her blog that it seemed the pair was “generally absent now from Third Avenue.”
Last year, the pair had chicks at the Gulf Tower, but nested on Third Avenue this year. The Gulf Tower became home to the first peregrine falcon nest in southwestern Pennsylvania in 1991, St. John said. (Watch the peregrine falcon cam at the Gulf Tower here.)
“I hope that next year, the Downtown birds don’t go near that Third Avenue site,” St. John said.
The Third Avenue nest is lower, which isn’t as good for when chicks are learning to fly. If they land on the street, their wings aren’t always strong enough to get off the ground.
It’s not unusual for peregrine falcons to live in cities, because they are naturally cliff dwellers and like to be up high on a flat rock surface, or a skyscraper, said Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary. Cities also have an abundance of prey in pigeons, which also are native to cliffs.
In addition to a south-facing cliff near food, falcons also like to have an updraft to help their young ones fly, St. John said. The Third Ave. nest faces south, but the Gulf Tower nest does not.
In general, the falcons are “pretty oblivious to humans,” Mulvihill said, but their biggest nemesis is manmade: many birds die due to collisions with reflective glass.
After the birds nearly went extinct due to DDT, sharing the city with them is a good thing, Mulvihill said.
“We have to look at the fact that they are in our presence as a positive one… They found a way to make a living here, too.”
Peregrines at Pitt
After the pair moved in Downtown, it would take 11 more years before another successful nest took hold in Pittsburgh, St. John said. It was — and still is — atop the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.
Now, there are roughly nine pairs in the Pittsburgh area. In addition to Downtown and Oakland, the others live in bridges on all three rivers. Pittsburgh doesn’t have cliffs like in Maine or the mountains, but there are are buildings and bridges, so it’s not a bad place to be a peregrine falcon, St. John said.
The cathedral provides the best spot of all, because it’s the highest perch in the area, and the birds can see everything, St. John said. (It’s also the best spot to see the falcons IRL from Schenley Plaza.)
Those birds are Pittsburgh-famous, too, and there’s also a camera to view their nest. This weekend, the two female chicks were banded, so they can be tracked later.
Several local birds were born at Pitt, including Louie, St. John said.
The “grand matriarch” at Pitt was Dorothy, and there’s a big difference between her and the current Oakland female Hope. Dorothy would nurture a chick no matter how sick, but Hope makes a snap judgement when the chicks are hatching. Last month, she killed and ate two chicks as they were hatching, the Post-Gazette reported.
Dori, however, is more like Dorothy, and is a nurturing mom, St. John said.
Check out these chicks
Since arriving in Verona, the four chicks are doing well — they’re gaining weight and are active, said Jill Argall, director of the wildlife center at Humane Animal Rescue.
While the center has cared for peregrine falcons before, they’ve never had chicks this young, she said. They were around 24 days old when they were moved.
Now, the center is tasked with challenges including teaching the chicks to hunt and to fly. Argall said the center is reaching out to a falconer to help. Workers are even feeding them with a puppet so they don’t get used to humans.
The chicks would have stayed with their parents for up to roughly two months, and the center is working with the Pa. Game Commission to decide where the chicks will be released.
You can see regular updates on the chicks on the center’s Facebook page.