Last week, I met my new favorite Pittsburghers, who live on the 40th floor of the Cathedral of Learning. They are Dorothy, E2, and a brood of newly-hatched peregrine falcon chicks. A video feed that the National Aviary in Pittsburgh installed in 2007 updates every few seconds, so anyone can witness the birds’ daily activity live.
That we are able to observe such wild animals with such intimacy is impressive, but the fact that the peregrines are there at all is a tremendous feat in itself. Peregrine falcons (whose name means “wandering,” in reference to their migration habits) used to be among the most widespread birds in the world. They live on every continent except Antarctica and adapt to nearly every climate. Use of the pesticide DDT in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, however, caused peregrine eggshells to thin and break easily, killing the incubating chicks. In the US, their population reduced by an estimated 12%. Peregrines were among the first species listed as endangered in 1974, and although they were removed from the federal list in 1999, they remain on some states’, such as Pennsylvania’s.
But the peregrines are coming back, thanks to a professor at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Peregrine Fund at the World Center for Birds of Prey, goverment agencies, and passionate people dedicated to saving the falcons. These organizations raise injured or vulnerable birds in captivity and release them, band and track birds, and place special nests in sites where wild birds show interest.
Peregrines are fascinating animals. Among the fastest creatures on Earth, they can dive up to 200 mph to snatch prey from the air, mid-flight. The chicks begin cheeping through their shells before they even hatch. According to the animal totem book Animal Speak, falcons represent mental agility and “teach us to know when to act” and “to fully commit to our actions for the greatest success.”
Watching the tender moments when the parent birds quietly guard or nestle with the brood or tear up prey and carefully feed each hungry beak reveals a tender, patient side to these creatures renowned for their skilled hunting abilities. Right now, the nestlings mostly huddle in a white fluffy pile, but I am so excited to witness them become fledgelings over the next few weeks and then move on to seek their own partners and nesting sites.
The falcons nesting at the Cathedral of Learning are among many other peregrines who live in cities. Their closest neighbors reside on the 37th floor of the Gulf Tower downtown. Another pair uses the 15th floor of the Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg–monitored by a real-time, streaming video feed (with sound!). Still others live all over the world, partnering with wild falcons or others raised in captivity or the human-created nests.
For more about the Pittsburgh peregrines and other wildlife, be sure to check out the empassioned, funny, and extremely informative blog Outside My Window, maintained by Kate St. John, a WQED employee and the enthusiastic authority on our feathered yinzers.
If these falcons inspire you to celebrate some of the other wild birds in your habitat, refer to Eleventh Stacker Julie’s post from about a year ago for some suggestions on guides and an account of her own up-close raptor encounter.