Friday, March 9, 2007

Birds and the City

For the first time in many months I spotted a peregrine falcon on the campus of the University of Chicago yesterday. For five or six years a pair successfully fledged chicks on the ledge of steeple that backed against the base of the spire on the First Unitarian Church of Chicago at 57th Street and Woodlawn. The pair, known as Magnolia and Orion, was one of several captive-bred by Chicago Peregrine Release and Restoration (now under the rubric of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.) That location was fortuitous because it was possible, if not exactly easy, to belay out the steeple window to nab the chicks to winch inside long enough to draw a sample of DNA and to sex (easy with peregrines) and band them. When the church dismantled its unsalvageable steeple several seasons ago, the birds experimented with other locations on the University of Chicago campus, favoring especially the rain gutters on Kelly-Green and Cobb Halls. Peregrines are known for their beauty and brawn, but not for their brains. Each time the hen produced a promising clutch of beautiful rusty-brown eggs, the eggs would die in the next gully-washer. Last year it was discovered (based on the bands on the bird's legs) that Magnolia’s mate was not Orion, but one of their sons Eddie; their attempts at reproducing nonetheless continued to fail.

With no chicks to tie them to the campus, both adults eventually abandoned their regular roosts and since the middle of last summer it has been an increasingly rare treat to spot one. Yesterday I was sitting with a colleague, Hoyt Bleakley, whose office faces west. All of a sudden I saw that familiar fast and strong wing beat speeding directly at the window. Hoyt starts yelling “Pull up! Pull up!!” and of course the bird, a mature peregrine, did so just as we got a really good look at it – something like the last view of anything that some pigeons get. It’s likely it perched at the top of the Graduate School of Business’ Hyde Park Center’s glass tower, as I have occasionally seen one, and/or its sign, there. A few moments later the scene repeated itself except the view of the falcon was from the rear. It swiftly made its way straight west, then veered out of sight behind the outsized steeple of Rockefeller Chapel. Later that afternoon I spotted it on its familiar roost very high on the steeple.

Of course unless there is a mate, there won’t be chicks this year either. But the University of Chicago has made most generous efforts to support these rare birds by constructing first class next boxes mounted on the top of both Pick Hall and the Administration Building. The small clique of peregrine-watchers on campus is eternally optimistic that a pair will soon notice and make use of the commodious digs and start making new falcons again.

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