One of three peregrine falcons who recently fledged from their nest at The University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning has died. It crashed into a building while learning to fly. The Pitt raptors are famous, but they are just one piece of a conservation puzzle that involves peregrine falcons in other places. The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg has the story.
OPEN: One of three peregrine falcons who recently fledged from their nest at The University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning has died. It crashed into a building while learning to fly. The Pitt raptors are famous, but they are just one piece of a conservation puzzle that involves peregrine falcons in other places. The Allegheny Front's Deborah Weisberg has the story.
BRIDGE TRAFFIC NOISE
D. Weisberg: On a rainy morning in late June, the National Aviary's Todd Katzner stands in the shadow of the McKees Rocks Bridge. He points to where peregrine falcons, the world's fastest bird of prey, are nesting in the bridge's underbelly.
Todd Katzner: You actually can't see the nesting site from below or above the bridge and the reason for that is it's about four or five feet from bottom of the sort of road structure of the bridge. And so it's packed in there tight. What's happened is, the birds have taken one of the semi-square girders and occupied a spot in there.
D. Weisberg: This urban span on the Ohio River is noisy and gritty, with a constant stream of trucks and cars. But Katzner says it's exactly what this predator once coveted by kings is looking for in a home near Pittsburgh.
T. Katzner: It's completely protected and sheltered from the rain, never rains there, wind is extremely low in that spot. There are no predators, no great horned owls or things like that in the area, so they have really an ideal nesting spot.
DWeisberg: Any day now Katzner and state wildlife conservation officers plan to climb the bridge to get to the nest. If the chicks have hatched, Katzner will band them so their movements can be tracked. If the eggs are intact, they may have been abandoned. Once Katzner determines that, he will send them to a lab for analysis.
T. Katzner It's important for us to monitor the eggs because monitoring eggs is the way we first discovered the effects of DDT on peregrines.
DWeisberg: DDT caused peregrines to all but disappear from most of North America more than 50 years ago. Once the pesticide was banned, wildlife biologists began reintroduction efforts. They started with the bird's historic breeding grounds. In Pennsylvania, that meant open cliffs along rivers east of the Allegheny Mountains. But birds raised in captivity and released to the wild were no match for predators. Art McMorris is a peregrine specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Art McMorris: The people who were involved put their heads together and said ëLet's release them at sites that don't have great horned owls and those sites were cities and artificial towers built along the coast.í
DWeisberg: In some ways, bridges and skyscrapers have proved ideal.
A. McMorris: At these sites, they were high, which protects them from mammalion predators such as raccoons and skunks and foxes, and there's a lot of food around cities such as pigeons and starlings, but there were no Great Horned Owls, so that worked.
D. Weisberg: There are now 24 nest sites in Pennsylvania cities. One of the more famous is a window ledge on Pitt's Cathedral of Learning, where the peregrines' annual medical exam and banding is a highly publicized event. (SQWAUK) Every spring, wildlife handlers pluck the chicks from their nest and bring them inside for their checkup. Although less than a foot tall, these young birds with their fierce talons make a noisy protest. (SQWAUK)
T. Katzner: Now Dr. Fish will do a series of tests. She'll check every orifice, just like if you were going to a person doctorÖthe eyesÖthe earsÖthe noseÖthe mouthÖ(SQUAWK)Önow that's a sound we expect to hearÖ
D. Weisberg: But the sound of peregrines is being heard less in the state's cliffs, where just three pairs have established nests. Although McMorris bands the cliff-dwelling peregrines, the birds don't receive the intensive human help that has enabled their city cousins to survive. Still, McMorris says a hands-off approach is better for the species' ultimate survival.
A. McMorris: In the city, if a young bird falls out of a nest in a building it ends up on the street or sidewalk and that's not good. If it's on a bridge, it winds up on the river or a roadway. That's not good. If it falls out of a nest on a cliff, they land on a ledge a little further down, or a tree and the parent cares for them there.
D. Weisberg: Peregrines will remain an endangered but recovering species until 22 nesting pairs are seen in Pennsylvania's cliffs. That would be half the number found in the cliffs a century ago.
A. McMorris: Our ultimate goal is to have a population which is self-sustaining that manages on its own without people like me and others at game commission and volunteers across the state helping the birds to survive.
For the Allegheny Front, I'm Deborah Weisberg