If these chicks had a manager, they would be charging for appearances.
Already stars of their own live-streaming “falcon cam,” the pair of baby peregrine falcons who recently hatched on top of the Evanston Public Library drew a crowd of kids and bird lovers Thursday, when they were introduced to the world and banded for identification.
As local photographers jockeyed for the perfect shot, Field Museum scientist Mary Hennen and Shedd Aquarium scientist Matt Gies passed a ladder out the library’s third floor window for the short hike up to the rooftop ledge where the falcons make their home. Wearing bicycle helmets in case the parents attacked, they picked up the baby falcons, put them in a cardboard box and brought them back inside the library for banding and a blood draw.
“Things like radio-tagging don’t really work in a city,” explained Hennen, who is director of the Chicago Peregrine Program, an effort to track the birds around the Chicago area. While radio signals are too tough to follow in a city full of cell phones, a simple band around the ankle—like the ones the library’s falcons received Thursday—lets scientists map the birds’ migration around the area.
In Evanston, peregrine falcons have nested atop library for the past nine years. And for the last seven years, the same pair, named Nona and Squawker, have returned to raise their young. Each year, the library names the babies based on a poll of patrons. The winning names this year were Gribley, after a character with a pet falcon in the young adult book My Side of the Mountain, and Marigold, a name turned in by a six-year-old girl “just because she liked it,” according to library spokesperson Marianthi Thanapoulos.
Nona and Squawker laid four eggs this year, but the other two did not hatch. Climbing back into the library window from the roof, Hennen explained that other two could have rotted or been eaten, although there’s no way to know for sure.
Surrounded by a mass of kids, Hennen and the other scientists pulled the baby falcons out of the box one at a time. They placed a towel over their heads to calm them, then placed band around one leg and drew a vial of blood. The blood, Hennen explained, is taken so that the Chicago Peregrine Program can study their genetics.
It was just one of many falcon bandings for Hennen. Earlier that morning, she had gone to tag four baby falcons on a 43-story apartment building in the South Loop. In total, she monitors 20 pairs around the region.
“If it’s in the state of Illinois, it belongs to me,” Hennen says.
The numbers haven’t always been this high. Between 1951 and 1988, Illinois’ peregrine falcon population was completely wiped out, according to the Peregrine Program. But the numbers have slowly started to grow back—in part because of a 1967 ban on DDT, a pesticide that made the birds’ eggshells so thin that parents unintentionally crushed their young when they tried to nest.
In the wild, falcons tend to make their home on cliffs, so it’s only natural that several pairs are regularly spotted among the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. Notable falcon nest sites this year include Oak Street Beach, Millenium Park, the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Paul Gottschalk, administrative services manager for the library, has been watching Evanston’s falcons for the past nine years. The first year, he recalls, the mother falcon broke her wrist while the babies were still in the nest. It was tough for the father to feed them, so the Field Museum supplied the library with a box of frozen quail, which staff would thaw bit by bit in the microwave and throw out the window to the babies.
The falcons are a regular site around town as they hunt for birds to feed their young. As the fastest living animal, they can speed through the air at up to 200 miles per hour before dive-bombing a pigeon in mid-flight.
“They hit them and it’s like a puff of pigeon feathers,” Gottschalk says. “I’ve seen pigeon wings in trees.”
According to Gottschalk, the most dangerous day of a peregrine falcon’s life is the day it first tries to fly, something that typically happens in mid June. The babies begin by stretching their wings, then practice jumping up to the ledge around their nest. When they’re ready to go, “they just walk out on the ledge and start flapping,” he says.
Once, a baby falcon flew into the Carlson Building, but survived. Another time, a baby landed in the middle of Church Street. Police came to stop traffic, and the falcon walked under the police car.
“The police officer didn’t know what to do,” Gottschalk laughs.
Although most falcons do not live to be one year old, a healthy falcon who survives lives 13 years, on average. At 9 and 8 years old, respectively, Nona and Squawker are getting older.
“They’re getting toward the end of their lifespan,” Gottschalk says. “So we don’t know if this is ever going to happen again.”