Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Peregrine falcon hanging out near U of I campus

Peregrine falcon hanging out near U of I campus

[There's no audio version of this spot because it didn't run on the radio.]

If you think of wildlife as something that exists “out there,” away from buildings and streets and the bustle of human activity, I’d like to call your attention to a bird that might prompt you to reconsider.

It’s a peregrine falcon--for my money, one of the coolest birds in the world. This is the bird that reaches speeds of up to 200 miles an hour in its spectacular hunting dives.

And let me clarify here, I don’t just want to introduce you to peregrines by telling you some interesting things about them as a species, although I will do that. I want to introduce you to an individual bird that has been hanging out in Champaign, and that many readers should be able to see without going far out of their way.

The peregrine in question was first observed earlier this month by a birder who works in the Tower at 3rd, the tall building at the corner of Third and John Street, just off the U of I campus. [The photo, right, was taken from inside the Tower at 3rd by Jackie Roy, who first spotted this peregrine.] It has been seen regularly on and around the tower since then, most often perched on the window-unit air conditioners that stick out from the upper floors on the southeast side of the building.

If you want to look for the peregrine yourself, your best bet is to scan the Tower at 3rd from a block or two away, say the corner of Fourth and Daniel, or somewhere in the 400 block of East John Street. (And please, if you’re driving or bicycling, park first, then look.) The bird you’re looking for is about 16 inches long from bill to tail tip, and the window units it prefers are on the 19th story. When it is up there, you can tell from some distance. To make out any detail, however, you will need to use binoculars.

In good light you should be able to see the dark, helmet-like markings on its head, and the wide lines that extend down over its cheeks like exaggerated sideburns. If you get a look at the peregrine’s front you will see that it is very heavily marked compared to the hawks more commonly seen in our area.

As you may or may not remember, peregrines were extirpated from most of their range in the United States by use of the pesticide DDT before it was banned in 1972. They were protected under the Endangered Species Act until 1999, when, thanks to extensive breeding and reintroduction programs, their numbers had recovered to sustainable levels.

I would emphasize that the peregrine’s robust recovery depended on its tolerance for life among people, a trait not shared by many other endangered birds. Prior to urbanization, most North American peregrines nested on cliffs. But they now also thrive in habitat created by humans, nesting on the ledges of tall buildings and bridges, even in densely populated cities.

Since the peregrine I have written about here is a wild animal, there’s no guarantee that it will be around should you go looking for it. (And now that I have written about it, I’m a little anxious it will never be seen again.) But if you are even casually interested in birds, a seeing a peregrine falcon is a treat you don’t want to miss.