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Birders have enjoyed opportunities to see peregrine falcons in east central Illinois with increasing frequency over the past two decades, and that’s a remarkable thing to be able to say when you consider that the entire population of peregrines in the eastern U.S. was wiped out by poisoning from pesticides such as DDT before they were banned in the early 1970s.
But the peregrine falcons observed here have been transient birds, en route between breeding territories somewhere to our north and wintering areas somewhere to our south. The case has been different, however, with one highly visible peregrine, which is distinguishable by its pale coloration, and preference for particular perches. It has been seen regularly over the course of the past four winters on and around the tall residence halls along Fourth Street in Champaign on the U of I campus.
When Greg Lambeth of Urbana observed this falcon in company with a second peregrine on the side of Illini Tower back in April of last year, he decided to follow through on an idea he had been kicking around for a couple of years. That was to get a nest box erected near the top of the building, so that peregrines might be tempted to stick around and breed.
Lambeth was hopeful such a project might work because his father has succeeded with a similar effort where he lives, in Grand Forks North Dakota. A nest box installed on a water tower there has attracted a pair of breeding peregrines each of the past two years. Nest boxes have also played a role in the establishment of peregrines in Chicago, where about a dozen pairs now breed every year.
Enter John Patterson, a Boy Scout with Troop 6 in Urbana. He learned of Greg Lambeth’s idea and made it into the basis of his Eagle Scout service project last Fall. [Photo: Patterson atop the Illini Tower with the nesting box as it is being mounted on the wall behind him. Courtesy of Greg Lambeth.] When we spoke about the project, he told me, “I wanted to do something out of the ordinary, something that would really help people connect with nature.”
In cooperation with Lambeth, John secured a grant from the Champaign County Audubon Society to purchase materials for building two peregrine nest boxes, with the idea that having more than one would increase the chances of attracting birds to breed. He then led other scouts from Troop 6 in the construction and painting of the nest boxes (with additional, appropriate help from his father).
The first box was installed in December on the east face of the topmost structure on Illini Tower, thanks to approval from the building’s manager and the labor and expertise of building service workers. Plans are for the second box to be installed atop nearby Sherman Hall sometime in the very near future.
In addition to getting the nest boxes built and installed, John Patterson also wanted to provide the Champaign County Audubon Society and the Champaign-Urbana community with a resource for understanding peregrine falcons. Toward that end, he created a slide-show presentation about them for use by Audubon and the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center.
Greg Lambeth is thankful for what Patterson has accomplished, and he expresses hope that many others will benefit from the project. In his words, “More than a thousand people a day will have the opportunity to see these birds if they breed here, and peregrines are the kind of bird that inspire passion and appreciation for the natural world.”
- In natural settings, peregrines habitually nest on cliffs, which explains why they have adapted so well to life on tall buildings.
- The name “peregrine” means wanderer, and these birds come by it honestly. Some travel from the northern tundra to South America and back each year!
- Peregrines are among the most widely distributed birds in the world, occurring on every continent except Antarctica.
- Peregrines were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act until 1999, when, thanks to extensive breeding and reintroduction programs, their numbers had recovered to sustainable levels and they were de-listed. Peregrines were still categorized as endangered in Illinois until 2004, when their status was uprgraded to “threatened.”
- Peregrines are good-sized birds, anywhere from 14 to 19 inches, with a wingspan of around 40 inches. At rest, a peregrine can be recognized by its gray back, the dark, helmet-like markings on its head, and the wide lines that extend down its cheeks like exaggerated sideburns.
- Peregrines are known as the fastest animal on earth because they can hit speeds of more than 200 mph as they drop through the air toward prey. They can also reach nearly 70 mph in powered flight as they pursue other birds.