Science: Raptors in the City!
by Deborah Mathies
What’s the fastest creature on earth? What species has recovered from the brink of extinction? What cliff-dwelling raptor has adapted to city life and is moving on to skyscrapers across North America? If you answered the peregrine falcon, you’re right! This glamorous speedster is the subject of an environmental education and technology program called Raptors in the City which was created in 2000 to connect students with a rare species in real-times via the internet.
The program runs during nesting season each year, roughly March – June, and follows one peregrine falcon couple throughout the annual nesting life-cycle: courtship, rivalry, survival, new life, parenting. Whether watching for fun or studying in depth, you will be fascinated by this magnificent species that escaped extinction and now rules city skies.
For more information visit: www.raptorsinthecity.org
To subscribe to the free “Falcon Flash” newsletter for bulletins and pictures during nesting season, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with subscribe in the subject.
To get students and their teachers up to speed, below is our first Falcon Flash newsletter for the 2013 season, with some still photos to whet your visual appetite. You can watch the falcons live on the FalconCams (our thanks to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for sponsoring the cams!).
Dateline: Cleveland, Ohio
March 7, 2013
The 2013 peregrine falcon nesting season is underway at Boomer and SW’s home sweet home located on the 12th floor ledge of a skyscraper called “Tower City” in downtown Cleveland, Ohio (look for red label showing nestbox location).
The following is a view from the nest as SW flies over Cleveland’s Public Square.
Longer daylight hours and warmer days are now triggering the birds into courtship, and SW and Boomer have begun the annual nesting life-cycle. They spend time in the nestbox together as well as flying, hunting, and eating together. Every year the male must prove his worth and court his mate (even if it is the same mate from year to year). “Courtship feeding” where the male catches prey and presents it to the female, proves that the male will be a good provider and also gives the female the extra nutritional boost she needs to lay healthy eggs. Just before she lays her eggs, she becomes too heavy to hunt on her own.
In the following picture Boomer performs a dive-down flight called a “stoop” as he draws his wings in so he is shaped like a bullet. It is in the stoop that peregrines achieve their highest speeds, which can reach 200 miles per hour or more.
Scott Wright, peregrine falcon nest monitor at this site for 20 years, describes courtship flight:
“The male peregrine falcon must showcase his flying ability with stunning displays. Boomer will do a dance in the sky by making long soaring, diving, and gliding displays with tail feathers and wingtip feathers wide open. He will pass close by SW with his tail feathers all displayed and stretched out, and he and SW will vocalize to each other. This will continue for some time, and on warmer days with higher winds, the couple will take to the air and together fly a dance across the sky.”
Here is a silhouette image of Boomer and SW in their dance.
Male peregrines are about one-third smaller than females and are called “tiercels,” which comes from an old French word meaning “one-third.” Female peregrines are fierce predators, and the larger females can be aggressive toward their mates. Some scientists believe the male approaches his mate cautiously and bows to her to as if to say “please don’t hurt me,” but since the male is a fierce predator also, he may be bowing to show his mate he is not a threat to her.
For more information about falcon courtship, visit the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group website.
Here’s a good idea for young scientists from Sara Jean Peters of the Ohio Division of Wildlife (retired):
“The FalconCam ‘hour review’ of images provides an interesting way for kids to practice ‘sampling’ techniques used by wildlife researchers. One would assume that, as the pair extends its courtship, the birds would be seen more and more frequently at the nest tray. By counting the number of frames that contain a view of a peregrine and dividing by 60, the students can calculate the percentage of time spent at the site during the sample period. They could choose several sample periods during the day and see if visitation varies by time of day… How does it change when the chicks are 12 days old? etc…..”
This is a still taken from the Cleveland FalconCam. What observations can you make?
To see the “hour review” for each day, go to the live FalconCam. Under each of the 3 pictures of the nest on the front page there is a link that will take you to the archives. The live FalconCam takes a picture each minute of every daylight hour. There are 60 pictures for each hour each day. Looking at the archives will give you a quick review of all the day’s activities. As you observe the nest every day, why not take Ms. Peterson’s suggestion and record how much of the time the falcons are at the nest in one hour and what their activities are? Sampling the nest every day will give you some interesting information about falcon behavior.
One year ago today, SW laid her first egg. Look carefully at the FalconCam images – might she be carrying eggs?
For more falcon news . . .
To watch the falcons live go to: http://www.falconcam-cmnh.org/news.php Our thanks to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for sponsoring the FalconCams and for the still photo.
For more about falcons and teaching about falcons in the city, visit our website.
PHOTOS: The photo of the Tower City skyscraper is courtesy of falcon fan Tony Rinicella. Thanks to volunteers Mr. and Mrs. Saladin for the pictures of Boomer in the stoop. All other photos are courtesy of volunteer nest monitor Scott Wright. Pictures can be used in any non-commercial publication, electronic or print, but please give photo credit.
Deborah Mathies created the Raptors in the City program in 2000 and piloted it in New York City schools. “I had been a long-time peregrine falcon fan, and it was about that time that ‘FalconCams’ were being mounted on skyscrapers and trained on nest sites in cities across the country. The cliff-dwelling peregrine falcon (the fastest creature on earth and a recovering endangered species) had adapted to city life.” Mathies says the goal of the program “is to connect children with nature (and teach) environmental, biological, and technological lessons, as well as research skills, tied to national science and technology standards.”