Peregrine Super Star

March 3, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

PEREGRINE SUPER STAR

ALIVE AND WELL IN DES MOINES

NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD FALCON STILL DEFENDS DOWNTOWN TERRITORY

Article and Photos By: Lowell Washburn

DES MOINES—-For any red blooded raptor enthusiast, the ear piercing wails were unmistakable. The nesting peregrine falcons were agitated.

Sensing an eminent threat to their young, the falcons lost no time in launching the attack. With ear piercing screams and high speed dives, the pair engaged in a valiant effort to defend their nest. But in spite of their bravery, the falcons were clearly outmatched. Armed with helmets, protective clothing, and miscellaneous repelling gear, the intruding humans were as committed to their mission as the falcons were to theirs.

Within the span of a few short minutes, the peregrines’ four downy chicks had been extracted from their cave-like lair in an alcove at the top of Des Moines’ American Republic Insurance Building. After being placed into a plastic pet carrier, the birds were hoisted to a waiting team of DNR wildlife biologists. First order of business was to collect a blood sample from each nestling. Then, after being weighed, measured, and banded, the chicks were quickly returned to the nest. Although the adults remained clearly [and vocally] distrubed by the proceedings, life soon began a return to normal for Iowa’s most famous urban raptors.

Regardless of whether you’re a politician or a peregrine falcon, it’s hard to keep a secret in downtown Des Moines. By now, the morning’s audible commotion had drawn the attentions a sizeable crowd of gawking onlookers. None were more excited than veteran wildlife watcher and peregrine enthusiast, Todd Hill.

“The day we come up here to band the baby peregrines is my very favorite day of the year,” proclaimed Hill, a former employee of the American Republic maintenance staff.

Hill has enjoyed a long, and sometimes painful, association with these unique downtown residents. While working on the building’s roof, he’s been soundly thumped on more than a few occasions.

So why would one of America’s rarest bird nesters make the Metro area its home? The answer is simple. Located in the heart of Capitol City’s downtown business area, the insurance building’s upper level is pocked with decorative alcoves. For cliff dwelling peregrine falcons, the concrete recesses represent the perfect place to lay eggs and rear young.

“We see all kinds of people here,” says Hill. “Many bring binoculars to view the nest — especially when the young are visible. People come from all over. This has become a very popular attraction.”

Peregrines first began nesting at American Republic in 1993. Since that time, the nest has become a statewide attraction, partly due to the fact that the rare birds can easily been seen and heard from nearby sidewalks and courtyards.

But there’s more to this story. A central focus of the fame surrounding the site is that American Republic is also home to peregrine falcon number 93T. He’s the male of the territory. A super star among peregrines, 93T is currently the best known, oldest, and certainly one of the most successful falcons in the entire history of the species’ thirty-year, modern-day recovery.

Released in Des Moines as a 45-day-old fledgling by the DNR’s Wildlife Diversity Team in 1990, 93T returned to claim the downtown area for his own during the spring of 1993. He’s returned every year since, and has produced an incredible total of 42 young. He has outlived two mates, and is currently on territory with his third partner —- a four-year-old, wild produced female [63B] hatched at Woodmen Tower in Omaha, Nebraska.

Peregrine falcons are the planet’s most dynamic bird species. Top Guns and masters of flight, peregrines feed exclusively on other birds which they obtain by means of spectacular high speed chase. It’s a dangerous way to live, and wrecks can be fatal. It’s easy to understand why most falcons never reach old age. Nevertheless, it is probable that during the past 15 nesting seasons, 93T [while providing for himself, his mates, and his young] has survived somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 successful kills —- all without so much as chipping a talon.

“This bird is a real hunter and takes good care of his family,” says Hill. “We find all kinds of evidence on the sidewalk beneath the nest. Most of the prey he brings in are starlings and flickers. We also see bigger things like pigeons and, once in a while, a duck. Most interesting is the really unusual stuff. The other day we found the head of a screech owl. That was surprising,” said Hill.

“Watching the falcons is really exciting,” he added. “Usually we just see them carry in food from somewhere else. But one day when I was leaving work, I saw him [93T] smack a pigeon right out of the air. That was the best.”

“Another time I got to assist one of the young. The baby falcon had just left the nest and was stuck in a small tree in our courtyard. I called DNR and they said to take the bird back to the roof. I did, and its next flight was successful. We still have a picture of that bird on the wall in our office.”

Live video of the American Republic peregrines can be viewed online during this year’s nesting season. Go to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ home page and click on “Live Falcon Cam”.

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PHOTOS:

1 —- An adult female peregrine falcon [band number 63B] returns to her nest site at the American Republic Insurance building in Des Moines. The bird was unidentified until Washburn went atop the building and secured this photo late last summer. The band number revealed that the three-year-old falcon was produced at Omaha’s Woodman Tower.

2 TOP GUN 93T —- With sizzling high speed nose dives exceeding 250 mph, the peregrine falcon is our fastest and most dynamic bird species. But few peregrines can match the aerial prowess of downtown Des Moines’ number 93T — a seventeen-year-old, tiercel [male] currently residing atop the American Republic Insurance Building. Hatched in 1990, the falcon returned to stake his Des Moines territory in 1993. He’s returned every year since, has outlived two mates, is currently with his third partner, and has fathered and raised 42 young. In the process of caring for himself, his mates, and those 42 babies — it is estimated that 93T has made an astounding 10,000 successful kills.

3 —- Peregrine tiercel, 93T patrols his territory above downtown DesMoines.