From the Missouri Conservationist Magazine
April 2019 Issue

The Millennial Falcons

Publish Date

Apr 01, 2019

A dynamic bird once close to perishing from Missouri — the peregrine falcon — is back, thanks to people nurturing their nesting habits in high-rise realms. Cliffs and ledges are the falcon’s natural haunts, places befitting an aerodynamic raptor capable of snatching other birds in flight by diving at speeds well over 200 mph.

People gazing out from apartment and office windows in city skyscrapers can watch peregrines flying among the tall buildings, hunting food for their young, huddled in nests on windswept ledges and rooftops.

“I’m basically roommates with the falcons,” said Michael Knight, whose apartment roof near the top of the 30-story Commerce Tower in downtown Kansas City also serves as a nest box site for MDC’s falcon recovery effort. “They swoop up and down off our living room roof. I lean on the rail and drink coffee and watch them.”

This urban falcon show owes its success to a partnership between businesses, building owners, and conservation professionals. For decades, businesses have allowed biologists to tend falcon nest boxes on skyscraper ledges or roofs. Power plant and industrial smokestacks also host nest boxes for a raptor that reduces nuisance birds.

“We’re bringing an endangered species back, and we’re also using the falcons as a control tool in locations where there happens to be a nuisance pigeon problem,” said Joe DeBold, MDC urban wildlife biologist and falcon recovery leader. “I admire their gracefulness in flight,” DeBold said. “They can turn on a dime and ascend or descend in an instant.”

History’s Hints

Although Missouri’s topography is not rich with the rocky cliffs that serve as the peregrine’s natural nesting preference, the falcons do have a nesting history in our state.

St. Louis birder and author Otto Widmann cited nesting falcon reports in his 1907 publication, A Preliminary Catalog of the Birds of Missouri. Most of Widmann’s reports mentioned falcons nesting on rocky bluffs along the lower Missouri River or the Mississippi River. German Prince Maximilian of Wied, however, did note a peregrine falcon nest on a Missouri River bluff in northwest Missouri’s Atchison County in 1833, and famed ornithologist John James Audubon also observed a pair of peregrine falcons near the river south of St. Joseph in 1843.

History’s clues prompted DeBold and helpers to cruise the lower Missouri River during last spring’s nesting season. They scanned the rocky bluffs for peregrine nests, falcons flying to defend a nest territory, or the whitewash from droppings left near a nest. Although biologists saw no nests, researchers continue to investigate whether conservation efforts help falcons return to wild natural nest sites on high river bluffs.

Partnerships for Peregrines

Peregrine restoration efforts began in upper Midwestern states in the late 1970s and continue today with programs coordinated by state, federal, and private wildlife entities.

In 1985, the year Missouri’s recovery efforts began, Jeff Meshach was an intern at the nonprofit Raptor Rehabilitation and Propagation Project, which is now the World Bird Sanctuary (WBS) in Valley Park. Sanctuary staff placed young peregrines in hacking boxes — staff-built nests where the hawks are cared for and observed — on the Pet Inc. building in downtown St. Louis, a place now called the Point 400 building.

“I was the person that got to be there every day,” said Meshach, who is now WBS deputy director. “I was the hack site attendant, watching and waiting and taking notes.” Hacking young birds, watching, and waiting continued for six years. WBS staff hacked young falcons at eight sites in the St. Louis area under the leadership of the nonprofit’s founder, the late Walter Crawford.

“In 1991, on the Southwestern Bell building in downtown St. Louis, we got a nesting pair and one chick, and we banded it,” Meshach said.

Also, in 1991, MDC initiated its peregrine recovery project by hacking young birds atop the Commerce Tower in Kansas City.

In 1997, a peregrine pair successfully nested on a protruding roof near the top of the skyscraper. The roof originally covered a restaurant that’s now converted into an apartment for Knight, the building’s part owner.

“They were hoping the hacked falcons would imprint on the site and come back and nest, and that’s what they did,” DeBold said.

Today, several nest boxes are atop tall buildings or on smokestacks, and falcon pairs use them. In the past five years, biologists have banded 170 young falcons hatched in those nests, 91 birds in Kansas City and 79 in St. Louis.

“The only reason we can do this is our partnerships,” DeBold said. “Without our partners, the nest sites would not be available.”

Working Among the Aeries

DeBold’s work with peregrines follows a long line of experts like Meshach and MDC biologists who walked or crawled in high places to monitor falcon nests, called aeries. They put identification bands on the young birds, which in falcon lore are called eyases. Although things are now looking up, the fate of falcons was once uncertain.

Peregrine falcons have always faced challenges in Missouri, both natural — limited ideal nesting areas and predation at the talons of great horned owls — and manmade — persecution by farmers, who saw them as a threat to poultry, and egg theft by collectors. The biggest threat to the bird, however, was DDT, a commonly used 20th century pesticide that hindered nesting success by causing weak egg shells and resulted in the near extinction of the species in the continental U.S. After DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, conservationists, looking at the success of falconers in breeding and raising peregrines for hunting, began considering the idea of reintroduction.

Missouri’s program has evolved to offering falcons nest boxes with gravel on the floor, an open side, and a roof for protection from weather. Other raptors rebounding from DDT, such as eagles and ospreys, build nests with sticks in trees. Falcons favor cliff ledges with depressions underlain by small rocks or pebbles.

“That’s why the falcon has worked so well in urban areas,” DeBold said. “We were able to emulate the cliffs and bluffs with a skyscraper or a smokestack. The rock inside the box is a selling point, they nest on that rock.”

Falcons are not artistic nest architects, but they are devoted parents. Females sit on the eggs for much of the incubation period, but males help.

“Both birds sit on the eggs, and they both bring food to each other and both feed the young,” DeBold said. “It’s impressive how protective they are of their nests, the way they can become aggressive and fly so fast.”

Helmets or hardhats are standard gear when biologists visit nests to weigh, measure, and place leg bands on young falcons. A few nesting females have hit Meshach’s helmet as he worked with young birds. He marvels at how much speed they can quickly gain in a mere 15-foot dive.

“I know I use the word incredible a lot,” he said. “But it sure fits the peregrine falcon.”

Tracking Peregrine Travels

Banding helps biologists track peregrine falcons mingling across the midlands. The colors, letters, and numbers on metal leg bands are recorded. When biologists or birding enthusiasts can read the tags, falcon travels and origins are traced. For example, a banded female tending a nest in 2018 at Commerce Tower in Kansas City was hatched upriver at KCP&L’s Iatan Power Plant smokestack north of Weston.

“We get to see where the birds go,” DeBold said. “Many of our parents in Missouri that are banded are from Minneapolis. One of our birds fledged in Kansas City is documented in a nesting pair in downtown Dallas.”

Banding also gives people from the businesses hosting a nest a chance to witness the scientific process.

“What I enjoy watching when we’re banding,” DeBold said, “is how this bird connects with people and people connect with this bird. There’s always a group of people who want to be at the banding, hold the birds, and take pictures. Just to see the smiles that come across people’s faces, and it’s all for conservation, that’s what I get out of it the most.” Watching falcons is a popular pastime for office workers and residents in buildings where nests are near. At Commerce Tower, Knight gets photos via email or texts from friends who have spotted the birds in Kansas City. He and his son watch them daily. He’s seen the parents coming back three or four times a day with pigeons, ducks, or other birds to feed the young. Sometimes they will harass other raptors that wander into their nesting territory.

“I sometimes wake up in the morning and it’s raining feathers,” Knight said. “We’ve seen them dive bomb red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures.”

A Bright Future for Falcons

Peregrine falcons were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999. But in the Midwest, Missouri joins states such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan that are still working to boost falcons off endangered or threatened status on state species lists. MDC’s goal is to remove them from endangered status in Missouri by 2020.

A key is adding nest boxes in high places near food sources. Peregrines eat a wide variety of birds. A historical name for peregrines was duck hawk because they will hunt waterfowl. DeBold has added a nest box to a smokestack at Continental Cement and Green America Recycling in Hannibal on the Mississippi River. World Bird Sanctuary (WBS) has added nest boxes in the St. Louis area, Meshach said. Also, a peregrine pair in 2018 began a nest on their own on a railroad bridge upstream of the Eads Bridge.  WBS has also installed a nest box on a smokestackat New Madrid in southeast Missouri’s bootheel. “We have high expectations for that site because it’s right on the Mississippi River and in the waterfowl flyway,” DeBold said. “It should be a good stopover for them.”

MDC is monitoring a falcon pair that has attempted a nest on a smokestack at Thomas Hill Reservoir in north central Missouri, and has placed a nest box on a smokestack at the State Line Generating Station in Joplin after a falcon pair was spotted nearby. Biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services unit, frequent partners with MDC in the falcon recovery program, placed a nest box on a structure in St. Joseph.

Biologists will monitor nests this spring and band young birds. All the nesting falcons are wild birds, but biologists will watch to see if any pairs select natural habitats along river bluffs for a nest site, a symbol that the falcons have truly returned.

“We will get a wild nest someday,” DeBold said.

Watch and report peregrines

People can watch peregrine falcon pairs tend nests, hatch eggs, and feed their young via streaming online video provided by MDC and conservation partners. For more information about peregrine falcons in Missouri, and for links to falcon nest cameras in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/ZqA.

MDC welcomes the public’s help in spotting peregrine falcons nesting in the wild, on bridges, on smokestack catwalks, or on urban structures that do not have nest boxes provided by the falcon recovery program.

If activity by nesting falcons is spotted in eastern Missouri, call Jeff Meshach of the World Bird Sanctuary at 636-225-4390, ext. 1008, or jmeshach@worldbirdsanctuary.org.

If nesting falcons are spotted in western Missouri, call Joe DeBold, MDC urban wildlife biologist, at 816-759-7305, ext. 1130, or Joe.DeBold@mdc.mo.gov.

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A man watches the falcons from indoors
Watching Peregrine falcons

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Workers check a falcon nest while a falcon flies overhead
Peregrine Falcon Nest

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Workers hold a falcon while checking a nest
Peregrine Falcon Nest

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Three white peregrine falcon babies
Baby Peregrine Falcons

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Two staff fit a falcon with a leg band.
Leg Banding

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A falcon with its babies in a nest
Peregrine Falcon Nest

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This Issue's Staff:

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Creative Director - Stephanie Thurber

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler