Have a Question About Peregrine Falcons? Ask Jeff!
Every May and June Jeff Meshach, Director of Administration and External Programs, bands the Peregrine babies in at least 5 of the 7 known nests in the St. Louis area. Jeff considers his banding efforts to be one of the greatest privileges in the world. “Getting to put my hands on the fastest animal in the world, even for just a few minutes, is an unforgettable experience.”
HELLO EVERYONE! I am so glad to be able to be writing about our Ameren’s Portage de Sioux Energy Center Peregrine Falcon pair, for the 9th year in a row. As you may have been able to see, the female is on 3 eggs now. Because of the issue currently facing the world (COVID-19), we are a little late getting you the live feed. I’ve some very exciting news to get to, but first I must refresh everyone’s memory on what happened last year.
It’s never a great thing to have to bring up such a negative circumstance, but in the world of wild Peregrine Falcons, it’s something that happens a lot more than most would imagine. The 2 chicks that were growing just fine, and only 3 days from being banded, suddenly died. When chicks are first hatched, they cannot regulate their own body heat, and therefore must be brooded, or kept warm by mom. Once they reach a certain size, mom stops brooding them because they can regulate their own body heat. Last year’s chicks had already reached the age where the female was coming to the box mostly to feed them, but not lingering long. No one realized the female had abandoned the chicks until it was too late.
When we get as far into the nesting season as we did last year, and the female is suddenly gone, one of two things can be assumed. First assumption; the female somehow died while away from the nest. Second assumption; the chicks died and when the female came to the nest and realized they had, she abandoned the nest. With the chicks seemingly healthy, my first assumption was the female died. That assumption has been proven wrong. She’s back!
We know it’s our female because of the bands she has on her legs. On her left leg she has a black over green band. In the black colored field there’s a sideways D. In the green field there’s a sideways V. The green field has faded considerably, so the band had to be in just the right light to see it. Our great and diligent cameraman not only focused in to get the sideways V, but was also able to get a good look at the band on her right leg. That band is a United States Fish and Wildlife Service band, and we were able to see enough of the numbered sequence to get the positive ID on her. To refresh, our female was named Lizard by the person that banded her on a cliff nest within a Minnesota state park. Lizard was banded as a chick in 2006. The male of this year’s pair, the same male as the last 4 years, was banded and released through the process of hacking, in 2004, at a power plant in southeastern Missouri.
The second assumption about the 2019 chick deaths is probably what occurred. The chicks died at about 17 days old. There are many diseases birds die from, and without being able to collect the bodies quickly, we weren’t able to find a reason. Our team deeply cares for the well being of our Peregrines, but a higher priority is our safety. It’s no easy feat getting to the nest box, and by the time we would have been safely able to get there, the bodies would have decayed enough where it would have been very hard to find cause of death. We shall all look at 2019 as a tragedy, but our female produced and raised to fledging 12 chicks the 4 years before that. In Peregrine Falcon nesting terms, that great success. We shall all hope she continues her success in 2020.
Please remember to send us your questions. I’ll be answering them weekly, along with updates on our pair, and hopefully in mid April, all their chicks. Talk to you soon!
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello everyone! As of today, 27 March, our female is on 4 eggs. She’s what I call “sitting tight,” which means only moving off the nest when the male brings her food and she takes a break from incubating. For these short breaks (rarely more than an hour), the male does his best to fit his significantly smaller body over the eggs to keep them warm. Sitting tight also signifies she has her full clutch. A clutch is the number of eggs a female bird will lay for a particular incubation period. With Peregrine Falcons, they spend so much time courting, selecting a nest site, incubating, then raising their chicks that they can afford only one clutch per year. Birds like the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) may have 3 clutches of eggs in a year, with the time for their courting, selecting a nest cavity, nest building, incubating, and chick raising significantly shorter than Peregrines.
You may notice in the above list of activities for each species that I didn’t mention nest building for the Peregrine. Bluebirds nest within cavities of trees or of course in a bluebird box one may affix to a tree, pole or fencepost in their yard. Within the cavity they will build quite the elaborate nest, consisting of different grasses found within their territory. The grasses are fashioned into a circle a few inches deep, with a bowl at the top so the eggs stay put. Peregrines, and falcons in general, don’t use any materials for their nests. Peregrines will usually find a crevasse in a cliff that has gravel or dirt on the floor, and make a depression, or “scrape,” to lay eggs in. The scrape keeps the eggs in one spot. Other falcons of the world, for example the Merlin (Falco columbarius) may nest in a stick nest that was previously made by another raptor. Merlins migrate through Missouri and Illinois, but usually nest further north in our country and into Canada.
No one asked questions during the previous week, but I understand we are just getting started. Remember, folks, any questions you have about our Peregrine pair you can ask through the websites of Ameren Missouri, Missouri Department of Conservation and World Bird Sanctuary. Talk you next week.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello All! Here we are, smack-dab in the middle of the incubation cycle. If you like to watch mom doze during the long hours, then there’s plenty of entertainment. If you’ve been or will be lucky enough to see the male come in and switch the incubation roll with the female, that would certainly be more exciting. The switch can happen any time of day, so hard to set your clock by it. Last year there were 5 eggs for him to try to spread his much smaller than the female’s body over. Our cameraman got comical footage of the male trying his best to fit over the eggs. He’s got it a little easier this season with 4 eggs in the clutch. Lucky for the eggs mom’s incubation breaks rarely last more than an hour, but as you know, we’ve had a lot of success over the 9 seasons we’ve been watching these incredible birds. They are definitely doing most everything right during incubation.
Let’s get right to your questions. In this season’s first ASK JEFF I used a word to describe how the male of our pair got into the wild. The word is HACKING, and someone asked what that is. Especially before the Peregrine came off the endangered species list (1998), humans made a concerted effort to help the species’ wild population increase. We took chicks hatched in captivity and “hacked” them to the wild. WBS hacked captive-raised chicks from 1985 until about 1995. By 1995 we had several Peregrine breeding pairs in the area, which is the ultimate goal of hacking; the birds released start to produce chicks. Several St. Louis organizations built hack boxes on their roofs, then WBS placed the 35-day old chicks in the boxes. The chicks were locked into the boxes, but the boxes had a big, barred window so the chicks could look out into the spaces they would eventually fly in. At about 45 days old, the chicks were removed from the box, transmitters and bands were placed on their legs, the barred window was removed and the chicks were placed back into the box. At that point they could fly, so they came and went as they pleased. Since the chicks had been fed in the box for about 10 days before their release, they would continue to come back to the box because they knew it provided food (provided by hack site attendants). This is important in hacking process, since a just fledged chick doesn’t have the flight skills to catch other birds in the air. Over 4-6 weeks after release the chicks learn how to catch food, and they eventually wean themselves from the hack box. Back in 2004 our male was hacked from a power plant in SE Missouri.
Another question was longevity of wild Peregrines. With our female being 14 years old now and the male 16, they are near the end of their lives. I would be surprised if one or both were back for the 2021 nesting season, but no need to fret if they don’t return. Because of our pair and many thousands of others in the nation, there are many Peregrines in the wild now. Ameren’s Sioux Energy Center is a prime place for Peregrines to nest, so I’m confident we will have a breeding pair there far into the future.
Last question for the week was when our eggs are expected to hatch. Our first egg was laid on about 11 March, and last laid on 20 March. The female won’t start consistently sitting on the clutch until it’s finished, with the theory on this being all the chicks in a clutch will have a better chance of surviving if they all hatch on the same day. If she started incubating the eggs as they are laid, the chick from the first egg laid would have a 6-9 day age (and therefore size) advantage on the last chick hatched. The last and probably second to last chick hatched would probably be outcompeted for food. The eggs should hatch on about 20 April, give or take a couple days. With all we know about the world’s birds, it’s still hard to predict the exact day eggs will hatch. We on the Sioux falcon team do not count our Peregrines before they hatch!
I’m already looking forward to talking to you next week.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello all! On Thursday morning, 9 April I watched the camera for about a half an hour before I started writing this week’s Ask Jeff. Our female slumbered for most of the timespan, yet at the end she busied herself moving the pea gravel with her beak, at least the pea gravel she could reach without getting off her eggs. She pulled some up close to her, and other times she moved pebbles away. When there’s seemingly nothing better to do, I guess priorities shift to make sure the pebbles within her reach are placed exactly how she wants. Around 20 April we should see the fruits of her seemingly boring labor.
Nest building is not a priority with any of the world’s falcons. They only fashion a depression within whatever substrate is at the location, lay their eggs in the depression and then incubate. Many of the world’s birds construct elaborate nests, using sticks, greases, mud, sand mixed with rotting vegetation and sometimes even human made objects.
Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) build the largest nest of any of the world’s birds of prey. They start the base of their nest (usually built in a very tall tree) with quite large sticks, sometimes as long as 8 feet. From the base to the top can be many feet thick, and across the nest top can be 10 feet wide. The bowl of the nest, where the eggs will be laid, consists of grasses or dry aquatic weeds. These softer items help cushion eggs and aid in keeping the warm temperature needed for incubation. The record Bald Eagle nest was built in Florida late last century, and it measured 9.5 feet across the top, and was 20 feet tall. Someone actually weighed all the sticks after the tree it was built in broke, and the nest weighed 2.9 tons!
Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) and Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) build a nest with mud and grass. These swallows must find mud of just the right consistency, mix the mud with the dried grasses at just the right time so the mud/grass mixture sticks to the rock, barn or steel wall they build the nest on. Especially with Cliff Swallows, their nests hang precariously over water bodies, almost always with an overhang, so the nests can’t get wet from rain. Most of the large river bridges in our area are colonized by Cliff Swallows.
The Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) from Australia is a bird about half the size of a wild turkey and is related (quail, chickens, pheasants, turkeys are all in the Galliformes order of birds). With his feet the male Malleefowl scrapes a 1-3 foot deep and 6-8 feet wide depression into the sandy ground of its habitat, fills the depression with a mixture of dried and leafy vegetation, then kicks sand over the vegetation to make a pile about 2 feet tall. Again, with his feet he excavates a nest hole between sand and vegetation, the female lays as many as 30 eggs in the hole and the hole is covered with sand. The rotting vegetation under all the sand provides the warmth the eggs need for incubation. The male will kick sand from or kick sand back on the top of the mound to keep the mound at a consistent temperature. This pile, depending on the warmth of the day, can consist of 5-8 tons of sand/vegetation. Upon hatching the chicks dig their way to the surface of the mound, move into the brush and can run fast and fly well within a day of emerging. Neither the male or female provide any protection for the chicks. Chicks of all Galliformes birds are called precocial, meaning they can move well and feed themselves at very young ages. Bird of prey have altricial chicks, meaning the chicks must have lots of parental care from hatching to even well after leaving the nest.
Keep those questions coming, folks. I’m already looking forward to writing to you next week.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello all! Here we are, just 5 or so days from our chicks hopefully emerging from their eggs. Yes, not the most exciting of times, as evidenced by our female doing a lot of slumbering as she adheres to her very important job. This morning, Wednesday, 15 April, I did about 20 minutes of watching. In the AM the sun sheds perfect light on our female, and I’d guess she enjoys the warmth on these recent, chilly mornings. When one knows how fast a Peregrine can travel as it pursues its prey and how far one can travel during migration, seeing one sit in the same spot for such long stretches of time brings some irony to its otherwise rapid lifestyle.
I have a cousin I grew up with in NJ, and as we went through high school and then college, we became close friends. He now lives in AZ, but we keep in regular touch with each other. My cousin is a huge fan of human flying machines, and regularly watches fighter jet airshows or parks near a military airport close to his home, just to watch the jets come in and leave. I, too, get a huge kick out of fighter jets passing by, and over those later years in NJ my cousin taught me how to identify the fighters, and I taught him how to ID birds.
I will always wonder if our world didn’t have birds in it, would we have ever developed the airplanes that take us around the world, and probably someday, to outer space. There’s so much technology that goes into, say, a passenger airliner; its radar, communication and pressurization capabilities, and of course the huge engines that thrust its hundred or more tons into the air. If its wings weren’t fashioned like those of a bird, all the technology would be worth nothing.
Around 400 BC the Chinese developed kites. Because a kite is fashioned like a bird’s wing, the kite continually lifts into the air, but needs force pulling it down to do so. Those that have held the string that’s connected to a kite know the upward force the kite exerts.
Around 1485 Leonardo da Vinci studied and wrote about bird wings. He made drawings of flying machines that he thought could carry humans, but da Vinci lacked the technology to develop his machines.
In the early 1800’s George Cayley, and English Baron, experimented with wing design and developed the first glider that carried a human. The human was a child. I wonder how George ever convinced the child’s mother that all would be fine! George is considered the first true scientific investigator of flight and the first person to understand the principals and forces behind it.
On 12 December 1903 Orville Wright became the first human to fly on a motorized airplane. Before he and his brother Wilber ever accomplished this, they put plenty of study into a bird’s wing.
On studying how a wing works, one must look at its lengthwise cross section. Imagine your eye at the tip of the wing and you’re looking toward the bird’s body. Cut the wing between your eye and the bird’s body and you will see a cross section with a lower edge that’s concave and an upper edge that convex. Because the upper edge is convex the air moves faster over it than the concave, lower edge. There are You-Tube videos showing this (just write into your internet search bar “how a wing works”). The faster the air moves over the upper wing, the lower the air’s pressure becomes. The pressure of the air moving under the wing is higher because of the lower edge’s concave shape. High pressure under the wing and low pressure above causes the wing to lift.
Of course a bird, insect, bat or airplane needs a force to push it through the air. Maybe next week we can talk about how a bird’s wings create that force.
Nature has provided humans with so many things essential to our lives. Let’s all continue to keep her “flying” at top speed. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Conserve. With the current times I will definitely add, “STAY HEALTHY!” Keep those questions coming, and I’m already looking forward to ASK JEFF #6.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Greetings everyone! As I write this on Thursday, 23 April, we are into the third day since the eggs were due to hatch. I’ll throw out the reminder that predicting when a wild egg will hatch is like predicting the weather; it’s not an exact science. There are many variables that affect egg development, with temperature consistency being a big one. For example, if the mother has to leave the nest to help the male defend their territory, the eggs could become chilled enough to lengthen development time. The humidity of the environment under the mother as she incubates can also affect egg development. This morning at about 11:40 the male flew into the box to give mom a break. From the time she hopped off the eggs to the time the male was settled on them took about 15 seconds. These quick incubator changes help us understand how important consistent temperature and humidity are.
One of the questions over the week asked what happens to the unhatched eggs after the fertile eggs hatch. When the chicks first hatch, they must be kept just as warm as the eggs, since birds can’t regulate their own body heat until they reach a certain size and grow the downy feathers needed for insulation. Peregrine Falcon eggs in a nest usually hatch within a 24-hour time period, so it becomes evident fairly quickly what eggs won’t hatch. Yet both parents seemingly continue to incubate the unhatched eggs. Especially once the chicks become more mobile, the unhatched eggs naturally get pushed aside. Those eggs eventually break and the shell pieces become part of the nest substrate.
Another question was asked about a clutch of Peregrine eggs in a nest near San Francisco. The parents abandoned the eggs. Just like the actual number of days it takes a wild egg to hatch, there are many variables that could explain why eggs would be abandoned. One example is one or both parents were somehow killed. Peregrines, as well as all wild animals, lead a hard life. Maybe the eggs got chilled for too long and died. Sometimes an egg gets a minute crack that allows bacteria to enter the egg. The infection could kill the egg. Even if eggs are quickly collected and analyzed, it still may not be determined how the egg died.
Hopefully when I’m writing ASK JEFF #7 I’ll be talking about the new chicks and answering all your questions. Have a great week and stay healthy!
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
The blessed hatching occurred either late Friday night, 24 April, or early Saturday morning, 25 April. Three of the 4 eggs hatched and mother falcon now is caring for her hatchlings. Today, Wednesday, 29 April, is quite chilly, rainy and windy, with only a high of 50 degrees. Because the chicks, at only 4 days old and cannot regulate their own body temperatures, mom is busy brooding, or keeping the sometimes squirming lumps warm. I’ve looked in 3 times today, and she seems uncomfortable. Because of their size she can’t put all her weight on them, so has to half stand and use her wings to keep the chicks under her. She’s diligent, though, and with all her successes in the past, we know she will perform her work well.
Banding day will be 15 May. I personally like to band the chicks when they are around 20 days old. By that time they are already showing the male/female size difference. With most birds of prey, females are larger than males. Also, at 20 days their feet are about as large as they are going to be for life. I liken raptor chicks to puppies, which have full grown feet well before their bodies are full grown. Because of the size difference in the sexes, females get a size 7A band and males get a size 6 band. At 20 days I know what size band each bird gets.
The one question I got over the week was when the parents will not have to brood the chicks anymore. When the chicks are 9 or 10 days old they have big enough bodies and enough insulative down that the parents should stop the brooding. This timing is also dependent on the outside temperature. By Saturday the temperature is supposed to be back in the low 80’s. You’ll not see mom or dad brooding them that afternoon, but then probably will resume as the sun sinks below the horizon.
There will certainly be more to come as our chicks grow. Keep those questions coming. Talk to you next week.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Today, Friday, 8 May, the chicks are 13 days old, looking healthy and growing like weeds. Today is chilly; only highs in the 50’s with a stiff wind blowing. Every time I looked at the nest cam today mom had the chicks against or very close to her body. The chicks are too big for mom to get them all under her body, but she still is sheltering them with some warmth and wind blockage. On days with 60-degree temps or more mom doesn’t have to stay so near them because the chicks can mostly regulate their own body temperatures now. I say “mostly” because on cold days/nights mom still must be very near them.
We had some good questions over the week, so let’s get right to them. The first fits in well with my above paragraph. “How long does mom leave the babies alone when they are this young?” There are plenty of perches within 20 feet of the box where if mom was on one of them, you couldn’t see her on camera. The chicks will fledge, or fly from the nest, when they are 45-55 days old. They have to be much closer to that age frame before mom will venture further from the nest. She not only broods and feeds the chicks, but she’s the number one nest protector. If any other bird or mammal (including humans) come close enough to the nest, she will attack, flying close enough to the threat to rake it with her strong feet and sharp talons. She also has a very loud voice, and usually flying close to the threat without touching it, yet yelling so loud, the threat gets the picture “loud” and clear and retreats.
Someone observed the mother falcon standing over the chicks with her mouth agape. That person asked if mom was communicating with them. Falcons and other birds of prey have been observed making noises just before egg hatching, with the theory on this being mom encouraging the chicks to break through, or pip the egg. Mom and dad falcons seem to “talk” to each other, especially during courtship. They also become vocal during exchange of incubating duties. I believe the person making the observation with our falcon was seeing mom panting. Birds don’t sweat like most mammals. They cool themselves by rushing air across their moist mouth and throat parts. The evaporation of liquid within the mouth helps cool the bird.
Another question was what does the male do all day long when he’s not incubating the eggs or brooding the chicks. I mentioned mom is the number one nest protector. Dad is a close 2. If, say, and eagle ventures too close to the nest, dad is the first responder. He will fly above the eagle and attack from above. If he thinks he can get away with it, he’ll rake his feet and talons across the eagle’s back. He’s also very loud. Whether male or female attacking another bird of prey, the falcons know to be cautious. Again, I’ll use an eagle as an example. If the eagle sees what’s coming, in a split second it can roll over, feet flashing up and grab a falcon that gets too close. The eagle would make short work of the smaller bird of prey, killing and then eating it. Yes, even the fastest of all the world’s animals can become a meal for another animal. Dad also defends the territory from other Peregrine Falcons and is always on the look-out for the chick’s next meal; his and mom’s, too.
Last question was, “Do male and female ever spend time together in the nest box?” They spend very little time in the box together, and for that matter, very little time perched close together. Affection is not on a bird of prey’s list of behaviors. They may mate in the box, but that process is very quick; literally a few seconds. When dad comes into relieve mom of incubating duties for a few minutes, he lands and jumps in the box as the female jumps out. When dad brings food, mom flies out, meets him in midair and they do the exchange, usually quite spectacularly from a human’s point of view.
The chicks will be banded next Friday, 15 May, around 9 in the morning. The camera is turned off for the hour or so it takes to extract, band and put back the chicks. Late Friday morning you will see the chicks’ new jewelry, which helps us biologists gain knowledge on their movements around the continent, nesting behaviors, etc. I’ll report on their health and the experience next Friday afternoon. Until then, keep those questions coming! Have a great week.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello all. We’ve had tragedy at the nest box. This morning as I was getting out of my vehicle at Ameren’s Sioux Energy Center to get ready for banding our 20-day old chicks, I was informed that 2 had jumped from the box and one had passed away in the box. The chick that passed away in the box died sometime overnight. Around 6 this morning the other 2 jumped from the box. With the chicks not even walking on their feet yet, them jumping from the box was very surprising.
I still climbed to the box to retrieve the passed chick that was still in the box. I found another just under the box, where 2 I-beams come together. That chick was also dead. The third chick fell to the ground. All 3 bodies will be necropsied (that’s an animal autopsy) and we will try to find out why the chicks so suddenly died.
The person that pans the camera looked at recorded footage from last night. He watched until he could not see into the box because of darkness. Nothing about the chicks’ behavior gave him any hint there was trouble.
When I climbed onto the beams near the box to retrieve the chicks, mom falcon acted as normal, pummeling my yellow helmet with her feet as she rapidly flew by. Dad falcon was also flying very close, yelling at me. The box had feathers from prey items, just as normal.
This tragedy was the last thing I expected, as WBS staff person Darcy Evelhoch and I made our way to the Sioux Energy Center early this morning. In previous ASKJEFF’s I’ve spoken of how nature can seemingly be cruel, not only in our situation, but with all other living things on the planet. Still, when you get to see so much of our Peregrine Falcon pair and the chicks they produce and raise, one cannot help but become attached. My attachment comes through in the respect I have for the species, our 14 year old female and her 16 year old mate. They have been together for 5 seasons now and have contributed 8 fledglings to the North American Peregrine population.
I really didn’t think the last ASK JEFF would come so quickly in the nesting season, but again, nature has her own agenda, and it sometimes doesn’t work out for the human onlookers. If we get definitive answers from testing the chicks’ bodies, I will write another ASK JEFF.
I hope everyone has a great summer, and I look forward to writing to you in 2021.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director