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! Yesterday morning (18 March) we found the first egg in the nest. This signifies the start of the 8th year we will show you the nesting lives of Ameren Missouri’s Portage de Sioux Energy Center Peregrine Falcon pair. For those of you that have watched over the years, you will probably notice the box is in the same location as all years past. Back in early January I replaced the gravel in the box and gave the box a good inspection. It’s more than sound enough to house our Peregrine pair and their chicks for another year.
The gentleman that runs the camera has been keeping a close eye on the box, and he and I have already determined we have the same male and female as last year. As a refresher, the female is a 2006 hatch and was banded as a chick in a cliff nest at a state park in Minnesota. This is her 5th year as Portage de Sioux’s breeding female. The male is a 2004 hatch, and this is his 3rd year as the breeding male. He was raised in captivity and released to the wild (the process known as hacking) at a power plant in New Madrid, Missouri. Of course, we know the histories of each bird because of the bands they have on their legs. If you get a chance to see the legs as you watch, the female has a 2-colored band, black over green, with a sideways D in the black field and a sideways V in the green field. The male also has a black over green band, with a normal D in the black and a 53 in the green. If you have the privilege to see both birds at the nest box, the female is considerably larger than the male, which is typical with birds of prey.
I’m looking forward to again fielding your questions as the nesting season unfolds. I’m very excited that we are able to watch again, and I wish our nesting pair the best of luck for the 2019 season.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello all! Our female, being 13 years old this year, has done it again. She’s managed to lay 5 eggs, just like last year. Thirteen years old is quite old for a Peregrine, and the male is 15 this year. Just like humans in their later years, bodily systems don’t work as efficiently as when we were younger. There’s more of a chance some of the eggs won’t hatch, but of course we will hope for the best.
If my calculations are correct, our female laid her last egg on March 26th. She laid her first egg on 18 March, and Peregrines usually lay an egg every 2 days until the clutch, or full number of eggs laid, is finished. The incubation period for a Peregrine egg is about 30 days, so the chicks should start hatching on 26 April.
You may notice I used words like “usually” and “about” to describe egg laying and incubation period. As much as we know about birds, there are still variables that could make small changes in number of days between eggs laid and egg development during incubation. If our female had 3 days between, say, egg 3 and 4, then the hatching date could be off by a day or 2. If mom had to leave the eggs to, say, defend the nest from another bird of prey, egg development could have slowed, which may change the hatch date. Most birds usually (there, I used it again) won’t start constant incubation until the full clutch is laid. This delay in incubation makes it so all the eggs hatch in about 24 hours. In the Peregrine world, mom and dad will feed those chicks that push, squabble and get closest to mom/dad as they present the food. Birds grow so quickly that if there were 2 days between the ages of each chick, the first 2 or 3 hatched would be bigger, stronger and would probably get most of the food, and the 2 smallest would more likely perish. Having all the chicks hatch within 24 hours makes it so they are roughly the same size, and each will have a great shot at getting their fair share of the food and surviving to fledging (flying from the nest).
So far I’ve had no questions to answer. Let’s get to it, folks! Put a challenging question out there for me to tackle. I look forward to any and all questions you may have.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
As with every year we’ve had the privilege of watching the Ameren Missouri’s Portage de Sioux Energy Center Peregrine pair (we’re into our 8th year in a row), we are now into the incubation period by about 14 days. I’ll admit there’s not too much to see as the female provides the warmth that allows the eggs to develop into chicks. I’ll use the example of raking leaves. Yes, not the most stimulating of jobs, but when you are done, take a step back and look at your yard, you almost always say, “Wow, that looks nice!” I know we will all be elated when in 2 and a half weeks or so our female gets up from her scrape and shows us her beautiful chicks.
Earlier this week I was watching in the 3 o’clock hour and got to see some hilarious footage (the footage I speak of is on the web site). When I turned on the feed, I could tell the male was on the nest. A couple of times a day the female takes a break, and the male flies in and assumes incubation duties for sometimes as long as an hour. I could tell the bird I was looking at was the male because he’s considerably smaller than her, and just doesn’t take up that much space in the nest box.
For those that don’t already know, there are 5 eggs. When the female incubates, she has no problem covering all 5 with her bigger body, and seems to be comfortable enough to even doze off as she sits. Not so with the male. With the smaller body, I had to laugh out loud as he got up, changed angle, settled back down, then got up again, changed angle, settled down, then got up…you get the picture. He had to use his wings to help keep the eggs underneath him. Several times he also gently used his beak to push an egg back under his breast. It was so obvious he was not comfortable with all the “lumps.” After 10 minutes of this, I saw that he was looking up at something, and even slowly turned his head to follow the progress of the invisible-to-me entity. Of course it was the female, probably soaring on a thermal, enjoying the last minutes of her break. The male gently got off the eggs, stretched his sleek wings above his body, hopped to the perching in front of the box, then jumped into the blue. About 1 minute later, mom landed on the same perching, stepped into the box, balled up her feet and settled on the eggs.
There’s a theory that a female raptor’s body is larger than the males so she can more easily keep the eggs, and then young chicks warm. From what I observed, I’m in 100% agreement with this theory.
There were a few questions this time! Thanks to those of you who took me up on the challenge from the last ASK JEFF. First question is how high off the ground is the nest box? It’s 167 feet from the ground. I do not have to climb all that way. Most of that distance is covered by an elevator ride. The last 30 feet are ladders.
Second question is what happens to a chick or chicks that die as youngsters? Are they consumed by the parents or other chicks? With Peregrines it would be quite rare for a dead chick to be eaten by its nest mates or a parent. The parents are great food providers and would have had to fall on hard, prey catching times for this to happen. One of the theories on why any mated pair of birds settles on a territory is food abundance.
Last question is would I intervene and remove a weak chick to correct the health issue and then get it back to the nest? I would not, with the main reason being the disturbance I would have to create to climb to the nest to remove the chick, then have to climb to it again to put the chick back in. Climbing to the nest creates stress on especially the parents, so I make sure I go to the nest only once to place the bands on the chicks and draw a small sample of blood to make sure there are no human made toxins within. The scientific knowledge we gain from placing bands on the chicks and knowing what is and isn’t in their blood is the only instance worth placing stress on the parents. When I climb I make sure all my actions, and the actions of those around me are efficient, so the chicks are removed from the nest as little time as possible.
Great questions, folks! Keep them coming. Talk to you next week.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello Everyone! There were no questions asked last week, and with our female patiently incubating her clutch of 5 eggs, I skipped last week’s Ask Jeff. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an interesting Peregrine Falcon experience over last week.
I got a call from a photographer in the Hannibal, Missouri area, and he told me he was watching a Peregrine that consistently perched in a group of cottonwood trees just upstream from the bridge that takes interstate 72 and U.S. route 36 across the Mississippi River. He sent me pictures, and sure enough he got some great images of an adult Peregrine.
The bird’s consistent position peaked my interest. First, I know Peregrines like to nest on bridges crossing large bodies of water. Bridges provide good hunting perches for this bird eating predator. As birds try to fly across the Mississippi, Peregrines streak to them to try to catch them before they can get to cover one side or the other. Second, what caught my interest most is bridges provide safe nesting places for the falcons. I asked the photographer if he ever saw this bird flying up and under the bridge, and he said he’d seen this behavior several times. I speculated the photographer was taking pictures of the male of a pair, and the female had her nest on the underside of the bridge.
My speculation was turned to truth when a Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) bridge engineer saw the 4 eggs on a steel beam when he was performing an inspection of the bridge on the same day the photographer sent me the pictures. MODOT was going to hang a “snooper” scaffold under the bridge over the next 2 days to continue their inspection, but once they found out the Missouri state endangered Peregrines were nesting there, they postponed their inspection until after 1 August (a special thanks goes out to MODOT for this postponement). The nesting cycle would be all over by that time of the summer, and they could do their inspection under safer conditions. Yep, the birds would be done with their nesting, and just as importantly, the workers would be safe from attacks by the female as she defended her nest (once the chicks leave the nest the female mostly loses her need to defend the nest). If there’s anyone that knows how viciously a female Peregrine defends her nest, it’s certainly me! Over the last 4 years at Portage de Sioux Energy Center the female has struck with her feet my helmet at least 30 times per nest visit, as she tried to shoe me away from her precious chicks.
So, all parts of the above story are quite fascinating to me, but the one bit of information that spun my mind into a series of questions was the part where the bridge engineer said the 4 eggs are on a steel beam, with no nesting material around them. There are no falcons in the world that bring nesting material to their nest. No sticks, grasses, wood bark; nothing. At Portage de Sioux we provide a nest box with pea gravel on its floor, which simulates a cliff nesting situation. Before humans came on the scene Peregrines would search for a place on a cliff that provided a level, mostly dry surface with some gravel or soil within which they’d dig with their feet a depression, or scrape, so their eggs stayed in one place. The depression also allows the pair to more efficiently incubate all the eggs at once.
So, how does a female Peregrine incubate her eggs when they are sitting on a hard, flat surface? How does she not break them with her weight? How does she get all the eggs (as many as 5) under her at the same time? In my experience I’ve witnessed Peregrines in the “hard, flat surface” scenario be perfectly successful, and ones that were not.
All birds have feathers on their bellies, as they have over most other parts of their bodies. During a nesting season, females of some species actually pluck their belly feathers so their warmer skin is against their eggs and young chicks. This mostly featherless patch is called the brood patch. In my experience observing Peregrines, the females don’t pluck their belly feathers. This could be so they can keep their eggs and young chicks warmer with no nesting material to help insulate the eggs/chicks. If you are lucky enough to watch especially the female just before she settles her belly on the eggs, she fluffs up those belly feathers, thus enveloping most of the surface of each egg with those insulating feathers. The heat from her body (birds have a 104 degree average temperature, where humans are 98.6 degrees) warms the eggs and the feathers insulate.
Still, a female Peregrine on a flat, hard surface must have to prop her body up somewhat so her full weight isn’t on the eggs. A bird egg is very strong, but with all her weight on the upper side of the egg pushing the underside of the egg against the hard surface, you’d think cracks would form. Also, you would think she’d be much less comfortable for the 30 or so days of incubation. Her weight is probably supported with her whole foot. A bird foot includes the toes, the joint where all the toes meet and the bone that goes from that joint all the way up to the next joint, which is in essence the ankle joint. In my experience I’ve seen 2 females on flat surfaces incubate only one egg at a time, while the other eggs rolled around on the surface. When she’d leave for her brake, the male might incubate a different egg then the female was incubating, and when she returned she might incubate a different egg than she incubated before she left. You can probably guess that each of these nests failed. I’ve also observed 2 different Peregrine females successfully incubate all 4 of their eggs on a flat, hard surface, with all eggs hatching. The difference between the successful and unsuccessful females; hard to say. These are the questions that keep it interesting for me. You can bet I’ll again report on the Peregrine nest under the bridge at Hannibal, Missouri. In the meantime, our female should have chicks sometime over the nest 7 days. Keep your eyes pealed!
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello All. The day has come. We have hatching! One of our Peregrine Cam Team members saw the first chick 1 May. With the current rainy and somewhat cool weather our female is sitting very tight on her new family, but on the morning of 3 May I finally saw the next generation. When she got up to let the male take over brooding duties, I saw 2 chicks. For those who watched last year, you may remember we had 2 then. She had 5 eggs, and why only 2 hatched we will never know. However, with her and the male’s old age (13 and 15 years old respectively), it could explain lack of nesting productivity.
When a bird is keeping eggs warm, it’s called incubating. When a bird is keeping chicks warm, it’s called brooding. It’s very important to keep the young chicks warm because birds can’t regulate their own body heat at first. They are much more like their reptilian ancestors (reptiles are cold blooded) until they get to be a certain size and grow their downy feathers to help insulate their small bodies. If you watch the Peregrines on a daily basis, you’ll see mom brooding the chicks a lot over the first 5-10 days. After the 10th or so day, and/or if the temperature warms into the 80’s, mom will start spending less time brooding because the chicks will start to regulate their own 104 degree F body temperature.
Our banding day is scheduled for 21 May. We turn the camera off that morning until our activities are done. Then you’ll see the new “jewelry” on the chicks. I like to band the chicks at 20 days because then you can easily tell the difference in size between the males and females. Females are larger than the males, which translates to a different size band for each.
No one asked questions over the last week. I sure hope that changes, especially now that the chicks have arrived. I’m ripe for answering your questions, so talk to you next week!
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello all! Today (5/9) our 2 chicks are 8 days old. Especially Dad falcon is busy bringing in prey for mom to feed to the ever growing chicks. As I write this I see Mom is busy brooding (I explained brooding in the last Ask Jeff) because the temperature is cool today, with also a little rain. Her position in the box is much different than it was a week ago and beyond, when she had very small chicks or just eggs. The chicks grow so fast that they make Mom have to stand up more as she keeps the chicks warm under her.
Fast growth is an understatement when speaking of chicks. In a mere 50 days the chicks will be fully grown. That’s going from weighing about an ounce and a half (45 grams) at hatching to males weighing about 28 ounces (800 grams) and females weighing about 50 ounces (1,425 grams).
You may ask why the females are much bigger than the males. There are several theories on this phenomenon. Some say males are smaller for better agility when trying to catch prey, especially during the critical time of incubation and young chick brooding. The male does almost all of the hunting for the female and then the young family.
Some say the female is larger than the male for nest defense. If the body is bigger it is thus more intimidating to would be egg/chick stealers. Still others say the female is bigger to be able to produce the clutch of eggs. The eggs take a lot of nutrients from the body, and if the body is bigger it should be able to more easily produce eggs and still leave plenty in the tank for other bodily functions.
A female bird’s body has another little secret to help with egg production. Birds that fly have hollow places within the larger bones. With flying being one of the most strenuous exercises in nature, having hollow bones helps save weight and makes for a lighter body more easily kept aloft. Females have the ability to grow medullary bone within the hollow spaces. Medullary bone is small bone spurs that grow from the bone surfaces within the hollow spaces. It grows over the non-breeding season, and during egg production the spurs decrease in size as the eggs are produced.
Still no questions from our viewers. I miss your questions! Please write them in and I’ll get right to them on the next ASK JEFF.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hi All! We are rapidly approaching banding day, which is Tuesday, 21 May. My, how those chicks grow! They were about an ounce (28 grams) at hatching, and at 16 days of age (I write this on 17 May) they weigh about 12 ounces (336 grams). On banding day they will be 20 days old, which is the perfect age to band. Bird of prey chicks are altricial, meaning helpless for the first several weeks of life (the opposite is precocial, like duck chicks that can follow mom and swim within hours of hatching). I take advantage of this helplessness in that I don’t have to deal with biting, footing chicks when I collect them for banding. At 20 days of age they still aren’t walking, have no strength in their feet and very little beak strength. Yet, they are old enough where I can tell the difference between the males and females. Males are considerably smaller than females, thus I must use different size bands on each.
I got a question over the week! The question is when will mom stop brooding the chicks? In ASK JEFF 5 I wrote about the differences between incubating and brooding, and the reason why mom (and sometimes dad) must keep the chicks warm. As the chicks grow their bodies eventually get big enough where their core temperature starts to remain the same, which is 104 degrees F with most of our world’s birds. The more insulation there is around the cores of their bodies, the easier it is for their bodies to keep a constant temperature. This coupled with those amazing feathers, which are the world’s best natural insulation, our Peregrine chicks start to regulate their own body temperatures around 10 days of age. At 16 days old, which they are this day that I write, and with the temperature being in the low 90’s, there is no need for mom to do any brooding. Even if the temperature dipped into the 50’s tonight, the chicks would be fine without extra warmth from mom.
I’ll write to you next week right after banding day.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director
Hello All. I have some bad news. Over the weekend 18-19 May our 2 chicks died. In working with the person who runs the camera, it has been determined that the adult female stopped coming to the box. The chicks were still totally dependent on being fed by the female. The chicks don’t start getting strength in their feet and beaks, at least enough to feed themselves, until about 30 days of age. At that time they can also stand. All 3 things, standing over the food to be able to tear, having the foot strength to hold the prey in place, and beak strength, are very important in them being able to feed themselves.
The male cannot raise the kids on his own. Nature has given him the job of providing food for the female, and she brings the food to the box, tears it into pieces with her beak and feeds the chicks. When the female stops coming to the box, the male just isn’t capable of taking over the duties of feeding. Our camera man poured over camera footage from the weekend and found some video of the male sitting on the unhatched eggs. Of course, he doesn’t have the capacity to understand this futile effort. This bazaar behavior tells me something happened to the female.
Our female was 13 years old. In Ask Jeff 1 I spoke about how this is quite old for a Peregrine. There are so many things that could have happened to her; so many things that it’s useless to speculate. Over the 8 nesting seasons we have been able to get our viewers into the lives of Peregrine Falcons, I’ve mentioned how hard it is to lead a life in the wild, not just for Peregrines, but for all wildlife. Nature is seemingly cruel. Wildlife has to deal with predators, prey that can fight back, bad weather, let alone the obstacles we humans place in nature. Unfortunately we have to deal with this event, but I can safely tell you that there will be a thousand Peregrine nests in the United States this year that will fail, or have already failed. Again, this is just the harsh reality of nature. The bright side is there will be many more thousands of nests that will be successful, as our nest has been for the 7 years before the 2019 nesting season. Bottom line is the Peregrine Falcon population is still very strong, and with all the care and compassion we humans put into helping them be successful, there will always be Peregrines and much more wildlife for us and future generations to enjoy.
I think I can speak for our falcon cam team to say we all look forward to bringing you Ameren’s Portage de Sioux Energy Center Peregrine Falcon cam in 2020.
Jeff Meshach, Deputy Director