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A Bird’s Eye View at UMass Lowell

Breeding Pair of Falcons Take Up Residence atop Fox Hall

The female peregrine falcon nesting on the roof of Fox Hall in 2007. Photo by David and Ursula Goodine

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You can say that for this high-flying couple, they have the best view of the entire UMass Lowell campus. From their penthouse atop the 18-story Fox Hall on UML East, they enjoy a commanding view of the University, the Merrimack River and beyond. But the pair of peregrine falcons that had chosen to call Fox Hall home wants to keep their daily lives private, and they’ll do anything to make sure it stays that way.

Peregrine falcons (scientific name Falco peregrinus) are the fastest birds on Earth, capable of diving from great heights at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. These raptors tend to nest on rocky cliffs and tall buildings and structures in heavily urbanized areas. Unlike eagles and hawks, which prey mainly on fish, small mammals and reptiles, falcons prefer mostly small birds like blue jays, starlings, doves and robins. The falcon swoops down on an unsuspecting bird in flight, knocks it over and then catches it in midair with its razor-sharp talons. That’s why a number of half-eaten bird carcasses can be seen littered across the roof of Fox Hall.

The Commonwealth considers peregrine falcons as “endangered,” so it’s illegal to harass, hunt, capture or harm them in any way, says Erik Amati, a biologist from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s Northeast District in Acton. “As of 2007, there are only 14 known breeding pairs in the state,” he says. “Two of these currently nest in Mount Tom and Mount Sugarloaf in the Connecticut River Valley, while the rest can be found in the cities of Amherst, Boston, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Springfield and Worcester.”

The peregrines’ hideaway at Fox was discovered by accident last year when workers tried to attach a large banner to the side of the building. “The falcons, which are highly territorial, took turns attacking the intruders,” says Edward Smith of the University’s Facilities Department.
At the time, the female had laid eggs on a bare bed of gravel on the roof, but the eggs didn’t hatch. “It was too cold and too damp because of our wet weather,” says Amati. “In February this year we provided a nest box so the eggs are not exposed to the elements too much and thus increase the chicks’ odds of survival. Having them nest in the box means that we have them in a spot where we can easily access them.”

Amati, together with wildlife technician Stephen Wright, checked the nest on April 24 and found a clutch of four eggs.  On May 23, a team from the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife led by Dr. Thomas French checked the nest and found that all four eggs had not hatched as expected. That meant the chicks didn’t survive incubation. According to French, the falcons probably will try to mate again in spring next year.

A Lowell citizen observing a biologist nestbox.
State biologist Erik Amati with the nest box he built for the peregrines. The box was installed on the roof in February by a University-hired commercial contractor called Falcon Services.