Two Babies, Mom Are All Doing Fine

UMass Lowell Image

Biologist Thomas French of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife puts an identification band on the leg of one of the peregrine falcon chicks at Fox Hall.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Peregrine falcons are the world’s fastest birds, capable of diving from great heights at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. These majestic raptors tend to nest on rocky cliffs as well as on tall buildings and structures in heavily urbanized areas.

Since 2007, a pair of peregrine falcons has called UMass Lowell’s East Campus home. This spring, they successfully hatched two chicks inside a gravel-filled wooden nest box mounted on the roof of 18-story Fox Hall.

On June 6, a team from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (DFW) checked on the condition of the 4-week-old chicks and placed metal identification bands around their legs. The chicks’ parents were out hunting when the team first arrived, but as soon as they sensed the intrusion, the falcons’ protective instinct kicked in, and they took turns swooping down and attacking the team members with their sharp talons as the team returned the youngsters to the nest box.

“The chicks are nice and healthy,” says Thomas French, assistant director of DFW’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program in West Boylston, who led the tagging team.

French says the parents originally had four eggs, but two failed to hatch. He determined the surviving brood to consist of a male and a female. The birds will soon shed their white, fluffy down feathers and be ready to fledge (take flight and leave the nest) by late June or early July to hunt on their own.

“The parent falcons usually stay in Lowell year-round,” says French. “Their offspring can normally be found within Eastern Massachusetts. In previous years, some of them have been sighted in beaches and marshes as far north as Plum Island and as far south as Plymouth and Chatham. One was even spotted at Green Airport in Rhode Island.”

To date, the Fox Hall falcons have successfully raised a total of 15 chicks — 12 on campus and prior to that, three in a previously abandoned mill building in downtown Lowell.

Based on bird carcasses found on the rooftop, the falcons’ diet consists of pigeons, blue jays, grackles, mourning doves, house sparrows and flickers.

“Unlike in previous years, we didn’t find any remains of pet parakeets or parrots,” notes French.

Soul Mates

“Peregrine falcons mate for life,” explains French. “However, if one of the mates dies, it gets replaced right away.”

Peregrine falcons can typically live about 10 years. According to French, the female bird at Fox Hall, which was first tagged at the Custom House in Boston in 2002, is now 11 years old. He estimates the male, which was banded in Fall River in 2000, is about 13 years in age.

The oldest peregrine falcon that has ever been tagged in the wild, based on French’s records, was 19½ years.

“The biggest contributors to the falcons’ mortality are not diseases or parasites, but traumatic injuries as well as aggression from younger competitors,” says French. “Many falcons get fatally injured when they accidentally hit windows or sides of buildings or strike power lines. Others are killed by younger, more aggressive falcons that want to take over their territories.” 

The commonwealth considers peregrine falcons “endangered,” so it’s illegal to harass, hunt, capture or harm them in any way. The widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT, in the 1950s and ’60s nearly wiped out the falcon population in the Eastern United States. Thanks to strict regulations and conservation measures, the birds are making a comeback.

You can monitor the chicks and their nest box at Fox Hall via two webcams — one installed on the roof and the other placed inside the box.

To watch a video of this year’s tagging, go to UMass Lowell’s YouTube page.