Special Segment: Urban Falcons

May 9, 2011 (CHICAGO)

What does historic St. Michael's Church on Chicago's Near North Side have in common with a modern high-rise in the middle of the UIC campus on Chicago's Near South Side? Nesting peregrine falcons.

On a ledge just outside the chancellor's office at the university a falcon is sitting on a clutch of eggs. And at the base of St. Michael's statue at the historic church there is another nest -- evidence that the once nearly extinct species has been saved in part by the Chicago Peregrine Program.

"The peregrine population in Illinois has gone from zero when I started to one in 1988 to about 22 pairs in the state," said Mary Hennen, director of the Chicago Peregrine Program.

There was a time when a drawer in the Field Museum collection was the only way you would see a peregrine falcon in Illinois. Eggs from 1899 would help prove that contamination from the pesticide DDT was thinning the shell to the point that they would break under the weight of a nesting parent. DDT was banned and the effort began to save the species.

"You can breed these birds in captivity and the young can learn how to fly and hunt on their own, so essentially we used captive born to release into the wild," said Hennen.

And when released it turned out the falcons like living in the city.

"Think about it. Your city is a pseudo cliff. No competition for the use of ledges, ample prey bait, and it's part of the adaptability to the cities that has helped the recovery of the species," said Hennen.

It has also helped that peregrines attract admirers.

"These falcons, their wing shape, their body shape, even their third eyelid, their nostrils, how they have diffusers in them for high speed, everything about them is the perfect design and you're just drawn to them," said Frank Hildebrand, wildlife photographer.

He's drawn to the point that Hildebrand admits he's taken countless thousands of photos at the St. Michael's nest.

"I'll come here later in the day and take like maybe 400 shots, and I'll walk away with one or two that I like," said Hildebrand.

Dawn Smith lives near St. Michael's and has become very attached to the feathered family.

"This nest started in 2005. It was a male and female. He was from Milwaukee, named Hops, he was born at a brewery, and she was from Ohio, her name was Sadie," said Smith.

Several nests later, Smith has never lost interest and admits to stopping by almost every time she leaves her nearby home.

"I think they have an inherently fascinating quality to them. Their power, their speed, their freedom, they're just remarkable creatures," said Smith.

You can watch the falcon nests live as eggs are hatching in the next week or two. There are three live webcams currently operating. For Peregrine information and links to live web cams of nests: fieldmuseum.org/explore/illinois-peregrines

Frank Hildebrand Wildlife Photography with special section on St. Michael's peregrines: www.hildebrandphotography.com

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