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Peregrine falcons to be fitted with tracking devices

Saturday, May 04, 2002

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two of the four peregrine falcon chicks hatched last month on the 37th floor ledge of the Gulf Tower, Downtown, will soon be fitted with solar-powered satellite tracking transmitters so state biologists can follow their movements throughout the Western Hemisphere.

A 22-day-old male peregrine falcon rests in the hands of wildlife conservation officer Beth Fife after an examination by veterinarian Robert Wagner on the 37th floor of the Gulf Tower yesterday. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The tiny transmitters -- about the size of a pack of gum with a flexible, 6-inch-long wire antenna protruding from the bottom -- will be strapped onto the birds in two weeks, just before they will start flying.

All four Gulf Tower squawking, downy-feathered peregrine chicks -- three males and one female -- were weighed and given a medical exam by National Aviary personnel, then banded for identification purposes by state Game Commission biologists yesterday.

This is the twelfth straight year that peregrine falcons have nested on the Gulf Tower, producing 39 chicks in that span.

This year marked the first time that five eggs were laid. One did not hatch.

Peregrines were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999 but are still considered a state endangered species.

This is the first year the Game Commission will use the transmitter trackers. Two other peregrines from a nest box on the Rachel Carson Office Building in Harrisburg, headquarters of the state Department of Environmental Protection, also will be fitted with the transmitters.

"Outfitting them with transmitters takes the study of these birds up to the next step from banding," said Dan Brauning, a Game Commission wildlife biologist. "It's a natural progression tied to technology and it will allow us to track the locations of the birds no matter where they go in the Western Hemisphere."

Peregrin Falcon Cam
For visual updates on the Gulf Tower peregrin falcon nest visit the Conservacy's Peregrin Falcon Cam.

The Game Commission project is being done in partnership with the Canadian Peregrine Foundation, which has used transmitters to track adult falcons for four years, and last year launched an effort to follow adolescent falcons, which usually roam over a wider range than the adults.

The Canadian program, aimed at understanding the dynamics of the falcons' movement and behavior, has tracked the birds to wintering spots on the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas, Caribbean islands and South America.

This year the Canadian program expects to put transmitters on up to 40 birds, including the four from Pennsylvania.

Brauning said he would have liked to put transmitters on all the peregrines hatched in the state but the cost of the transmitters and satellite time -- about $10,000 a bird for the two years the transmitter will function -- made that impossible.

"Still, our four birds from Pennsylvania will be part of a bigger sample to track their locations," he said. "We're just at the very beginning of trying to understand what's going on and where they're going."

Charles Bier, director of the Natural Heritage Program at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, said six of the birds hatched on the Gulf Tower have been tracked to nests in Detroit, Cleveland and Burlington, Vermont, but the whereabouts of most are unknown.

Bier also announced that for the first time a second pair of adult peregrines appear to have successfully mated and laid eggs in a nesting box on the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.

"The couple started to be seen around Oakland and have been using the Cathedral since 1996 but failing to mate," Bier said. "This year there may have been a change of partners. As soon as we put the nesting box out in February we looked out and saw a lot of courtship going on."

Because of the way the nesting box is set up on the Cathedral of Learning ledge, observers can't tell for sure if the falcons are sitting on eggs, but their behavior indicates they are.

"They seem to have laid eggs and are incubating them," Bier said. "They should be hatching anytime now, so they are about two-and-a-half weeks behind the reproductive schedule of the falcons on the Gulf Tower. They will be banded in three to four weeks if all goes well."

The Cathedral of Learning peregrines bring the number of nesting pairs of peregrines in Pennsylvania to 12.

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