- Our City/Our Campus
- Cathedral of Learning
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On a dreary Thursday morning, a small group of ornithologists, wildlife biologists, birders and bird enthusiasts gathered on the 40th floor of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning lobby, aflutter with anticipation.
It’s a big day, one not possible since before the pandemic: Banding day for three juvenile peregrine falcons temporarily calling the Cathedral’s nest home.
Such “banding” is important to conservation. Birds are tagged with small metal bracelets that allow the birds to be tracked and accounted for throughout their lives. This banding was organized by Pitt, the National Aviary and Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC), with Pitt and PGC developing a safety plan.
Step one: Collect the young birds from their lofty perch.
Patricia Barber, PGC endangered bird biologist, donned protective gear before stepping outside to get them. Morela and Ecco, the nest’s adult peregrines, squawked and screamed, circling and swooping to defend their nest and young, which had been laid in the last weeks of March.
When Barber reappeared, she held three bags, each with a falcon chick inside.
The first was gently removed and surprisingly quiet, though Morela and Ecco could be seen through the windows, far more concerned than their offspring appeared to be.
The chick was big — and because she’s big, it’s suspected that “she” is correct. Peregrine falcons, like most raptors, are sexually dimorphic, with the females considerably larger than the males of the species.
Barber completed a thorough health check of the bird, looking in her eyes, ears and mouth, examining her wings and body, her feet, vent and crop. The young bird passed with flying colors.
Her leg was measured for the band, and she received a black/green coded band and a silver U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service band. A temporary colored tag was put on the bird’s silver band for easier identification on the nest cam — the first will get blue, the second gold, appropriately, and the third, red — but as nest monitor Kate St. John explains in her popular blog, Outside My Window, the young falcons are not named.
The process was repeated two more times, with each of the birds getting a clean bill of health before being reunited with Morela and Ecco. With neither parent banded, this was a first time for everyone. But that doesn’t mean it will get easier.
“They learned today that they scared away the big bad predator — me — and got their babies back. We’ve reinforced their aggressive behavior,” Barber said. “But we want them to protect their babies. So that’s okay.”
The birds will also face other perceived predators — like the Pitt employees who need to do repairs near their nest. But everyone agrees: It’s worth it to have them on campus.
“It’s like Pitt is their landlord,” St. John said. “And you’re really good landlords. Not every site is so lucky. A nest can be disrupted by construction and maintenance. But Pitt looks out for them.”
This nest box was installed at Pitt in 2001 in partnership with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the PGC to provide a suitable nesting site for a pair of peregrines who had arrived on their own the year before. It was part of an ambitious conservation recovery plan, underway since peregrines had disappeared from the eastern United States in the 1960s after being devastated by pesticides like DDT.
And the nest soon had something not many did at the time: A camera, where members of the public could watch the raptors.
“Nest cams like the one operated by the National Aviary provide an important window in the world of wild birds. We can watch a peregrine falcon pair from the moment eggs are laid and watch them grow and develop in real time,” National Aviary Ornithologist Robert Mulvihill said. “Nest cams make it possible to see birds in a way we never have before and to grow in our appreciation for the wildlife around us.”
Now decades later, the conservation plan has been a success. Such a success, in fact, that last year, the PGC announced the peregrine falcon has been taken off of the state’s threatened and endangered list. That means that many nest sites will no longer have their chicks banded yearly, though the Cathedral is one of three Pennsylvania sites that will.
Since 2002, 58 young peregrines have fledged from the Cathedral of Learning, contributing greatly to the species’ success.
And while these birds may no longer be endangered or threatened in Pennsylvania, plenty of other mammals, birds and reptiles aren’t so lucky. Public engagement and activism is key in protecting at-risk animals and supporting the commonwealth’s wildlife.
Barber explained that the Cathedral is both a high-profile and important site in the western part of the state: “Because of the cameras and their popularity, they’ve become ambassadors for their species and wildlife to the general public.”
— Meg Ringler, photography by Mike Drazdzinski