Experts band three peregrine falcon chicks hatched on Smiley tower
Grand Forks, meet Alice, Ethel and Smiley.
Three peregrine falcon chicks that hatched in a nest box high atop the Smiley water tower along South Washington Street had their coming out party, of sorts, Thursday afternoon when experts from the Minnesota Audubon Society and the Minnesota Zoo banded the birds.
The chicks, two females and a male, are about three weeks old and can't yet fly.
The young peregrines are the offspring of Terminator and Roosevelt, which have been the talk of the local birding community since they showed up in Grand Forks this spring.
Terminator, a 3-year-old female hatched in Brandon, Man., first nested on the Smiley tower last spring when she mated with a male named Bear. The pair produced "Ozzie," a single chick that met its demise last July after hitting a power line while learning to fly.
It was the first time peregrines had been documented nesting in Grand Forks.
No one knows what happened to Bear, but Terminator returned to the Smiley tower this spring and eventually shacked up with an upstart male hatched in Fargo. Based on records at the time he was banded, the year-old male peregrine is Bear's brother, and his name is Roosevelt.
Which brings us to Alice, Ethel and Smiley. Grand Forks birding expert Dave Lambeth said Alice and Ethel are named after two of Theodore Roosevelt's daughters.
The inspiration for Smiley, the lone boy in the batch, is obvious.
About 30 people gathered below the Smiley tower on Thursday to watch local falcon enthusiast Tim Driscoll and Karla Anderson of the Minnesota Zoo scale the tower to retrieve Alice, Ethel and Smiley and lower them to the ground in a box made for holding the birds.
Driscoll, a UND assistant professor whose name has become synonymous with Grand Forks falcons, said he wanted to see the nesting box for a closer look at what the chicks had been eating and perhaps collect some of the nasty remains.
Never mind that he's scared of heights and the nesting box was about 120 feet off the ground. Peregrines are cliff-nesting birds that historically didn't nest in the Red River Valley, but they find lofty heights such as the Smiley water tower to their liking.
"Does anyone want to hug me in case I come down dead?" Driscoll joked as he prepared to climb the tower.
It wasn't long, though, before he and Anderson were on top of the tower and retrieving the chicks from the nest box.
According to Mark Martell, Audubon Minnesota's director of bird conservation who fitted the bands Thursday and also collected blood samples for DNA analysis, peregrine numbers have been increasing throughout the Midwest since the restoration project began in the early 1980s.
As with other raptors such as bald eagles, widespread use of pesticides such as DDT decimated peregrine falcons.
"There's more peregrines every year," Martell said. "There's more nests every year."
Officially known as the Midwest Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project, the effort has several partners, Martell said, and includes an extensive database to keep tabs on the birds.
That's where the bands come into play. Each chick received two bands Thursday, a purple band from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a black-and-red or black-and-green band for the restoration project database.
Judging by their screeches, the parents flying in circles around the tower weren't happy about temporarily giving up their chicks, but they didn't dive-bomb the human intruders.
The chicks put up a bit of a fuss, at first, but eventually settled down.
"They're not cooperative, but they're too young to do much about it," Martell said, adding the chicks have to be at least 15 days old to band; otherwise, the bands fall off.
"If they're too old, they get too worked up and jump out of the nest," he said.
Now that the chicks are banded and back in their nest on top of Smiley, the next few weeks will be crucial to their survival. Lambeth said the chicks will start flying in about two weeks.
"That's the really scary time because they start flying around before they're too good at it," Lambeth said.
"Bad things can happen," he added, as was the case with Ozzie last year.
If all goes well, though, the adult peregrines will teach the chicks to learn to hunt and survive on their own, and the family will stay in Grand Forks until sometime in September before heading south to the tropics.
As for the future, Lambeth says Terminator and Roosevelt likely will return to Grand Forks next spring -- but don't look for them to let the kids hang around.
Peregrine parenting, apparently, has its limits.
"The three young birds will have to disperse," Lambeth said. "Grand Forks can support one pair, but probably not more."
On the Web:
Midwest Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project: www.midwestperegrine.org.