The Peregrine Falcons who nest on the gruesome office building down the block from the gruesome office building where I work are poking round the nest site today, thinking about spring.

The Jersey City Peregrine Falcons have experienced a lot of ups and downs over the years.  A pair first nested there in 2000, when they hatched four eggs but fledged two young.  Since then, at least one bird from the building has ended up in the care of wildlife rehabilitators every year except 2003 and 2006 (when a bird that was to be taken into care died before it could be retrieved.)  Usually these have been recently fledged young, and this isn’t terribly surprising; for the majority of birds, the most hazardous period of life is the transition from nest to wider world.  Learning to master flight, to obtain one’s own food, to avoid modern perils like power lines and plate glass, and to do so all at once in a situation with no do-overs – honestly, it’s kind of amazing that any Peregrine Falcons survive at all.  So it’s no surprise when a young bird on its first flight gets itself into a situation where it needs to be scooped out of danger and given a square meal and a bit of R&R before heading on its way.

But sometimes things happen that are just plain melodramatic.  Last year, for instance, the webcam audience at home watched in dismay as one of the three chicks in the nest faded rapidly, then died.  A technician from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection was dispatched to retrieve the carcass, in order to perform an autopsy, only to discover that it was only MOSTLY dead.  The “carcass” was then rushed to an animal hospital, where she was treated for an impacted crop.  After a few days in the care of the Raptor Trust, she was returned to the nest and went on to fledge normally, though a bit later than her siblings.

And better still is the story of 2005.  In 2005, the nesting season was proceeding as planned when the male falcon, flying fast in a landscape that evolution has yet to catch up with, ran into a light rail power line.  The force of his speed was so great that he severed his own wing.  Miraculously, a Good Samaritan found the bird before he bled out or went into irretrievable shock, and he was rushed to the Raptor Trust and saved.  But with only one wing, he would never fly again.  And back on the roof, his mate was incubating.

Peregrine Falcons mate for life, and both male and female hunt actively during most of the nesting season.  But when the eggs are about to hatch and for the first two weeks of the chicks’ lives, the female needs to brood them near-constantly to maintain the proper temperature.  During this interval, she becomes almost wholly dependent on her mate for food.  And it was at this, of all times, that the male had his accident.

Birds, of course, don’t have insurance.  But the Peregrine Falcons, being threatened and charismatic megafauna, did have the attention of the species that invented insurance.  The NJDEP decided to make deliveries of thawed quail to the nest site in the hopes of tiding the rest of the family over.  It was a delicate balance – too much disturbance could stress the female and make things worse, maybe even drive her away.  And there was no guarantee that she’d accept pre-killed food from these strange bipeds who were so clearly not her missing mate.

Then, just as if scripted, the day of the first delivery arrived and the building maintenance workers were puzzled.  Why the need to dump dead critters on the roof?  There were two falcons up there, just as there should be.

Punchline!  A new male, either young and unattached or having lost his own mate, had turned up at the crucial moment and begun courting the female by helping her defend the nest.  She was more interested in her parenting duties than in him, and he would wander away for a time and then return, but eventually he began bringing prey to the newly-hatched chicks.  She was also able to go hunting soon enough, and with occasional assists from her beau successfully raised three chicks (though one died shortly after fledging due to a window impact.)

I can only imagine what further unexpected twists and turns this season will bring.

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