Endangered peregrine falcons find urban settings have what they need to thrive

High atop a building in downtown Kalamazoo, Kewpie looks out over his territory. 

He has eyesight that can spot and intruder or a meal a mile away. Crows will be chased off. Coopers Hawks might be assassinated for daring to trespass the skies over Kalamazoo. That’s what a father falcon does.

Kewpie and his mate Rebecca, the peregrine falcons who have made downtown Kalamazoo their home, are two of a growing number of  the birds recovering from the days when the pesticide DDT nearly drove the falcons to extinction. 

The pesticide thins birds’ eggs so they are crushed when the parents try to incubate them and as a result peregrines’ numbers had dropped to 324 known nesting pairs when they were given endangered species protection in the 1970s. When they were reintroduced in cities across the Midwest in the 1980s they began to thrive again. Now 90 percent of breeding pairs are in urban settings. (Twenty are in Chicago.) It’s believed that today there are at least 2,000 to 3,000 pairs. 

Peregrines find tall places to nest that reminds them of the cliffs and bluffs on which they would raise families in the wild. An abundance of pigeons, starlings, and other birds some consider a nuisance means they are well fed. Known as the fastest bird in the air, they have few predators in cities.  

They’ve settled on top of cathedrals, on skyscrapers, window ledges, and bridges across 12 Midwestern states and portions of two Canadian provinces. Cities are saving the peregrines and people in those cities are passionately looking out for the birds’ wellbeing.

People like Gail Walter, a handful of members from the local chapter of the Audubon Society, and those who work and live in downtown Kalamazoo. Walter calls herself a peregrine falcon ambassador and through her efforts downtown merchants and those who work downtown know what peregrines look like and what to do if they see a juvenile falcon walking down the street. 

It’s happened. More than once.

Peregrine falcons decided they liked the looks of downtown Kalamazoo in 2010. Rebecca and her then mate tried to nest in a gutter on the Fifth Third Bank Building. Peregrines don’t build a nest with nesting material such as sticks or grasses as other birds do. Instead, they find some gravel and make a shallow depression in it, known as a scrape. The eggs laid in the scrape in the gutter did not survive the spring rains. 

After the same thing happened the next year, the local chapter of the Audubon Society decided to get involve and contacted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for help. The MDNR monitors and bands the peregrines, and determines what steps to take when a decision regarding the birds’ future has to be made.

In this case, as DNR biologist built a nest box that was located atop the Fifth Third Bank Building. But the birds had already chosen their nesting site for the year. Back in the fatal gutter. Another clutch of eggs was lost. 

A decision was made to relocate the nest box to a corner outside the 13th floor of the bank building. The birds had a year to get used to it and by the time nesting season came around they had been in and out of it enough that they gave up on the gutter and used the nest box as everyone hoped they would.

In 2014 Rebecca mated with an un-banded peregrine and together they raised their first successful clutch of baby falcons who made it to fledging when they develop wing feathers large enough for flight. 

Some time after that, probably during the fall when non-urban peregrine falcons are migrating to Mexico, another male came through Kalamazoo and decided to challenge the one who had been Rebecca’s mate. 

The new male was banded and had been given the name Kewpie. He grew up in Lima, Ohio on a building with art deco architecture that resembles that of the Fifth Third building. It looked like home and he decided to fight for it. He won and went on to father the chicks that hatched in 2015 and 2016. 

Kewpie is named after a famous restaurant in Lima and banders who gave him the name originally thought he was a female. “When he showed up with the name Kewpie my reaction was, ‘I’m OK with that name because the Kewpie doll is androgynous’,” Walter says. “I had no inclination to change the name. Some people have said it’s too cute of a name for a male falcon, but I think the whole town has embraced it.”

She says they now try to give chicks hatched in Kalamazoo gender neutral names because it’s sometimes difficult to tell the bird’s gender when it is banded at 20 to 25 days old.

Walter is highly impressed with the parenting skills of the Kalamazoo falcons. “It takes a pair of peregrines to raise a family,” Walter says. “Both parents are hard working. We’ve got really good parents. Rebecca is a fearsome mother. She tells Kewpie to go get the food and she takes care of everything else. She is a force to be reckoned with.”

A website of peregrine falcon information that live streams activity in the nest, good local media coverage, and lots of fliers describing what to do if you see a baby falcon on the ground have all contributed to the community’s knowledge and awareness of peregrines. 

“It’s amazing that people in downtown Kalamazoo know what a peregrine falcon sounds like and looks like,” Walter says. She knows people are paying attention to the peregrines because they stop her to tell her, they call, and send e-mail to update her on where the juvenile birds are. They tell her about bringing their visitors and their grandchildren downtown to check on the peregrines.

Folks who are fans of the raptors can be seen on the parking ramp with their binoculars and scopes looking for activity in the nest. Downtown workers watch out their office windows to keep track of the birds. 

Contests sponsored by Fifth Third to help name the little peregrines have strengthened the community connections to the bird considering two winning names have been Promise and Strong. (#KalamazooStrong sprang up after a series of area shootings that drew national headlines. Plus, local peregrine enthusiasts were thrilled to learn this year that Promise has become a father on the southeast side of the state.) 

And locals have taken to heart the responsibility of keeping the birds safe. If people downtown had not remained alert, half of the young birds raised in Kalamazoo would not have made it, Walter says. 

In one case, a young bird walking down the sidewalk was spotted by the employees of running apparel retailer Gazelle Sports. The employees herded the fledgling into a box and waited until the raptor rehabber could pick it up. 

Another time, a gentleman saw a recently fledged bird walking down the street. He managed to get it in his car and drove it to the Kalamazoo Nature Center. 

In 2016, two birds ended up in rehab--one left the nest too early, perhaps by falling or being pushed, a second hit the Radisson Plaza hotel. The first spent 10 days in rehab as its feathers grew and unfurled. It flew in progressively larger flight cages as it stretched its newly developed wings. 

The second simply needed time to recover from the shoulder injury it sustained.

Then the was the time Walter got a call at 9 p.m. to say a bird had flown into the Radisson. When she arrived there were three police cars and the county animal control officer.

“People really understand that these birds are special, that they are rare and that it’s cool that they are here,” Walter says. “And I think that they are concerned about them. It has become a symbol of Kalamazoo and they are proud of the birds being here.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

The local chapter of the Audubon Society accepts donations to keep the live stream camera and website operating. Donations are accepted here.
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