Urban Falcons

The falls of the Genesee River in Rochester are good vantage points to view falcons

One of the great joys of living not just in New York State, not just upstate New York and not just the Finger Lakes region, but in the heart of downtown Rochester, is being able to see the famous Kodak peregrine falcons right from our windowsills. My husband Wayne and I live in what used to be called Olde Rochesterville, with the Genesee River as our “front yard” and stunning views of Rochester from the two sides of our fifth-floor corner apartment.

From their nestbox high up in the Kodak Office Tower on Lake Avenue, the local falcons swoop and hunt right in front of our windows, often perching or feasting in our view, on the ledges between stories of the HSBC Building (the one with the long-ago revolving restaurant, now affectionately known as the flying saucer, on top) at Main and State streets. We have seen them dive at terrific speeds, snatch pigeons out of the air, and carry the carcasses back to window ledges for admittedly bloody dining, as if downtown was simply another national park or untouched mountainside. “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” indeed!

It isn’t that urban falcons are new to us – Wayne and I met in his hometown of Baltimore, which also has peregrine falcons nesting at a downtown building. However, the Baltimore falcons never appeared outside our windows there. Nor does Baltimore have the Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge over the fabulous Genesee River gorge at High Falls, where falcon-watchers meet regularly to observe nesting, hatching and fledgling.

Nor does Baltimore have the renowned Kodak Birdcam, a set of four cameras positioned around a nestbox in the Kodak Tower and operated by a team of falcon fans in the company, sending a constant stream of real-time images to their own area of the Kodak website. Not to mention the constant chatter about every move the falcons make, through an electronic discussion list accessible from the Birdcam website. Falcon fans from all around the Finger Lakes region, around the country and even across both oceans participate in the discussion list, creating their own virtual community and occasionally coming together in real life.

For whatever reason, we’re hooked! Here’s some of what we’ve learned.

Falcon facts

Being able to watch a wild hunting bird in action from the most urban of locations seems so unlikely, but the peregrine falcons of the Finger Lakes region are more than a transplanted natural wonder; they’re an environmental success story.

Falcons were almost wiped out by use of pesticides such as DDT, which poisons adult birds and weakens eggshells, destroying new generations. Thanks to wildlife professionals, environmental agencies and organizations, and the public, peregrine falcons have gone from “doomed,” at only 39 known pairs about 30 years ago, to thriving, with 2,000 breeding pairs today.

Before pesticides took their toll, Falco peregrinus (f.p.) – the one now found in the Finger Lakes region, which is one of three subspecies in North America – could be found in mountain and cliff eyres from central Alaska, across north-central Canada and down to Mexico. Their species name comes from their tendency to seek nesting sites far from where they hatch, while the subspecies name refers to their history as duck hunters. As the falcon population declined, its natural predator, the great horned owl, took over most of its nesting sites, so scientists and environmentalists came up with sites that owls tend to avoid – tall buildings, bridges and grain elevators. These have their own risks, since coasting on thermals could land one in the middle of urban traffic, but have turned out to be mostly successful as replacement homes.

The peregrine falcon has been off the federal endangered-species list since 1999 (although its populations are still monitored and it’s still on the New York State list). There are falcons in more than 25 North American cities; New York City has more than any other city in the world, and New York State has the most breeding pairs anywhere east of the Rockies. Rochester is not the only Finger Lakes city with nesting peregrine falcons; they are part of the urban experience in Syracuse and Oswego as well. And again, while there are plenty of falcon and general birding discussion groups on the Internet, only Rochester has the Kodak Birdcam!

The Kodak connection
Rochester became a center of falcon fanatics starting in 1994, when Dennis Money, founder of the Rochester Peregrine Falcon Project, asked Kodak to let him put a nest box on top of its office tower on Lake Avenue near High Falls. The tower was “a perfect nesting location with tons of nooks and crannies,” resembling a natural cliff habitat. The box went up the following year, and falcons started using the nest three years after his first efforts to attract them.

The first pair, named Mariah and Sirocco (who later was found to have been named Cabot by falcon-watchers where he was born), used the nest successfully from 1998 to 2001. Cabot-Sirocco disappeared and a new male, Kaver, replaced him as Mariah’s mate. Things got really exciting in 2003 and 2004, when Mariah and Kaver had an unprecedented five eggs and hatchlings each year – falcons usually have two to three eggs.

As of 2004, the total falcon offspring from the Kodak Office Tower is up to 26. Although the new generations have been banded, no one seems to know where the young birds have gone. As the discussion list’s “Frequently Asked Questions” says, “Unless someone spots a leg identification band and reports it to an agency that can track them, their whereabouts will likely remain a mystery.” The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper reported that one of the 2004 birds was fitted with a solar-powered transmitter that tracks his movements, but he has never gone farther than Elmira, so he isn’t expected to teach much about the migration habits of peregrine falcons.

Partners in the Birdcam are the Genesee Valley Audubon Society, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and Kodak’s Health, Safety and Environment departments. The Migration Research Foundation is a leader in furthering knowledge about the peregrine falcon, and members of the GVAS Fledge Watch volunteer to watch over and protect the fledglings.

Being a Rochester falcon fan even has a hint of mystery to it. Here’s what is known about “Birdman,” operator of the Birdcam for the past two seasons: “Birdman is a Kodak employee who has a deep interest in nature and the Birdcam project … There are many at Kodak who give their time to make this project a success each year, and Birdman speaks for us all.”

The nature of the bird
The falcon is the fastest of birds, so fast it has been called “the cheetah of the sky” and a “feathered bullet” – it can reach flying speeds of 50 miles an hour, and 200 mph when it dives or “stoops” for prey. Its long wings (3 feet on a body the size of a crow), streamlined build and small head contribute to its potential for speed. The female is the actual “falcon”; males are called “tercels” or “tiercels,” from a German word for “one-third,” because the male is a third smaller than the female. Peregrine falcons hunt in the air, slamming into their prey and grabbing it with fisted talons.

The average lifespan is 13 to 17 years, but only about half of each year’s new population survives. Many die as they learn to fly in urban canyons; some perish while migrating. Not all falcons migrate; some stay put – as the Rochester pair sometimes does – if winter weather is bearable, and if the food supply of starlings, pigeons and the occasional duck remains stable.

Falcons typically return to the same nest every spring, although they may switch to different nests in the same area from one year to the next.

They come back in early March and have a brief courting behavior every year. The female lays two to four eggs, one every-other day. Incubation lasts 33 or 34 days from when the last egg appears. An adult is on the eggs constantly; the female usually takes the “night shift” and most of the daytime nesting responsibility, although males seem to enjoy sitting on the eggs, even after doing the flying and hunting for both.

A baby or eyas spends two days “pipping” or pecking at the shell with a sharp egg tooth on its beak before emerging, weighing about 1.5 ounces and looking like a fluffy little snowball, with oversized feet and beak. Feathers start replacing down in three to five weeks and the birds are essentially full-grown at about six weeks. Leg length determines sex – short legs: male; longer legs: female. The eyasses learn to tear up their own food by around five weeks and testing the ability to fly at around six weeks, when they become fledglings. They leave the nest between the 38th and 45th day, encouraged by their parents either withholding food or hovering near the nest with prey in claw. It takes fledglings about a month to fly and hunt on their own; then, they leave town to find mates and homes of their own.

Despite the intense sense of connection between falcon-watchers and each year’s new clutch, the Birdcam discussion group says, “Each nesting pair of peregrine falcons prefers to select its own private location. If any one of the hatchlings return[ed] with mates during the next year’s nesting season, their parents would drive them off, as they would any ‘invading’ peregrine. After the young falcons leave the nest, all family ties and loyalty are dissolved.”

Getting plugged in
Want to join the legions of Finger Lakes falcon fans? Local newspapers usually announce the return of falcon pairs to their respective urban eyres. For news of the Rochester falcons, start visiting www.birdcam.kodak.com in early March.

Once the birds return, don’t be surprised to see dozens of excited messages back and forth about every single moment of progress toward a new clutch of eggs, followed by breathless anticipation of hatching, creative input on naming and delight at banding, thrilled responses to every feeding event and flight attempt, cheers for each successful flight, and, finally, sorrow as the Birdcam shuts down for the year.

While the Kodak Birdcam offers “a front-row seat to the peregrine falcon’s courting, nesting and fledgling,” the birds also can be seen all around downtown Rochester, including High Falls and the Pont de Rennes Bridge, the smokestacks, Frontier Field, High Falls Brewery, and ­– just for us, of course  – over the river between Main and Andrews streets.

Life in the Finger Lakes doesn’t get more fun than this!

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is a successful freelance writer/editor who returned home to Rochester in 2001 with her husband when he retired from Bethlehem Steel. “Wayne has wanted to retire in Rochester since we got married here in 1989, and my career is portable, so here we are,” she recalled. Thaler-Carter can be reached through her website, www.writerruth.com.

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