Habit-forming falcons: Devoted birder takes her watch over the Pitt peregrines seriously

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When it comes to peregrine falcons, Kate St. John's "wow" moment occurred in January 2001.

That's when the city lady, with eyes routinely focused skyward, spotted two peregrines flying a courtship ritual over the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.

Those love birds -- now known as Dorothy and Erie -- made a lasting memory that changed her life and addicted her to peregrines, although she prefers the word "committed."

Since then, WQED's director of information technology has devoted time and effort to watching the peregrines and documenting their activities, whereabouts and breeding history. The peregrine couple claims full ownership of the nesting box Ms. St. John was instrumental in having placed on the Cathedral of Learning.

With cameras trained on peregrine nests on the Gulf Tower Downtown and the cathedral, she checks on the birds 10 to 12 times daily over the Internet and treks daily to the grounds of Heinz Memorial Chapel, where she trains binoculars skyward to check on the falcons.

"Addiction is very accurate," said Todd Katzner, the National Aviary's director of conservation and field research. "Kate is committed to this in a way that few people would or could be. From our perspective, it's really a fantastic thing."

Peregrine falcons

The name peregrine means wanderer and this bird can travel as much as 15,000 miles during migration.

  • Wingspan: Approximately 40 inches, both sexes.
  • Flying speed: Can reach up to 200 mph.
  • Distribution: Every continent except Antarctica.
  • Size and coloring: Peregrines have a black band on the back of the head and are about the size of a crow.
  • Home range: Up to 30 miles from its nest.
  • Reproduction: A female will lay a clutch of up to 4 eggs, which hatch in about a month.
  • Sources: about.com, www.birds.cornell.edu

He said Ms. St. John, a lifelong birder, is a knowledgeable spokeswoman for the peregrines: "Wildlife protection depends on committed citizens, and Kate is definitely committed to the cause."

In a recent walk along Craig Street she glanced at the cathedral in time to see a peregrine dive after prey, probably a pigeon. It was a mere dot, but she said the spectacle made her day.

In November, she started a blog to post observations about the falcons, often with humor and curious insights, including comparing their mating rituals with those of humans. She tracks their offspring and notes episodes of peregrine chicanery. Her blog is available at www.wqed.org/birdblog/category/peregrines.

Peregrines are the world's fastest creatures, able to dive 200 mph to catch birds on wing. They're also regal and charismatic, bowing to each other and flying in courtship rituals. They're monogamous and willing to fight to the death to protect home, mate and chicks.

Ms. St. John said she enjoys the daily peregrine soap opera, be it "The Bold and the Beautiful" or "Falcon Crest." The rarity of peregrines nationwide, but especially in Pennsylvania, is another reason for her vigilance.

An estimated 3,875 breeding pairs of peregrines existed in North America in the 1940s. But by 1975, 90 percent of them had disappeared due to the pesticide DDT, which softened their eggshells, making reproduction difficult. The population of only 324 peregrine pairs led to its inclusion on the Endangered Species List in 1991.

Since the DDT ban in 1973, the peregrine population has grown to 3,000 pairs in North America. Although removed from the national Endangered Species List in 1999, it remains endangered in Pennsylvania, where only 12 breeding pairs were identified in 2006, including those living on the Gulf Tower and the cathedral.

Daniel Brauning, state Game Commission biologist based in Montgomery, Lycoming County, said the bird has adapted well to city life. He estimates the current state population at 24 pairs.

"Having this dramatic species show up right on the office building brings something primal into the proximity of daily lives," Mr. Brauning said. "That is something other species are unable to do, and it's created quite a following."

Ever since 1991, when a nesting box was placed on the Gulf Tower, 55 peregrine falcon chicks have hatched and fledged. With Ms. St. John's insistence, the state Game Commission placed a nesting box in 2002 atop the Cathedral of Learning, where Dorothy and Erie have produced 18 chicks. They've been banded, making it possible to track them.

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh funds the nesting and tracking project with support from the game commission, University of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, among others.

Recently, new peregrine pairs have taken up residency on bridges crossing the Ohio and Allegheny rivers, with rumors of a fifth pair on another Ohio River bridge and a sixth pair on a bridge over the Monongahela River.

February is courting time, and Ms. St. John said Dorothy's eggs typically hatch by late March. Cameras trained on the nests soon will be upgraded to provide live streaming video.

"They fly and they're pretty," she said, explaining her interest in simple terms. "I'm committed to this."

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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