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April 10, 2006

Peregrine falcons educate and entertain fans in San Francisco, online, and at Long Marine Lab

By Tim Stephens

A pair of endangered peregrine falcons, named George and Gracie by their legions of fans, have returned to nest in downtown San Francisco.



At five weeks old (above), the chicks are ready for the simulated nest at Long Marine Laboratory. Soon they are ready to fledge (below).
Photos: Shauna Potocky

Last year, they used a nest box on the PG&E building, where a webcam installed by PG&E and scientists from UCSC's Predatory Bird Research Group (SCPBRG) enabled scientists and viewers from around the world to watch the falcons raise their young.

This year, the pair laid four eggs on a ledge across the street from the PG&E building. A new and improved webcam, with sharper images and the ability to pan and zoom around the nest, has been set up at the new location, and PG&E has created a wireless link to connect the camera with existing infrastructure at PG&E headquarters so that Internet viewing can continue.

Falcon fans who want a firsthand look into the lives of these peregrines can access a special link to the "peregrine cam" on SCPBRG's web site. This site provides visitors with a bird's-eye view of the falcons as they care for their eggs and later raise their young in the city. The SCPBRG also hosts a discussion group on its web site to enhance public understanding of the peregrines and their behavior.

Meanwhile, at Long Marine Laboratory in Santa Cruz, SCPBRG researchers are releasing to the wild three young peregrine falcons that were reared in captivity. Visitors to the lab can observe the young falcons as they test their wings, perch on lab buildings, and make daily visits to the nest box for food provided by attendants. SCPBRG has released more than 1,000 peregrine falcons to the wild since 1975.

"The releases not only add peregrine falcons to the wild population, but doing it at Long Marine Lab provides an opportunity for public viewing and for UCSC students to get hands-on conservation biology experience," said Glenn Stewart, a program manager for the SCPBRG.

In the wild, peregrine falcons usually fledge (fly for the first time) from nests on cliff faces when they are six weeks old. On March 24, Stewart put three captive-reared young in a simulated nest (called a hack box) on the lab's Center for Ocean Health Building. One week later, he opened the box to allow the birds to fledge. The birds will return to the box for food until they learn to hunt on their own, a process that usually takes six to eight weeks.

Peregrines often nest on tall city structures that are similar to the sheer cliffs they prefer in nature. They began using PG&E's building in San Francisco as a perch in the mid 1980s. SCPBRG scientists placed a nest box on the ledge of the high-rise with hopes that someday peregrines might nest there.

George and Gracie first staked the urban wilderness of San Francisco’s Financial District as their territory in 2003 and selected PG&E's building as their nesting site. Since then, the utility has teamed up with SCPBRG scientists to look after the birds, which are the fastest animals on the planet.

In 2004, the peregrine couple successfully hatched two eggs at the nest and later returned in 2005 to raise four more young falcons. The events created lots of excitement for birdwatchers throughout San Francisco's Financial District as they witnessed the young peregrines' first flights in the city.

PG&E made a charitable contribution of $35,000 to SCPBRG this year to cover the cost of the new web camera and associated computer equipment. Over a million hits to the peregrine cam were recorded from early March to early May last year, and the new equipment will help accommodate the large number of expected visitors to the site. PG&E's contribution will also help fund SCPBRG's educational outreach program, which each year educates 8,000 to 10,000 students in grades K-12 about science, nature, and careers in science.

Today, there are an estimated 235 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in California, up from just two known nesting pairs in 1970. At that time, there were no known nesting pairs east of the Mississippi. The efforts of SCPBRG scientists were instrumental in the recovery of the West Coast peregrine falcon population, and similar efforts in other parts of the country also paid off. The peregrine falcon was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999, but is still listed as an endangered species in California.

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