Endangered peregrine falcons are raising chicks on office building ledges high over
downtown Toronto and Hamilton, breeding in Southern Ontario for the first time in more
than 40 years.
Wildlife officials are to announce the nestings today after more than a month of protecting the birds with secrecy.
Breeding peregrines disappeared from Ontario and much of eastern North America in the 1950s and 1960s, after DDT and other pesticides building up in the environment disrupted their nesting. Infertility spread, and thinned egg shells broke under brooding females.
Since 1977, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Canadian Wildlife Service have released more than 400 young peregrines in the province as part of a national recovery program. Up till now, the program has shown no apparent success.
Officials are exuberant. "The prognosis for peregrine falcons in Ontario appears promising," one environment official said. "There is now a small but expanding population that is producing young in acceptable numbers."
Office worker Mark Nash discovered the Toronto nesting in early May.
"I thought the usual pigeons and gulls were zooming around a lot outside. Then I looked up from my desk and ... wow!"
Mr. Nash, once a falconer, recognized a peregrine circling office towers opposite the King Edward Hotel, just east of Toronto's old business centre at King and Yonge Streets.
Years ago, Mr. Nash was licenced to fly a red-tailed hawk -- a family sedan of a bird compared to the Indy racer of the peregrine, the fastest creature in the world. It has been timed at more than 300 kilometres an hour in a dive on prey.
The falcons mated on a rooftop next to Mr. Nash's office. In fact, it was their second try. They had already laid an egg high on the Sheraton Centre Hotel opposite Toronto's City Hall, then deserted it when disturbed.
Biologist Peter Ewins of the Canadian Wildlife Service had monitored that aborted nesting, and followed them to the new site.
The sleek crow-sized, blue-backed birds with pointed wings and a black "mustache" mark usually nest on wild cliffs but adapt to the "cliffs" of city office towers with aplomb. The Toronto pair bred while a building across the street was being gutted and rebuilt into condominiums, and with a television pilot being filmed on the busy street below.
Peregrines live mainly on birds they chase and seize in flight. On a rooftop one afternoon, the courting male laid before his mate five dead and plucked birds and a black squirrel. He brought her city pigeons, mourning doves and a duck as she brooded their eggs for five weeks on a metre-deep ledge 20 floors over a Bank of Montreal branch.
After the white-fluffed chicks hatched, the female increased her own hunting to help feed them. She perched on the green spire of nearby St. James Cathedral, flashing out to seize passing pigeons in puffs of feathers.
Mr. Nash and his office colleagues were enthralled, even though they could see only swooping and perching falcons and not the nest.
"This is the experience of a lifetime -- and right outside my window," he said. The chicks should first fly about July 5, after five weeks as fledglings.
The Toronto female, identified from the number on her leg band, came from one of three eggs laid on a river bridge in Philadelphia. U.S. wildlife officials hatched the egg in an incubator, and launched the chick from an artificial nest on a city building. This approach was adopted after early bridge-reared chicks drowned on their first, shaky flights. A brother died last August colliding with an airplane at New York's La Guardia Airport.
The Hamilton nesters laid two eggs and are feeding chicks high on the Sheraton Connaught Hotel.
A third pair of nesting peregrines in London, Ont., have already been publicized. They were watched as they courted and apparently mated, but there is no sign they have eggs on a 35-metre long ledge that they favour on the downtown Canada Life towers. Peregrines are site-faithful. If they survive winter migration, they should return next spring to nest near the same spots. Ontario is to get 100 more planted peregrines before the national program ends in 1996.
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