Birds & Birding

Nest Cam of the Month: Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine falcon in Colorado, United States, North America. Photo © Janet Haas

I step outside my office building, and it’s raining bird parts.

That’s not an unusual occurrence at this time of year. The sidewalk is often littered with severed avian legs, bloodied feathers, even the occasional starling head.

I look up and see one of the most dramatic predators on earth, right here in downtown Boise: the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). It’s the bird that reigns supreme over the city’s not-so-friendly skies.

And you too can enjoy the Boise peregrines, the focus of May’s nest cam of the month.

The fact that they’re here at all is one of the world’s most dramatic conservation successes stories. Ever.

Peregrine chicks. Photo: © Kurt Burnham
Peregrine chicks. Photo: © Kurt Burnham

Peregrine Descending

The peregrine is one of the most widespread birds in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica. It is also a bird that has long captured the human imagination, celebrated for its hunting prowess and blazing speed (researchers have confirmed peregrines reaching speeds of 238 miles per hour).

The peregrine hunts high in the sky, dropping down on lower-flying birds – one of the most breathtaking sights in nature.

It’s not surprising that humans saw the potential of such an effective hunter. Falconers, those who hunt using birds of prey, have trained peregrines to take a variety of birds. This seemingly inconsequential fact would play a major role in peregrine conservation.

By the mid-1900s, it was clear peregrines were in trouble. The pesticide DDT caused a softening of egg shells, and new chicks were not surviving. By 1970, the birds were effectively gone from the eastern United States, and reduced by 90 percent in the West.

Complete eradication in the U.S. seemed a distinct possibility.

I step outside my office building, and it’s raining bird parts.

Matt Miller

Peregrine Rising

The banning of DDT is well documented in environmental history, and it was indeed a crucial step in restoring peregrine falcons.

But even without the pesticides, could conservationists bring back a bird from the brink?

Enter the falconers.

Training a falcon requires fanatical devotion, so these were the people who knew birds. And while many conservationists expressed serious doubts, falconers believed that peregrines could be reared, raised and released.

Ornithologist and falconer Tom Cade founded The Peregrine Fund at Cornell University in 1970. The organization pioneered many techniques, including breeding the birds in captivity and releasing them in the wild.

From 1974 to 1997, they released nearly 4,000 falcons.

And they thrived. The recovery of the peregrine has to be on the short list for most dramatic conservation turnaround, with the species removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999.

Peregrines have historically nested in rocky cliffs. But a new habitat has formed that suits the birds perfectly: cities. Skyscrapers mimic their nesting needs perfectly.

And prey? Oh, there is no shortage of prey. Every city has plenty of city pigeons and starlings, used to – pardon the pun – ruling the roost. No more.

This all makes peregrines are the perfect birds to enjoy via nest cam. They’re urban and accessible, and with many peregrine cams around the world, you may even be able to watch your local birds.

The peregrine nest cam in downtown Boise, Idaho. Photo: © The Peregrine Fund
The peregrine nest cam in downtown Boise, Idaho. Photo: © The Peregrine Fund

Enjoying the Nest Cam

The Peregrine Fund is now located in Boise, where it continues to pioneer conservation and recovery efforts for birds of prey species including harpy eagles, California condors and aplomado falcons.

It also has a great visitor facility, the World Center for Birds of Prey – well worth the visit if you’re in the area.

What better place to watch peregrines than the headquarters city of the organization that has achieved so much for the birds?

The peregrine nest cam offers plenty of action right now: the chicks hatched two weeks ago, and the adults are bringing them food. Lots of food.

You won’t be able to see the off-camera drama – the dramatic hunts that make my stroll to the office an adventure. But you will be able to see the results of those hunts, as the falcons bring back partially plucked birds to the nest, and daintily feed bits to the hungry chicks.

We can’t embed the nest cam here due to restrictions for the cam’s sponsors, but check it out on the Peregrine Fund’s page. You can see my office building in the distant background.

Apparently, humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy peregrine cam. My colleague Valerie Connor tells me her cat waits impatiently by the computer each morning for her to turn on the cam, then sits transfixed watching the falcon drama.

The cat is right: this is must-see wildlife TV.

And all the more so because of this: at one point, even many dedicated conservationists were resigned to a very bad fate for peregrine falcons. The future seemed to lack hope. It’s an important story to remember when so many wildlife species seem in such big trouble.

So raise a glass to the peregrine that’s overhead and on your screen. Just watch out for those falling bird parts.

Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew L.

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12 comments

  1. Ive been watching the Boise webcam for a number of years. I check the progress of the nest several times a day. The birds are fascinating..Im always thrilled to see the eggs then the hatch. The birds grow so fast and im a little sad when they leave the nest but i know ill get to
    Enjoy it again next year. What a wonderful success for the Peregrine Fund

  2. I agree with Penny (above). I have been watching the Boise birds for several years. I do not live in Idaho, but the falcons are still exciting to watch! And I have been out to the World Center for Birds of Prey. What a neat show to watch the falcons fly — even the time one escaped and flew off into the distance (they finally got him back)!

    1. I have watched the webcam for a few years now. It gets to be addicting. I love watching as the eggs are laid, and then hatch. Then to watch the chicks grow and leave the nest.
      What a wonderful opportunity for those of us living in the city have here in Boise. Thank you so much.

  3. Thanks so much for choosing the Boise webcam! I support both the Nature Conservancy and the Peregrine Fund, so it was so nice to see that the Peregrine Fund cam was chosen as the web cam of the month. As a bird handler for an education program, having a peregrine on my glove is a very special treat, these are such great birds, and the Boise cam is really wonderful. With 4-chicks hatched this year, I am looking forward to following their progress.

  4. Nicely done Matt! I have been watching a pair of Coopers hawks doing the same thing to the birds in my neighborhood for a few years now. It never gets old watching them!

  5. My father graduated from the U of Idaho with a BChem Engineering degree. DuPont hired him to develop DDT for WWII to end malaria. My husband and I have supported the reintroduction of the Peregrine Falcon. He assisted Bruce Hawk as a hack box attendant when chicks were placed in the box on the Key Bank building in the 1980’s. The nesting pair on the 14th floor of One Cap Center may be descendants of the Key Bank fledglings. We have watched the cams in different locations and organized fledge watch volunteers in Boise to help if any fledglings need rescuing. We have kept a blog since June, 2009.

  6. Robin, please remember me for next year’s fledge watch. This was my first year watching and I am hooked on Perigrine Falcon s.