You may not know it, but Downtown Tacoma has played an important role in the recovery of peregrine falcons for nearly 20 years. The tall buildings emulate the rocky cliffs falcons naturally gravitate to. That, combined with a ready supply of pigeons, makes for prime falcon real estate.
The resident falcons of the downtown corridor are named Murray and Harriet. Murray got his name from the Murray Morgan Bridge where he was born in 2004. Harriet was never banded so no one knows where she came from or how old she is.
According to local Falcon Research Group volunteer and photographer, Fergus Hyke, the pair has produced at least 20 chicks together.
Fergus has been monitoring and photographing the pair for the last six years and has captured some amazing photos. One of the most exciting times of year is around spring when Harriet’s three to four eggs hatch.
The chicks, known as eyases, grow at an incredible rate and typically start flight school a little over a month after hatching. Before they leave the nest though, they need to be banded.
There’s a small window of time when chicks are large enough for banding but still small enough to ensure they won’t scatter when the volunteers open up the nest box. The box is on a ledge off the top floor of the Heritage Bank building at the corner of Pacific and S. 12th. This year, three of the four eggs hatched with two large females and a male.
The banding process took less than 30 minutes from start to finish. The three newly banded falcons are named Pacific, Starbuck, and Blue. The team of volunteers was led by Ed Deal, a licensed professional with the Falcon Research Group.
As angry as Murray and Harriet were about the short abduction, banding is extremely important to the ongoing conservation efforts of Washington’s peregrine falcon population.
In 1980, there were only four nesting pairs in the entire state of Washington. Heavy use of DDT wiped out peregrine falcons from the eastern United States and brought populations to the brink of extinction in many other parts of the world.
Now there are at least two other nesting pairs of falcons in Tacoma with a few more in the South Sound region. There are something around 120-130 nesting pairs in Washington State. You can watch a pair in their nest box at the 1201 Third Ave building in Seattle.
Murray and Harriet’s territory covers the entire downtown area. It’s easy to imagine why they chose this spot, since the nearby clock tower of Old City Hall is a popular pigeon roost and the TEMCO grain elevator, less than a mile away, was described by one of the volunteers as a “pigeon commissary.”
That specific location is also particularly hazardous for the young birds though. Fergus pointed out that updrafts between the tall buildings along 12th St. can be difficult to navigate. He’s extra vigilant around this time of year and has had to rescue fledglings from the sidewalk after unsuccessful flight attempts and impacts with neighboring office windows. The first year mortality rate for peregrine falcons is around 60%.
As if that weren’t enough, the nest just happens to be located in a popular area for drone photography. The decorative fountain across the street happens to look particularly interesting from the sky and the Murray Morgan bridge is a Tacoma icon. Nests have been abandoned due to human activity and an ill-timed drone flight could mean the end of Murray and Harriet’s nesting in downtown Tacoma. Peregrine falcons are federally protected and harassment can come with a hefty fine.
Peregrine falcons are also fiercely territorial and could easily destroy a drone that strays too close to their nest. Falcons have been clocked at 242 MPH and have been documented to kill birds as large as golden eagles.
So if you have a drone, be sure to keep at least a block away from the building, especially around spring time. That will keep the falcons happy and your fancy drone in one piece.
Images by Sierra Hartman