High above the bustle of Phoenix traffic, atop the Maricopa County Administration Building, a female peregrine falcon guards a pile of new eggs. Her partner has soared off (presumably to hunt) so she’s alone in the nest, shifting her weight from foot to foot as she surveys the city with beady eyes.
The action is unfolding in real time on the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s new Peregrine Cam, an online video feed of the bird family’s little home.
The department set up the webcam, in part, as a public-education initiative. But it also provides an opportunity for biologists to study an increasingly common phenomenon: urban wildlife.
As houses and high rises encroach on their territory, the coyotes are moving into Manhattan, the mountain lions are moving into Los Angeles, the pythons are moving into Miami, and the peregrine falcons are moving into Phoenix.
Scientists, meantime, are scrambling to figure out why some species thrive in an urban environment while others don’t.
“I would never have guessed a peregrine falcon would do so well in the city,” said David Pearson, a research professor with Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences.
It’s not uncommon for peregrine falcons to winter in Phoenix where there are “good pickings,” he said. (You can spot them perched across campus at ASU.) But most migrate back to the desert in the spring to mate and raise their young. The pair living atop the Maricopa County Administration Building is one of just a handful of peregrine falcons scientists are aware of that live in Phoenix year round.
In the wild, peregrine falcons, formidable hunters that can reach 200 miles per hour when in a full-on dive, nest on cliffs and eat songbirds, ducks, and bats. In downtown Phoenix, Pearson said, they’re enjoying a steady buffet of pigeons.
“The hunting is much easier,” he said. “Pigeons are big and fat and slow. They don’t have a lot of experience trying to get away from predators.”
Another pair of falcons, which mate for life, selected the government building as a nest site about seven years ago, said Lynda Lambert, spokeswoman for the Game and Fish Department. Although officials built the pair a nest box and tried to entice them to move in so they could set up a live-streaming camera, the female preferred to lay her eggs in a rain gutter. Only two chicks survived to fly out on their own.
They disappeared in 2014, and a new couple took over the nest site. This time, the female laid her eggs in the nest box, she said. They hatched three baby birds in 2015.
One baby falcon fell from the building, but Game and Fish officials rescued it and returned it to its family.
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Since the department got the video feed up and running late last month, Lambert said, the Peregrine Cam has been one of the website's most popular pages. When the female falcon laid her first egg, the county got dozens of phone calls and e-mails from excited viewers notifying them of the news.
“It’s very, very possible that this couple of birds could give birth to a more urban-savvy strain of peregrine falcons,” Pearson said.
Watch the baby falcon rescue: