Falcons visited by KDFW biologists

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By Phyllis McLaughlin

The Trimble Banner

While local and state officials consider the Milton-Madison Bridge obsolete, a pair of peregrine falcons seem to think it’s a great place to raise a family.

The falcon pair is raising four chicks – three females and one male – in a nesting box provided by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife on one of the piers on the Milton side of the Ohio River.

KDFW avian biologist Kate Heyden led a team to the nesting box Friday morning, May 29, where the chicks were banded for future identification and checked for any health issues.

One chick was removed from the nest and taken to Wingspan of Kentucky in Prospect, where it is being treated for trichomonas, a parasite that falcons can get from eating infected pigeons or other prey birds. Heyden said the disease causes lesions in the chick’s mouth and throat, causing it to swell, and making it difficult to eat enough food.

“It’s something that affects their survival, so we captured it to treat it and give it a better chance,” she said. For this chick, the infection isn’t severe and she said the plan is  to return the chick to its parents’ nest within a week or two.

Falcon chicks hatch after about 33 days of incubation. They remain in the nest for about 40 days, and stay in the area with their parents for several weeks after learning to fly and hunt, Heyden said.

The peregrine was placed on the federal endangered species list because of plunging numbers from DDT poisoning in 1970. KDFW began its peregrine falcon habitat restoration program in 1993 to help increase the bird’s population in the state. Conservation efforts by Kentucky and other states increased the numbers, and the bird was removed from the endangered list in 1999, Heyden said.

This year, the state has counted more than 30 chicks, Heyden said. “It’s a record year for chick production.”

Statewide, there are nine nesting pairs of the falcon, including the Milton pair. There also is a pair at the Ghent Power Station and the Bedford Power Station, along with four pairs in Louisville, one in East Bend and one on the I-275 bridge in Covington, Heyden said.

“Every year, as pairs become more settled in, they tend to have more chicks,” she said. Apparently, the local pair is feeling more at home. Heyden said the nesting box on the Milton-Madison Bridge was placed there in 2007, but this is the first year the pair has used it. Previously, they had built their nests in the girders under the bridge, out of reach from the researchers.

“This is the first year we could access the chicks,” she said. The box is built so that researchers can slide a panel across the front to keep the chicks in place. During the visit, Heyden, wearing protective gloves, reached into the box and took the chicks out one by one, as one of her team members placed color-coded bands on them.

Heyden said the male of the local pair was tagged in Kentucky several years ago.

Heyden said she and her team visits nests often, and keeps tabs on each one with help from volunteers who use scopes to check on them.

“We monitor every step of these birds’ survival,” she said.

Peregrine falcon facts

The word “peregrine” means wanderer. These birds can migrate as far as 15,000 miles in a year. Highly prized by falconers, peregrines stand about 14-19 inches tall and weigh from 1-3.5 pounds; wingspans range from 40-43 inches.

Also known as the duck hawk, these birds prey on smaller birds, from songbirds to small geese.

The peregrine is found on every continent, except Antarctica. It can fly traveling speeds of 25-34 mph and when in pursuit of prey can fly as fast as 69 mph. When swooping to catch prey, they can drop as far as half a mile at speeds reaching 200 mph.

The birds nest in shallow, unlined scrapes, usually on cliff ledges, on buildings or in old raven nests. A breeding pair will have two to five chicks.