SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Last year, a pair of peregrine falcons settled in a nesting box put up on the top of City Hall, encouraged by city officials who were frustrated with the excessive number of pigeons who congregate there.
“We had a pigeon problem that was out of this world.” said Kevin Henry, the city’s director of building maintenance and operations, noting excessive amounts of bird feces and clogged drains.
The nesting box that attracted the peregrines, a crow-sized raptor that feed mostly on birds, including pigeons, did the trick. Henry said recently that the pigeon numbers at City Hall, located on East Washington Street, have dropped radically.
However, many of the birds have relocated to the nearby City Hall Commons building where they continue to cause problems, he added.
Meanwhile, the two peregrines – named George and Pigott by peregrine watchers — are still at City Hall. And despite having problems with fledging one their two young birds last year, they’re on track for another successful rear of breeding.
Susan Lowe Wrisley, spokesperson for the Syracuse Peregrine Falcons group, which has been monitoring the status of peregrine falcons in downtown Syracuse for more than a decade, said now is around the time the female lays its eggs.
“There may be eggs in the nest right now,” she said, adding they usually lay three to four eggs and young birds usually fledge around late June, early July.
Peregrine Falcons are listed as endangered species in New York, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. They were eliminated as a nesting species in the state by the early 1960s, due mainly to pesticide (DDT) residues in their prey. Laws banning the use of DDT were passed by New York State in 1971 and by the federal government in 1972.
The release of young captive bred birds from 1974-1988 helped lead to their return as a nesting species in New York.
One successful technique used to bring their numbers back was “hacking,” which is the placement of wooden nesting boxes filled with gravel on top of buildings in urban and other areas. In addition to Syracuse, this approach has worked on buildings in Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Albany and Binghamton to name a few places.
For more than a decade, Wrisley and other members of her group have been watching peregrine falcons in downtown Syracuse. For most of those years, their focus was a nesting box set up on the 23rd floor of the state Tower Building in downtown Syracuse, located on the corner of Warren and Water streets. The DEC also monitored the nest, checking it out each year and banding the young birds.
In 2015, two live video cameras were focused on the nesting box in the state Tower Building, enabling online viewers to check up on the birds and their young.
However, extensive renovation work on the building in 2019 resulted in a relocation of the nesting box to a different part of the building. The birds didn’t take it to it, Wrisley said.
Enter Syracuse City Hall with its pigeon problems. Henry said other approaches had been tried to keep the pigeons away, including the use of electronic sound devices to scare them, and the hanging of plastic owls from tree branches and other places. Neither approach worked.
“This one box definitely worked,” Henry said. There is no video camera on the nesting box.
This spring, Syracuse Peregrine Falcons group members are back on the ground again around City Hall, watching and taking pictures and posting them on the group’s Facebook page. And there’s plenty to watch.
Peregrines are known for their incredible flying speeds. Plunging from tremendous heights, they can reach up to 180 mph in pursuit of prey, according to the DEC.
Among the peregrine watchers is Tom Durr, a maintenance tech at Campus West at Syracuse University, who stops by City Hall nearly every day to check on the birds and take photos.
“I love raptors. I love owls, bald eagles and peregrines. As for peregrines, I enjoy watching them go after prey. When they hit a bird, it just explodes with feathers. Sometimes, the bird gets away. It’s really cool to watch,” he said.
Peregrines generally return to the same nesting territory annually and mate for life, according to DEC. Occasionally, there are problems when the birds leave the nest and are just learning to fly and hunt.
Last year in late June, one of the two young birds from the City Hall nest was found on the ground by a city worker. The bird was turned over to the DEC, which took it over to Cindy Page, a wildlife rehabilitator at Page Wildlife Center in Manlius.
Page said the bird exhibited no signs of broken bones, a wound or blood. She took it down to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine for a full workup (bloodwork, radiographs) to be sure she wasn’t missing something. It was discovered the young, male bird had “only a very mildly elevated blood lead level,” said Dr. Sara Childs-Sanford at the veterinary school.
“It probably was not high enough to be clinically significant, but was treated anyway while he was here,” she said. “We use a drug called calcium EDTA that binds to the lead and allows it to be excreted from the body.”
A little more than a week later, the young peregrine was brought back to Syracuse. Time was of the essence, Page said, because she wanted to make sure the parents would remain bonded with the returning young bird. It was still at the stage where it needed the parents to bring it food and to teach it how to hunt, she said.
The juvenile was released in early July from a nearby building, with the nesting box at City Hall in view. The reunion with the parents was successful, she said. The two juvenile birds that hatched on top of City Hall last year have since left for parts unknown.
Meanwhile, the two adults are continuing to do their job at City Hall. This spring they’re flying around and “just terrorizing” the pigeons, Page said.
But City Hall’s pigeon problem hasn’t been solved. The pigeons have just relocated to the nearby City Hall Commons building, Henry said, and he’d like to set up another peregrine falcon nesting box, with DEC’s help, on that building.
Bonnie Parton, a wildlife biologist from the DEC’s Region 7 office in Cortland, said peregrine falcons still frequent the state Tower Building in Syracuse, though have not used that nesting box in a couple of years.
“We will be coordinating with the city to explore whether site logistics will allow for future banding opportunities.” she said. “Adult peregrine falcons can regularly be seen across downtown Syracuse.”
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