- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

LOWELL, Mass. (AP) - On the top floor of UMass Lowell’s tallest building, a fuzzy peregrine falcon chick sat on Tom French’s knee, mostly docile as he placed metal tracking bands on the bird’s legs.

The falcon’s three siblings weren’t quite as calm, however, as they huddled against the wall squawking loudly while French, assistant director of the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, completed his task.

French was banding the birds Tuesday in order to track them, something he said was important in efforts to regrow the birds’ population in the state through his department’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.

“The most important part of a restoration project of an imperiled species is to be able to track individuals,” he said. “We need to know what works and what doesn’t in our efforts, what they’re dying of, what trouble do they get into.”

The four chicks are the offspring of Merri and Lance, a female and male pair that have made the nesting box on the roof of UMass Lowell’s 18-story Fox Hall their home.

The couple was among 27 nesting peregrine falcon pairs statewide last year, French said, several of which have made their homes locally, including in Lawrence, Haverhill, Peabody, Saugus and Woburn. French said he expected that number to rise this year, but remain under 30 pairs.

But just a few decades ago, peregrine falcons were all but nonexistent in the eastern United States. The use of DDT pesticides rendered falcon eggs thin-shelled so they would break before hatching, causing nesting pairs to dwindle until they reached zero by 1966. DDT was banned in 1972, and restoration of the species began two years later through the Peregrine Fund at Cornell University.

Falcons were released in Boston in 1984 and 1985, and the first nests appeared in 1987. The birds have been on the state’s endangered species list for years, though they were recently considered being downgraded to threatened status.

“They are one of the most impressive wildlife species in the state,” French said of the restoration efforts surrounding the falcons. “We certainly don’t want to lose a species as spectacular as this.”

Peregrine falcons were first spotted atop Fox Hall in 2007. The school worked with the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife to install a nesting box for the birds. Since 2008, 20 chicks have been hatched.

Merri’s original mating partner, Mack, died in June 2014, and Lance swooped in from Lawrence to take his place.

Just four weeks old, Merri and Lance’s chicks don’t yet have names. They won’t be able to fly until they’re about seven weeks old, either.

French and his staff try to band peregrine falcons as chicks so that they can be tracked “for the rest of their lives,” he said. That tracking allows his department to collect data including how far they range, where they build their nests, and how long they live, which is typically about 10 years.

To tag the UMass Lowell chicks, French and his staff took the birds from their nesting box, placed them in separate bags, and took them inside.

The first falcon to be tagged, a female, came out of the bag squawking and never quite settled down. She was followed by another female, and then two males. Each one was tagged with green metal bands with black writing, sized for each bird and secured with a rivet gun.

The bands are designed to stay on the birds for life, but don’t harm them, French said.

“They’re just like jewelry on us, it’s not hurting them,” he said.

Female peregrine falcons are bigger than males, which are about the size of a crow. The falcons are the fastest birds in the world with a regular flight speed of around 50 to 55 miles per hour and a controlled dive speed that clocks in around 240 miles per hour, French said.

They’re also “very aggressive,” he said, as evidenced when Merri returned to the nesting box as the chicks were being placed back inside.

“She was a very protective mom, she was in the box while we were trying to put the chicks in,” French said.

After the banding, UMass Lowell Spokesman Jeff Cournoyer said the university was pleased to be able to contribute to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife’s efforts with the birds.

“They chose us by nesting on Fox Hall. We like to think we do a good job of caring for them,” Cournoyer said.


Information from: The Eagle-Tribune, https://www.eagletribune.com

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