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The Nesting Project

The peregrine falcon nesting project at the Rachel Carson State Office Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania marked perhaps the biggest single environmental event ever presented through live video on the web attracting over 34 million hits.

People in Pennsylvania and all over the world shared a very special connection, but not only to a pair of birds raising a family on the ledge of a building, they shared a connection to wildlife and history.

They learned the story of how peregrine falcons became endangered through the use of pesticides; about Pennsylvania’s rich environmental heritage in the form of Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring that first outlined the dangers of pesticides; they learned how wildlife experts attempt to restore endangered species to our environment; and finally they learned how the Internet and video technology can directly connect them to a shared environmental experience.

But this wasn’t an overnight success.

It all began in 1996, when a male peregrine was seen in Harrisburg. A nest tray was put in place and the following spring, the male returned with a female peregrine. The falcons pair-bonded and hopes were high that they would reproduce. They failed to produce eggs in both the 1997 and 1998 nesting seasons. It became clear that more information was needed regarding the history of these two birds.

Because the male was not banded, there was no way to know his origin. The female was banded, however, so her origin was quickly determined. She had fledged, in 1996, from a nest on the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. In addition, it was learned that her father was an escaped falconer’s bird and a hybrid. Because the young female was of hybrid origin, she was probably infertile.

After careful consideration and under the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 5, the female was live captured on April 28, 1999. She now resides at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh where she serves their education programs.

Within one week of removing the first female, the male was seen with a new female. From her alphanumeric leg band information, it was determined that Game Commission biologist Dan Brauning banded her as a nestling on the Girard Point Bridge in Philadelphia in 1998. She is the first falcon produced on a bridge in Pennsylvania to be rediscovered at a nest site. At 12 months of age, she was too young to reproduce.

Hopes were revived for the 2000 nesting season, when as a two-year-old she would be capable of reproduction.

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The spring of 2000 brought anticipation as the falcon pair exhibited all the behavioral characteristics associated with nesting peregrines. The first of four eggs was laid on March 27th.

Recognizing the responsibility of stewardship and the physical management, as well as the educational opportunity presented by an active falcon nest site, it was clear that there should be a concerted effort among agencies and organizations. Included in this network of partnerships are: the Department of Environmental Protection; Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; the Pennsylvania Game Commission; the Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania-through their GreenWorks website; Commonwealth Media Services; the Rachel Carson Homestead Association; the Audubon Society; Dauphin County Wildlife Rescue, Rehabitat and a host of volunteers. Together, concerned and caring individuals formed the Rachel Carson Falcon Team.

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Worldwide Scope of the Webcast

A camera mounted on the 15th floor ledge of the Rachel Carson State Office Building broadcast images of the nesting activity to the world via the Internet, first still images then live video and audio. The DEP Peregrine Falcon Page also offered wildlife enthusiasts updated information about the falcons, their history, growth and development, threats and current status. Soon people around the world were tuning into the live streaming video and audio to see and hear the falcons.

"In this fast paced world, the Internet is providing such a great tool to enable us all to be a little bit closer to each other," said Timothy Schlitzer, executive director of the Environmental Fund for Pennsylvania and the executive producer of the GreenWorks Channel. "The 'Falcon Cam' was a great way to make friends from around the world who care about our environment. We are grateful to our 'stars,' the falcons, that were able to learn so much about."

A falcon e-mail address was added to field the many questions that came in about the falcons answered by members of the Falcon Team. Hundreds responded worldwide, following are just a few.

"Congratulations on a very interesting page. As a wildlife rehabilitator on the Central Coast of New South Whales, Australia, and having had peregrine falcons in care, I find your pages great. Pity, we down under, haven't come up with something like this".

"Having grown up outside Philadelphia and later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, I feel that I have a "Pennsylvania Connection", even though I haven't visited the Keystone State in many years. I just found this site, via a recommendation on a news group. In my opinion, It's the best peregrine site I have encountered-- not only because of the Webcam, but because of the intelligent supporting information".

"I am 51 years old and my parents (dad-83 mom-79) love to watch the different birds in their city yard as they feed them regularly. They are not in very good health, so, a trip to Harrisburg is not feasible. Having a computer with a printer is a Godsend! With the help of the people involved in this falcon watch, I print pictures of the hatchlings at different times so I can share them with my parents. I can barely wait for the pictures to print out so I can run to their house and let them see how the nestlings are doing. Thank You, Thank You!!--for this bit of joy that I can give my parents in their golden years".

The Rachel Carson falcons were also featured on CNN Headline news, and a variety of state and local newspaper and television stories.

The Peregrine Falcon Page and the live webcam coverage resulted in over 34.4 million web hits throughout the nesting/fledging period.

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Events Associated with the Falcons

Teacher In-Service: A falcon education teacher in-service workshop was facilitated by the Game Commission and hosted by DEP at the Rachel Carson State Office Building. Thirty-seven Harrisburg area teachers learned of the trials and successes of the peregrine reintroduction effort, endangered species curriculum activities and the importance of urban habitat.

Falcon Banding: The falcon-banding event provided the opportunity to follow-up on the teacher in-service and have some of the teachers observe the banding of the eyases with their students. More than 130 students and educators from nine Harrisburg area elementary and secondary schools attended the event. The whole banding event was made available through a live Internet webcast which can now be seen anytime on the GreenWorks website. It includes some dramatic scenes when the eyases were taken off the ledge for banding. Click here to view video of the web cast banding event.

Archived Falcon Banding Videos: 2007 Banding Event - 2006 Banding Event - 2005 Banding Event

Watch and Rescue: A watch and rescue program was initiated as the young nestlings approached fledgling age. Workers in the Rachel Carson State Office Building observed the ledge during office hours and volunteers from Rehabitat, Audubon and Dauphin County Wildlife Rescue covered the off hours. At one point the youngest fledgling (V/L) was rescued from the sidewalk after fatigue prevented her from getting back to the ledge. Again, thank you! To all who participated.

Education Center Video: The live video feed to the Education Center in the first floor of the Rachel Carson Building, provided an excellent opportunity for staff to interact and informally educate the many people who checked in on the falcons daily.

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The Rachel Carson Connection

United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas Gave this review of Carson's book Silent Spring: "the most important chronicle of this century for the human race."

Carson's legacy is played out each day in events like this, which reflect the environmental recovery that she so passionately worked toward throughout her life. How appropriate that these peregrines have made a posthumous connection to her by choosing to reside here on the Rachel Carson State Office Building.

"I'm sure Rachel Carson would be proud of the work going on in Harrisburg and elsewhere to help these magnificent birds return to stability," said Brad Fisher, board member of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association.

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Mortality Factors

Throughout the nesting season, we made people aware of the high mortality rate (up to 80 percent) that we could expect for this nest production. However, it was a shock to see it happen so soon before fledgling dispersal in the fall. Building glass, high voltage lines and building-top obstructions are just several of many hazards that peregrines face. We employed the watch and rescue efforts as they fledged. Within several days after taking first flight, the fledglings became strong and mobile. From that point on it was out of our hands. In time they may become more "street wise", but until then we must accept that urban hazards are going to be limiting factors for peregrine populations.

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Outlook for the Future

Peregrine falcon populations are on the increase in the Northeastern United States. In Pennsylvania there are ten known active nest sites. The Rachel Carson adult falcons should remain here in Harrisburg throughout the year. We expect them to nest here again in the spring of 2001. The surviving fledgling, "W/G", will leave the area by late September. He may migrate as far south as Latin America. At two years of age he should stake out his own territory, as a breeding adult and pair bond with a female. Bookmark the DEP Falcon Homepage and visit regularly beginning in March 2001. March is a good time to observe mating rituals and territorial defense behavior exhibited by nesting peregrine falcons.

Final Thought

The engaging events unfolding on the 15th floor ledge, along with supporting information, helped folks in general make the right connections between overuse of pesticides and species decline, between reintroduction efforts and increasing species numbers and more. The Rachel Carson peregrine falcon's millennium nesting debut, is a fitting prelude to better times ahead for endangered species. Thank you to all who made this very special event a success and we look forward to doing this all again next year—nature cooperating!

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