June 18, 2014

Peregrine chicks banded at Iatan power plant

The peregrine falcon is still endangered in Missouri, years after DDT exposure drastically decreased their numbers. DeBold, part of the the Missouri Department of Conservation’s falcon tracking group, oversees five artificial nests, some in downtown Kansas City.

High above, two peregrine falcons zip across the sky, mere flashes of brown as they hunt and scout around the towering smoke stack. Their nest juts from the tower’s side, 380 feet up.

On the ground, inside that stack, Marcia Hobbs is trying to guess just who’s in that nest.

She watches the four chicks from her purple Samsung smartphone fed by a live-stream camera, trying to get a look at who’s the biggest — these tend to be the females, who also have bigger feet. But from the tiny screen, it’s anyone’s guess.

Call it the bird equivalent of a gender-reveal party.

“If we get up there and there’s another male, we’ll need another male name.” Hobbs, an urban conservation partner, frowns slightly and looks at the faded note in her hand, which lists potential names provided by the bird’s host, Kansas City Power & Light, which operates the Iatan plant.

“Chris! Chris is always a good name!” Chris Blunk, a Missouri Department of Conservation area manager, is grinning. He doesn’t actually expect a bird to be named after him — Chris doesn’t have the same ring to it as Striker or Black Thunder — but it won’t stop him from suggesting it.

Hobbs, Blunk, urban wildlife biologist Joe DeBold and eight other falcon enthusiasts, a mix of biologists and people from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and KCP&L, are about to give these birds their new identities.

They are awaiting their turn for the metal-mesh elevator, roughly the size of a telephone booth, that will take them to the grated floor where the falcons’ aluminum nest resides. The trip takes four minutes and five seconds. The air gets hotter as one goes up.

Just after 10 a.m., everyone is to the falcons’ floor, which is about 108 degrees. Sweat beads on every face. Quickly, while the parent birds are away, a square metal door revealing the nest is opened. The chicks are placed in a pet carrier and moved into an air-conditioned room on the same floor for banding.

Three females, one male. Blunk is out of luck.

Just 21 to 25 days old, the falcons are mostly white puff balls, with small brown marking beginning to show. As they squall and fuss on the table, it’s hard to imagine their predatory species is fastest of any animal in the world, clocking in around 250 mph on a dive.

But these little raptors can’t fly yet, and they’re not coordinated enough to hurt the banders.

The peregrine falcon is still endangered in Missouri, years after DDT exposure drastically decreased their numbers. DeBold, part of the the Missouri Department of Conservation’s falcon tracking group, oversees five artificial nests, some in downtown Kansas City.

This specific nesting box has been around since 1992. The hope is that the falcons’ offspring will stay in the area and repopulate the Midwest.

One by one, the chicks are picked up by gloved biologists and given their new identities. First is Martinet, then Saraphina, Karma and lastly Otoe, the lone male. To their right legs are attached federal bands, to the left leg a project band, signifying the Missouri group tracking the birds. If they’re ever grounded from injury or killed, their territorial dispersal can be analyzed.

“You get a relationship with that bird for just a fraction of time,” DeBold said. “And then it’s released and gone, and you may never see it again. ... It could end up virtually anywhere.”

But these birds imprint, that is, remember their homes. The hope is that they’ll return to the area and find other artificial nests when it’s time. In the wild, the falcons nest on cliff faces, so the urban “concrete jungles” are a good substitute.

DeBold said tall bridges, skyscrapers and yes, power plant stacks, provide adequate homes for the falcons. A good thing, because he knows of none living in Missouri’s wilds today, although some could be.

Besides the power plant nesting sites (Iatan, Hawthorne and Sibley), DeBold supervises nests at Commerce Tower (no chicks this year) and near the Country Club Plaza (the building’s owner asked that the specific location not be disclosed).

Hobbs said housing the birds shows good stewardship for KCP&L. The company has wetlands and bird boxes out in front of the plant, and the workers enjoy the falcons’ arrival each year.

It’s a nice quid pro quo, too. Falcons are predatory birds, and they’re attracted to a nesting site by prey species, such as pigeons. For KCP&L, having the falcons around provides a natural pest control.

“If you have nuisance birds around in high numbers their droppings accumulate, and inside the droppings, various fungi and bacteria will grow,” USDA wildlife biologist Luke Miller said. “Having the peregrine falcons present is a biological tool we use to reduce those numbers.”

Live-stream cameras inside the nests allow the public to see the eggs being laid in April, hatched in May, and the babies being raised until they leave the nest. They’ll be flying within a week or two. DeBold said a lot of people get heavily invested in some of the falcon-watching cameras as the birds make a species comeback.

“They’re just special,” DeBold said. “I would correlate this with just like when the bald eagle was delisted and brought back. Now, it’s not a big deal if you see a bald eagle. Everybody looks at it with pride, and it’s like, ‘Wow, look at that. It’s there. It’s here, finally.’

“That’s what I want these falcons to be.”

To contact Linley Sanders, call 816-234-4297 or send email to lsanders@kcstar.com.

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