Q: Are peregrine falcons an endangered species?
Certain subspecies of peregrine falcons were federally listed as an endangered species from 1970–1999. They were listed after the U.S. population of peregrine falcons experienced a crash from 1950 -1970 due to poisoning by DDT (a type of pesticide). Toxic residues from DDT would accumulate in prey species, which in turn would contaminate the falcons when they consumed their prey. This poisoning resulted in abnormally thin eggshells. During this period the eastern breeding population was extirpated (locally extinct). Populations began to stabilize in 1966 and have slowly been recovering ever since. The recovery of peregrine falcons is largely credited to pesticide bans and extensive conservation efforts to reestablish birds in the East. In fact, populations eventually recovered enough to warrant removal from the federal Endangered Species List in 1999.
However, in Virginia, peregrine falcons remain listed as threatened at the state level and are currently considered a Tier I Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the State Wildlife Action Plan (Tier I species are those with an extremely high risk of extinction/extirpation due to low population levels, immediate threat, or have a limited range). Recovery of this state-threatened species is a current focus of DGIF and our partners.
According to the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary (Watts, 2019), the Richmond falcons are one of only 31 peregrine falcon pairs here in Virginia. Considering the precarious status of the Virginia falcon population as recently as 35 years ago, we feel privileged to be able to monitor so closely the nesting cycle of this remarkable species. It is with great pleasure that we bring you the Richmond Falcon Cam!
Q: Where is the Richmond Falcon Cam located?
The Richmond Falcon Cam is placed across from the nest box on a ledge of the West Tower of the Riverfront Plaza building in downtown Richmond, Virginia.
Q: Do the same peregrine falcons nest at this site each year?
Peregrine falcons are monogamous, mating at a site with the same individual until that individual dies or moves away. A pair of falcons began breeding in downtown Richmond in 2003. The male of the pair (unofficially nicknamed Ozzie) had leg bands and bred annually until 2017; he was also present in 2018, but struggled to pair with a female and did not nest that year. He was not seen again after that summer. The female of the pair (unofficially nicknamed Harriet) bred annually through 2016, but was not present thereafter.
In 2019 a new banded male claimed the downtown territory. This male was hatched in May of 2015 at a nest box on the Dominion Possum Point Power Station on the Potomac River. Between 2017 and 2019 multiple females (both banded and unbanded) have cycled through the site, sometimes within the same season, but never produced any eggs. However, in 2020 a banded female who had also been detected on camera in 2019, returned to Richmond where she produced a clutch of four eggs. This female fledged from the St. Georges Bridge in Delaware and was banded as a chick in 2018. We expect that this falcon pair will continue to nest at this site for years to come.
Q: How do you tell the Richmond male and female falcons apart?
As is the case for other raptors, the male peregrine falcon is noticeably smaller in size than the female. The current male is banded, with a green band on his right leg and a black and green band that reads 24/AU on his left. He has heavy sideburn markings and dark barring on his underparts, but his throat, breast and belly are white.
The female is also banded and substantially larger in size relative to the male. Her plumage is marked by distinctive, fine vertical lines along her upper breast with a pale buffy wash on her underparts. She is fitted with a black and green band on her left leg reading 95/AK and a silver leg band on her right.
In addition to size and band differences, the orbital ring (bare skin around the eye) and cere (the fleshy base of the bill) of the female are a pale yellow color, whereas the males are a much deeper shade of yellow-orange.
Q: When do the Richmond falcons nest and how long is the Falcon Cam active?
The pair that nested between 2003 and 2016 typically did so in March: following a period of courtship, the first egg was laid mid- to late-March. However, in 2020 the female of the new pair laid her first egg in early April. Time will tell whether or not this new pair follows a similar nesting schedule relative to what has been observed in past years. The Falcon Cam remains active through egg laying, incubation, and hatching, and follows the growth of the chicks until they fledge (take their first flight) or it is determined that the nest has failed for the season. Fledging has typically taken place between early- to late-June, but this timing will fluctuate year-to-year depending on the success of the nest. Second nesting attempts following nest failures have led to August fledge dates.
Q: How old are the adults in the Richmond pair?
The male peregrine falcon was banded as a chick on May 4, 2015 in Dumfries Virginia. The female is the youngest of the pair and was banded as a chick on June 4th, 2018 in St. Georges Delaware.
Q: How long do peregrine falcons live?
According to the US Geological Survey, the maximum lifespan documented for a banded falcon in the wild is 19 years and 9 months.
Based on his bands, we know that the original breeding male hatched in 2000 and lived to at least age 18.
Q: Do peregrine falcons in Richmond always nest at this site?
The nest box atop the Riverfront Plaza building has been the main focus of nesting activity by peregrine falcons since 2006. However, just as falcons breeding on cliff faces may nest on different ledges in different years, so will urban falcons choose different nesting locations over time. Prior to using Riverfront Plaza, nesting took place at the old BB&T building from 2003 to 2005. Since nesting began at the Riverfront Plaza, the Lee Bridge and other downtown skyscrapers have also been used; however, all nesting attempts at these alternate sites have been unsuccessful.
Q: Do all peregrine falcons in Virginia nest on tall buildings?
Historically, peregrine falcons in Virginia nested on cliff ledges in the mountains. The majority of the modern Virginia falcon population nests on artificial structures in the Coastal Plain, including some that use the ledges of skyscrapers within urban environments as nesting sites. In other parts of the world, there are also tree and ground nesting populations.
Q: Why don’t I see a nest in the nest box?
Peregrine falcons do not build a nest with sticks; instead, they create a “scrape”, a shallow bowl/ depression, in the substrate of their nesting area (the substrate at Riverfront Plaza is gravel). At the beginning of each season, the male will create scrapes in different nesting locations and from these the female chooses her preferred location.
Throughout the nesting season the adult birds can be observed maintaining the scrape. They will move the gravel pebbles with their bill and use their bodies to push the gravel pebbles back into place.
Q: How many eggs and chicks has this pair produced over the years?
Between 2003–2016, the original Richmond pair produced 61 eggs, of which 36 (59%) hatched; of these, 31 chicks survived to flight age. Additionally, in 2017, the original male produced three eggs with his second mate. All three hatched, but only 1 chick survived to flight age.
In 2020 the new falcon pair produced their first ever clutch which contained four eggs. Of the four eggs, only one hatched. This chick is currently being raised by the falcon pair and we are optimistic that it will survive to flight age.
Q: Are all the eggs in a clutch laid on the same day?
No, after the first egg in a clutch is laid, any subsequent eggs are usually laid in intervals of 48-72 hours.
Q: How many eggs do peregrine falcons typically lay?
Peregrine falcons can lay clutches of up to 5 eggs, but in Virginia they most commonly lay 4 eggs, as has been the case for the original Richmond pair. However, in 2013 the previous Richmond female did lay a clutch of 5 eggs.
Q: When do birds begin incubating the eggs?
True incubation begins in earnest when the next to last egg of clutch is laid. Prior to that egg being laid, the birds sit on the eggs as a protective measure.
Q: How long is the incubation period? When do you anticipate the eggs will hatch?
A typical incubation period for peregrine falcons is 33-35 days. For peregrine falcons, incubation usually begins when the second to last egg is laid. To predict a hatch date window, count 33-35 days from when the second to last egg was laid.
Q: Does only the female incubate the eggs?
No, incubation duties are actually shared by the male and female, but the female usually does the majority of it, while the male does most of the hunting during the incubation period.
Both male and female peregrine falcons have brood patches, temporary bare patches of skin developed during the egg-laying period, which allow the birds to warm their eggs, and later the young chicks, using their body heat. Male and female peregrine falcons have two brood patches, one on either side of their sternum, but these are less developed in the male. During the period in which the birds are sitting on or incubating their eggs, you will notice that they sometimes fluff out their breast feathers, scrape the eggs inward using their bill, and move in a rocking motion as they settle down on to the eggs. All of these behaviors are to ensure that the falcon achieves more precise contact of their brood patches with the eggs.
When the male and female take turns incubating, this “incubation exchange” is typically our best opportunity to view the eggs.
Q: How long is the egg hatching process?
Hatching is an energetically demanding process. The young chick uses its egg tooth, a small knob on top of its bill, to hammer a pip (hole) in the egg. It periodically works to break the egg around the pip area, but rests much of the time. The entire process from initial pip to hatch can take up to 72 hours. All the eggs in a Peregrine Falcon clutch generally hatch “synchronously” (within 24-48 hours for a clutch of 4).
Q: Why didn’t all the eggs in the clutch hatch?
Not all peregrine falcon eggs are hatched in all years. Reasons for hatching failure can include egg infertility, death of embryos, egg breakage and contaminant loads. Since 2003, the Richmond falcons have hatched all of their eggs on only 5 occasions; in 2013 and 2016 they experienced complete clutch failures, although in 2013 they went on to nest a second time. Another potential reason for egg failure is that the birds’ reproductive potential decreases as they age past their reproductive peak. Between 2013 and 2016, the Richmond pair hatched only 5 of 20 eggs. According to the US Geological Survey, the maximum lifespan documented for a banded falcon in the wild is 19 years and 9 months.
Q: What will happen to the unhatched eggs?
Normally, unhatched peregrine falcon eggs will remain in the nest or are eventually crushed and broken into pieces. However, sometimes the adults do eat them, as has been observed by this pair in the past. On occasion we are able to retrieve whole eggs and have them analyzed for contaminants.
Q: What should I expect to see as the chicks develop?
As the chicks develop from the time of hatching to when they take their first flight from the nest, they undergo an impressive transformation in size, appearance and behavior. Here is what you can expect to see:
Week 1 – upon hatching the chicks are covered in white, downy feathers and are relatively weak and wobbly. Much of their time in this first week is spent sleeping or resting. As they are not yet able to regulate their body temperature, they depend on the parents to brood them (sit on them); the parents, especially the female, will spend a lot of time at the nest in what appears to be an incubating position. For the first several days after hatching, Peregrine chicks have fairly poor eyesight and respond primarily to adult vocalizations. As their sight improves between 4 and 8 days, the chicks will begin to distinguish and react by sight to the adults. The chicks are fed regularly, with the parents tearing off bits of prey brought to the nest and feeding them to the chicks with their bill. By day 5, the chicks’ initial weight has doubled.
Week 2 – the chicks develop a second coat of down. At this stage they are still being brooded, but this may occur less frequently or for shorter periods of time. Although much of their time is still spent sleeping or resting, the chicks are more active. They may be seen preening, scratching, stretching their wings and legs and moving about the nest box. At this age the crop (a pouch in the digestive tract that temporarily stores food before it enters the stomach) appears as a prominent lump in the upper breast following a feeding.
Week 3 – developmentally, weight gain has been considerable and the flight feathers of the chicks’ tail and wings become visible through the down. The chicks may be seen huddling together to conserve heat on cool days, as they are no longer being brooded by the parents. Because of this, the parents spend a lot less time on camera, but can still be seen when feeding the chicks at the nest box. The chicks are also much more mobile and may even leave the nest box and wander off camera.
Week 4 – the chicks come to more closely resemble their parents with their flight and body feathers noticeable through the down, but they are not yet fully grown in size. The chicks are now able to stand for extended periods of time, rather than only sitting up.
Week 5 – the chicks’ feathers have continued to grow in and the distinctive facial markings characteristic of Peregrine Falcons begin to appear on their face. You may notice them flapping their wings, which helps them to shed their down and to exercise their developing flight muscles. The chicks are being fed larger pieces of prey from their parents, and tearing bits of flesh from the prey on their own.
Week 6 – the chicks resemble the adults in size and their brown and buff juvenile plumage has grown in almost entirely, with only a few scattered traces of down remaining. The breast is heavily streaked and the distinctive dark hood is fully developed. They may be seen vigorously exercising their wings and lifting off the ground in preparation for their first flight.
Q: One or more of the chicks isn’t visible on camera. Where did it go? Should I be concerned?
This is not something to be concerned about. Beginning around week 3 of the chicks’ development, they are a lot more mobile and may even leave the nest box and wander off camera. This should not be a cause for alarm; the chicks are capable of returning to the box and even if they stay out, the building ledge provides additional places for the chicks to find shelter. In addition, though not necessarily visible, at least one parent is always nearby guarding the chicks, and will continue feeding all of the chicks regardless of where they may wander to.
Q: What do peregrine falcons eat?
The vast majority of their diet is medium-sized birds, which they consume in enormous variety. In North America they’ve been document to consume at least 420 different species of birds. In urban environments like Richmond, pigeons make up a significant portion of their prey. Other bird remains that we’ve observed when accessing the Richmond nest site include northern flicker, European starling, and yellow-billed cuckoos, along with the occasional chimney swift, purple martin, American woodcock and eastern whip-poor-will. The Richmond falcons were once observed returning to the nest box with a freshly caught bat.
Peregrine falcons are also known to eat other small mammals. On occasion, they may also eat fish and large insects, such as grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, and damselflies. Very rarely will they eat carrion (dead animals).
Q: Why do you band the chicks? When does banding take place?
Banding allows biologists to track individual birds when the banded birds are re-sighted, providing information on the bird’s origin, age, sex and movements. For example, via the previous adult male’s bands we were able to positively identify him every year and ascertain his status as a breeder at this site, along with his reproductive output. Banding has also allowed us to track some of the Richmond pair’s offspring, which have gone on to pair up and breed at other locations in Virginia as well as in other states. While teaching us about individual birds, this collective information can also paint a picture of the status of broader peregrine falcon populations and can be used to better inform management strategies to aid in their restoration.
We typically band the chicks when they are 25–30 days old. During this time period, the chicks are old enough that their sex can be determined and the appropriately-sized band used (females take larger bands than males), and still young enough that they can easily be retrieved without danger of premature fledging. Each chick is weighed and measured, which allows us to identify it as male or female (females are larger and heavier than males). Each chick then receives two aluminum leg bands: a green anodized band with a unique numeric code on its right leg, and a black and green band with alphanumeric characters on its left leg. The latter is a “field-readable” band, which can be read through binoculars, scopes, or web cams without the need to catch the bird.
Q: Why is a pen placed in front of the nest box after the chicks are banded?
The pen is a precautionary measure that we take to prevent the chick(s) from fledging prematurely. As the chicks develop and become mobile, they begin to venture outside of the nest box; a chick spending time on the ledge wall is vulnerable to losing its footing and exposure to gusts of wind, which may cause it to become airborne before it is able to fly. This has occurred in the past at this nest site. Although chicks may be able to glide safely to the ground without injury, their inability to fly leaves them highly vulnerable to vehicular traffic on busy city streets.
The pen is added to the nest box when we band the chicks. At this age the chicks are no longer being brooded by the parents, but still depend on them for food. The parents bring prey items to the chicks and feed them bits of food through the pen. Eventually, as the chicks develop, the adults are able to pass larger pieces of prey to the chicks and they tear this up themselves.
The pen set up includes a wooden board strapped to its top in order to provide shade for the chick(s) while they explore the area outside of the nest box. The pen is filled with the same type of gravel substrate that is inside the nest box. The mechanical device strapped to the front of the pen will eventually be used to remotely open the pen door when it comes time for the chick to fledge (take their first flight).
Q: How old will the young falcons be when they fledge (take their first flight)?
Young peregrine falcons typically fledge between 40 and 44 days of age. Over the years, the chicks at the Riverfront Plaza have fledged at 47 to 51 days. Fledging takes place on the day that we open the pen door; our scheduling of this event is a function of weather forecasts, staff availability for participation in Fledgewatch activities, and ensuring that all chicks are past 44 days of age.
The fledge date is announced ahead of time on the Falcon Cam blog in order to allow viewers to follow the event. On the scheduled date, the pen door is opened remotely in order to avoid exposing both the chicks and parents to the stress and excitement of contact with humans, and to allow the chick(s) to exit the pen and fledge at their leisure. Once the door is opened, the amount of time to fledging varies among chicks. Some have bolted from the pen and flown within seconds of the door opening, whereas others have waited several hours prior to taking their first flight.
Fledging is monitored annually through Fledgewatch, with participation by DGIF staff and volunteers. Participants are positioned strategically on top of surrounding buildings and at street level to monitor the falcons’ first flights and landings and to ensure that no young birds find themselves grounded in a vulnerable area. Fledgewatch typically runs over the course of one and a half days.
Q: What happens once the young falcons fledge?
Now officially “juveniles,” the newly fledged falcons will spend their first few days on the wing practicing their flight, and, just as importantly, their landings, under the watchful eye of the parents. The parents may encourage flight by vocalizing and by flying next to or behind the young falcons. The juveniles will continue to be dependent on their parents for up to several weeks as they become spend more time in the air and learn to hunt for their own prey. During this time period they may be seen flying in tandem with their parents and engaging in aerial acrobatics with one another. Eventually, the young birds will disperse from the greater Richmond area, wandering up and down the Atlantic Coast and eventually seeking out their own breeding territories.
Q: Is it true that peregrine falcons fly fast? How fast are they?
Yes! Peregrine falcons are extraordinary fliers and extremely fast! Peregrine falcons hunt for a variety of medium-sized birds, which make up the vast majority of their diet, by diving down on them from high above (called a “stoop”). Depending on the height of their stoop to pursue prey, they can reach speeds up to 69–200 mph! Their average traveling flight speeds are 25–34 mph.