Peregrine falcons over Chicago

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By Paul Johnson

They call him Perry.

“It’s not like he comes to us when we call him that,” the Chicagoan said, “but that’s what we’ve dubbed him.”

Perry the Peregrine falcon on an 18th-floor balcony. Photo was taken March 31, 2016.

Predators have hunted in Chicago’s South Loop since long before Al Capone called this part of town home in the 1920s, but it was a startling surprise to have the fastest predator on the planet land a few feet away recently for one Prairie District resident.

“We live on the 18th floor on 16th Street,” said the witness, who asked to be identified only as Jim. “It was early in the morning and I was drinking coffee. I was sitting next to our balcony door, which I had left ajar. Suddenly, I thought I saw a small dog fall from the balcony above and land on our railing. To my surprise, it wasn’t a dog at all, but, instead, was our first sighting of Perry.”

The animal was a Peregrine falcon, one of several in a healthy population that is apparently thriving in Chicago. Prior to the middle part of the 20th century, the population of Peregrines in the Midwest was estimated to be between 400-500 individuals, according to the Chicago Peregrine Falcon Program’s website. However, chemical manufacturing and pollution in the 1960s killed off all Peregrines in the region and led to the species being added to the Federal Endangered Species List in 1973.

In 1985, four organizations in Chicago pooled their efforts – the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Lincoln Park Zoo, Illinois Department of Conservation, and Illinois Audubon Society – to establish the Chicago Peregrine Falcon Program to reintroduce the raptor to the Windy City. The following year, the CPFP began releasing the first of what would be 46 adult falcons in the city from one of four sites. By 1988, one pair of adults had begun to breed at a nest in the Loop (Chicago and Wacker) and with help from other raptor programs like the Raptor Center in Minneapolis, which helped launch the CPFP, the species was removed from the endangered list in 1999.

The South Loop region that is known as one of the areas in Illinois populated by Peregrine falcons.

Today, the CPFP knows of at least 19 adult pairs of Peregrine falcons breeding in Illinois, 10 of which are located in Chicago.

Perry appears to be an untagged juvenile, which bodes well for the future of the fastest animal on the planet in Chicago. Sighted originally on March 31, 2016, Perry (or another Peregrine falcon) has been seen several more times in the Prairie District neighborhood over the past year.

“I’ve seen Perry three or four times,” said Jim, who acknowledged that he can’t be sure he saw the same bird each sighting. “One morning my dog was sniffing under the trees along the railroad tracks that cut through the neighborhood between 15th and 16th streets. Suddenly there was some movement above my head and – bam! – there was Perry right above my head! He was sitting in the tree about 15 feet above my head and took off. It was fun to see Perry from that point of view.”

Found on every continent except Antarctica, Peregrine falcons typically fly at speeds around 45 mph but can reach more than 200 mph when attacking prey. Peregrines feed primarily on other birds so their 200-mph attack (called “stooping”)  is an aerial assault, like a real-life Top Gun dogfight in the sky between fighter jets.

“Oh, man, it’s a very cool sight to see Perry going after his dinner!” Jim said, laughing. “One day I was standing by the balcony door and I noticed a small flock of crows or seagulls flying past the window. For some reason, I kept watching them. I don’t know what it was about their movements, but the way the flock moved caught my attention. A split second later I realized why the birds were acting peculiarly – Perry went buzzing past in a blur, hunting them. I didn’t actually get a chance to see Perry catch his dinner, but now when I see a flock of birds flying in loops I look for Perry, knowing he’s probably chasing them.”

Loops?

With three- and four-story condos surrounded by mid- and high-rise buildings, this area of the Prairie District (across the street from Soldier Field) creates a walled arena of sorts that allows the falcons to hunt other birds like a life-or-death version of Quidditch, the famous flying sport in the Harry Potter books.

“I call them loops, I don’t know what the real name is,” Jim said, “but the birds Perry chases appear to use the tops of the high-rises as an obstacle to slow down Perry. You know, like when you were a kid playing tag with a friend and you ran around a bush or tree to slow them down? That’s what these crows, seagulls or whatever Perry’s chasing will do. We live near the top of our building so I can see the small flocks of birds fly over the top of our building or cutting around the corner, doing whatever they can to make tight turns to avoid him.”

Though exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, Peregrine falcons appear to have a healthy population in Chicago and Illinois overall. In addition to the 19 known breeding pairs of adult Peregrines, the CPFP has identified five other pairs of adults who have yet to breed and at least four individuals who have not found a mate yet or are loners.

“Perry may not be the biggest neighbor we have,” Jim said, acknowledging the relatively small size for the predator (adults average about 2 pounds and 18 inches long), “but he’s the coolest!”

-FLOCKED-

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