Today marked my first ever banding trip to my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Considering I spent four years in the Behavioral Sciences building, which sits in the shadow of University Hall, the east campus’ tallest building and home to the UIC peregrines, that fact actually surprises me. But only a little.
Fact is, for as long as I’ve been part of the Chicago Peregrine Program, so has UIC graduate student Isabel Caballero. Isabel does part of her research here at the museum and is also member of the peregrine program. Her dissertation involves a DNA analysis of population structure and subspecies composition of reestablished Peregrine Falcon populations in the Midwest, a fascinating topic to be sure. As she is on campus most days of the week, she’s the logical choice to monitor the UIC birds! So, there’s never been a need for my presence at UIC, since Isabel is quite good at verifying the adults every year.
That said, I decided to go this year just to see what the site was like. Every banding set up is different. I’ve been to bandings done in machine rooms, conference rooms, theater balconies and offices. I even helped with a banding in our cat’s vet’s office. Since the UIC nest is at the very top of UIC’s main administration building, I was pretty curious as what that banding set up would look like!
I decided to meet everyone there, since UIC is just two stops west on the blue line from our house. When I arrived, I saw Matt sitting in the coffee shop on the bottom floor of University Hall. I sat and we gabbed for a bit while we watched for Mary, Isabel and Katrina. At some point, I noticed a few local news vans outside – Chicago channel 9 and channel 7 – and wondered out loud what was going on.
“We’re going on,” Matt said.
Hmm…wasn’t prepared for that.
Most people would consider me extroverted, but the truth is, I’m a bit shy when it comes to being any sort of focus of attention. For this (and many other) reasons, I am NOT rock star material. I’ve seen both Matt and Mary handle press attention and they both seem so comfortable! I don’t know how they do it.
I wasn’t too worried, though, even when Matt and I got into the elevator and a large man with a big news camera stepped in with us. At UIC, I was strictly an observer and could melt into the background to watch the excitement.
We found Isabel already on the top floor, which was bustling with activity. I greeted Isabel and she took me to the window that looks out on the UIC nest. Rosie, the adult female, peered at us suspiciously as we checked out her two chicks, which were huddled in a back corner of the ledge. I saw no sign of the adult male, an unbanded bird I’ve taken to calling “The Prof”.
“Oh, he doesn’t land very much,” Isabel told me. “He’s one of those standoffish types.”
As long as I had Rosie there, I snapped a few pictures of her through the tinted window and was soon joined by a few newspaper photographers who began to do the same. When two television cameramen came over to our now cramped corner of the room, I decided to high-tail it.
I followed Isabel to a large and pretty fancy conference room where we ran into Mary and Katrina. Now that we were all there, banding could commence. Matt began putting on the harness while the rest of us got the banding table organized.
The top of University Hall has tall, skinny windows that have a small pane at the top which opens. In order to reach the ledge, the building engineer sets up a temporary scaffold in order to reach the top pane. The person retrieving the chicks, in this case Matt, climbs the scaffold, drops a rope ladder down the outside of the window, wiggles through and climbs down to the ledge. It’s a nice set up because the ledge is both wide and very protected. There are windows on three sides of the ledge, making it like a little boxed in area. The roof extends out beyond the edge of the ledge, so that provides protection from the top. This all makes it impossible for the adult peregrines to attack from the air, much to Matt’s appreciation.
That doesn’t mean that Rosie and “The Prof” don’t do their damndest to make coming out onto their ledge uncomfortable. As Matt climbed down the rope ladder outside, I watched Rosie puff her feathers up so that she appeared about twice her size and stand her ground in front of the chicks. Matt gently moved by her, scooped the chicks up and was back up through the window in a flash. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for Rosie, even though I knew her chicks would be back in her care very soon.
I followed Matt back into the conference room and melted into the back of the crowd to watch. Isabel, Mary, Matt and Katrina fielded a lot of questions from the gathered reporters while they banded the two chicks — both males as it turned out. Here are a couple of the more popular questions with the teams answers:
“Don’t the parents abandon the babies since you’ve touched them?” — No, that is a myth. People have been banding all sorts of chicks for a long time and would not do so if that were the case.
“Do you put radio collars or other tracking devices on the peregrines?” — No. Not only is that very expensive, but because we live in a large urban environment with a massive amount of radio signals in the air, we would not be able to use this even if we could afford it. Our only tracking device is the leg band numbers, which are recorded in a huge database.
“How long have peregrines been at UIC?” — The first nest was in 1999. Rosie was the establishing female.
“How old are Rosie and her mate?” — Rosie is one of the older peregrines in Chicago at 12-years (UofC’s Magnolia is the oldest at 18). She was born at a site in Milwaukee, the same site as the Broadway’s adult female (Auntie Em) and one of the past adult females in Evanston (Sarah John). Her mate has no leg bands, so we have no way of knowing how old he is or where he came from. However, until 2005, Rosie’s mate, though never identified, had a leg band.
“I heard that the city of Chicago released peregrines in order to control pigeon populations, is this true?” – No. Peregrines were released back in the 80’s in several places in the midwest in order to bring the population back from extinction. The assumption was that they’d go back to their original cliff nesting sites, but instead, they started showing up in cities. Skyscrapers actually provide excellent simulated cliff ledges and there’s an ample supply of food, so life in the urban environment is working out quite well for peregrines.
There were lots of other questions, but those were by far the most popular. After the chicks were banded, they faced the paparazzi for a few seconds before Matt whisked them off to return them to the nest. Of course, Rosie was right there waiting. The most I saw of “The Prof” was a wing tip or tail feather as he zoomed back and forth in front of the nest site. I would have liked to have seen him for a second, but it was far more important to close the blinds and let the UIC family calm down, so that’s just what we did.
The two boys at UIC (b/r 19/D & b/r 20/D) bring the score almost to even: females (12), males (11)!