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Squawking falcon chicks charm schoolchildren

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IDNR swooped them temporarily from their "skybox" to band them for future identification

Friday, May 24, 2013 - 7:20 am

It's hard to say who made the most noise Thursday in an auditorium at One Summit Square — the schoolchildren oohing and aahing over four peregrine falcon chicks, or the chicks themselves, screeching their displeasure at being temporarily removed from their nesting box.

The cacophony only grew louder as employees of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources gently laid the chicks on their backs to put identification bands on the birds, draw blood and dust them for fleas.

Children from four schools — Deer Ridge, Harris, Whispering Meadows and St. Vincent de Paul — were at One Summit Square on Thursday at the invitation of Indiana Michigan Power because they won a naming contest for the birds. They were rewarded with an extraordinary up-close look at the raptors that were once on the Endangered Species List.

In the early 1990s, IDNR biologists built the box on top of One Summit Square and installed a webcam. The online project was developed by Indiana Michigan Power, the IDNR and two conservation groups, Soarin' Hawk and the Stockbridge Audubon Society. I&M's FalconCam offers a bird's-eye view of the chicks, and sometimes their mother, at www.aep.com/go/falconcam.

Several falcon families have occupied the nest since then. From 1996 through 2007 36 chicks have been fledged at this site. When the chicks are a few weeks old the IDNR comes in to band the chicks for tracking and identification purposes.

Retrieving the four chicks born three weeks ago from their nesting box high atop the 26-story One Summit Square building is not for the fainthearted, but John Castrale of the IDNR has done it before, most recently in 2007. On Thursday he and IDNR employee Amy Kerns crept out to the edge of the building to access the chicks. Castrale clipped on a safety harness for extra security and used a net to scoop up the four chicks and put them into a bucket used to carry them to the auditorium, where the kids were watching the action live from cameras on the roof.

The kids broke into applause as Castrale, Kerns and the volunteers brought the chicks into the auditorium. They squealed with glee when the first chick was brought out of the bucket. Still covered in downy white fuzz, with a few feathers just beginning to appear, the noisy chicks looked more cuddly than menacing. They are ridiculously cute. But their beady eyes, sharp beaks and huge feet with sharp talons left no mistake these babies would grow up to be predators.

While Kerns held them down gently on a table Castrale clamped bands on both of their legs as they squawked in protest. "They're loud," Castrale said. "We're not hurting them or anything."

Banding is a way to identify the birds to provide information on their movements and habitat needs. It's also a way of identifying peregrine falcons when they die. Recently Freedom, a peregrine falcon that fledged many chicks in the nesting box, most recently in 2007, was found dead and identified through her band. Castrale said she had lived to be 19, a normal lifespan for a peregrine falcon.

When Castrale was done with his work he handed off the chicks to volunteers who gave the kids an up close and personal look at the birds.

Kaylee Tippmann, 10, a fifth-grader at St. Vincent de Paul, said the chicks were "really cool and they're beautiful and they were noisy."

Megan Brady, 10 also a fifth-grader at St. Vincent, said, "I think it was really cool our name was picked." She and classmate Rachel Siela, 11, suggested the name Skyler. That was one of 23 names area classes submitted in an online contest. Facebook readers voted on the names, and the classes with the winning names were invited downtown for the banding. The winning names were "Skyler," submitted by fifth-grade students from St. Vincent de Paul and by kindergarten students from Cedar Canyon, who weren't able to come. Whispering Meadows kindergarteners suggested "Maverick," which was the name given to the only male of the four. Kindergarteners from Deer Ridge suggested "Electra," and "Soara" was submitted by Harris Elementary School fourth-graders.

The chicks' parents have names, too. I&M officials were excited that two young falcons, Moxie and Jamie, started their first family this year in the nesting box. Moxie is a 2-year-old female from Canton, Ohio, and Jamie is a 3-year-old male who migrated here from Port Sheldon, Mich. The two first got together in 2012, according to Indiana Michigan, but the IDNR said Moxie was too young to lay eggs last year. However in March of this year Moxie laid four eggs. They hatched around May 1.

IDNR officials have determined once the chicks hit about the three week mark they can be temporarily removed from the nest for banding, then quickly returned to their "skybox."

Peregrine falcons hunt by soaring from tall cliffs at high speeds and killing prey in mid-air — mostly medium-sized birds. The One Summit Square building offers a cliff-like vantage point, few natural predators, and access to water and food such as pigeons and starlings, according to the I&M website.

In North America, peregrine falcons were on the Endangered Species List due to exposure to pesticides such as DDT. Today they are upgraded to the Threatened List, according to I&M.

Once Castrale was done with the banding and the children had sufficient time to fuss over the chicks it was time to return them to their nesting box.

Moxie was not there when Castrale got the chicks, but she was in the box when Castrale went to put them back. She was not happy. Exhibiting fierce maternal instincts, she swooped, screeched and threatened Castrale as he put the chicks back, but he was, shall we say, unflappable.

He even took time to clean the box — the IDNR likes to look at the remains to see what the falcons are eating — and polished the camera lense on the webcam so the public can continue to watch the falcon chicks grow.