By Jessie Moravek
I’ve never been a big one for bird-watching, especially at Northwestern—I’ve gotten chased by the lakefill geese one too many times to feel safe behind a pair of binoculars. But recently, I discovered that the most famous birds in Evanston can be viewed from the comfort of my dorm room. For the past twelve years, the Evanston Public Library has been home to a pair of peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) named Nona and Squawker, who hatch chicks each spring on a sheltered ledge outside the third floor window. Luckily, you don’t have to hike all the way to Church Street to see the birds. The library hosts a “Falconcam” during the nesting season (right now!), where you can watch fluffy baby falcons 24/7 from your computer.
Peregrine falcons live all over the world, on every continent except for Antarctica. They catch and eat other birds on the fly, usually with a stealth dive from above. They are the fastest bird on earth, flying up to 200 miles per hour during these dives. Peregrines generally nest in high cliffs or building ledges, and a female lays 3-4 eggs every spring. A nesting pair of birds usually returns to the same nest site every year, which is why Nona and Squawker have become regulars at EPL.
Falcons used to be common in Illinois along the Mississippi River, where they nested in riverside cliffs. However, in the mid-20th century, overuse of chemicals like DDT put falcons in trouble. The organo-chlorides in these pesticides made eggshells too thin, and eggs broke before the chicks could hatch. This decimated bird populations, and by 1960 peregrine falcons were extinct from the Midwest.
Luckily for the birds, the U.S. government banned DDT in 1972, and put peregrines on the Federal Endangered Species List a year later. Groups across the Midwest worked to re-introduce falcons, and now there are over 12 breeding pairs in Illinois. According the Field Museum Peregrine Project, peregrine falcons were removed from endangered species list in 1999, and will be taken off the Illinois State list in 2015. And thanks to the tall, cliff-like ledges on the EPL building, peregrines have been living in Evanston since at least 2004. For a bird on the brink of local extinction, these falcons have done a great job of making a come-back.
If the Falconcam isn’t enough peregrine time for you, take a personal visit to EPL in early June. At that time, scientists from the Field Museum come to the library to band the chicks. They pull the baby birds through the window to take measurements and blood samples, and to put ID bands on the bird’s legs. There is also a naming contest for the new chicks, who are introduced to everyone in the audience before being carefully returned to their nest. It’s an up-close-and-personal way to meet the cutest birds in Evanston, and you don’t even need binoculars.
Nona and Squawker have returned to the EPL this year, and Nona has already laid four eggs. She spends most of her time sitting on the nest, so be sure to keep an eye on the Falconcam! The chicks should hatch by mid-May.