May 23, 2007

CONTACT: Sebastian D’Elia
County of Union Communications Director


A Pair of Endangered Peregrine Falcons Start a Family
Atop the Union County Courthouse Tower


ELIZABETH, NJ  -  Three tiny chicks have been hatched by a pair of Peregrine falcons nesting atop the Union County Courthouse Tower. The chicks appear healthy and are about a week old.

The falcons have been living on the courthouse tower for at least two years. They had attempted to build nests on ledges and gutters around the tower, but their nests had failed, prompting the county and DEP to erect their new home.

Last year County workers, with assistance from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Endangered and Nongame Species Program, erected a nest box on the roof of the 17 story tower, to assist them.

"It's great to know that these beautiful birds are making our tower their home," said Freeholder chairwoman Bette Jane Kowalski. "The chicks are so cute! We look forward to watching them grow up." Last year the chairwoman climbed to the top of the windy 17-story tower to see the installation of the nesting box first hand.

Considered an endangered species in New Jersey, Peregrine falcons are crow-sized predatory birds. Historically they have nested on cliff faces and rocky outcrops. As these habitats vanished, the birds have adapted to their manmade equivalents: high buildings and bridges. In the 1960s and 70s they saw a dramatic decline in numbers, some believe from the widespread use of DDT. Since the pesticide was banned, there seems to have been a slow increase in their numbers. State officials estimate that there are only 18 nesting pairs in New Jersey.

Peregrine falcons are the fastest birds on earth. They can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour when the swoop down to strike their prey. In Elizabeth, their prey is an abundance of pigeons.

Their nest box is actually an igloo-shaped plastic doghouse, filled with pea gravel and bolted and glued to the ziggurat roof of the tower. Because of the shape of the box and the ferociously protective disposition of the falcons, it was impossible to tell whether they had successfully nested this year without a visit to the courthouse roof.

That job fell to Mick Valent, of the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program. He had supervised and assisted in placing the nest box last year. And this year, he was able to climb through a trap door at the top of the tower and quickly photograph the chicks in the box before attacks by the angry falcon mother drove him back inside.

The three chicks are covered with puffy down feathers, but their pink skin still shows through. Adult falcons sit on their eggs for 32 to 33 days before they hatch, and the chicks are completely dependent on their parents for almost two months before they learn to fly.

From the birds’ leg bands, wildlife officials can determine that the female falcon is about three years old, and was born in a nest box atop 101 Hudson St. in Jersey City. The male is over 10 years old and comes from Connecticut.

“We have falcon chicks and we also have a responsibility to ensure that they have a good home here in Elizabeth,” said Freeholder Daniel P. Sullivan. “We will do everything we can to make sure that this species maintains its foothold in Union County.”