Words on Birds: 'Ramble' to downtown Aurora in February finds falcons nesting in a tower

Words on Birds: 'Ramble' to downtown Aurora in February finds falcons nesting in a tower

  • Peregrine falcons feed primarily on birds. In urban environments, where the falcons thrive, pigeons are a dietary staple.

    Peregrine falcons feed primarily on birds. In urban environments, where the falcons thrive, pigeons are a dietary staple. Courtesy of Clive Slack

 
 
Posted4/13/2020 6:00 AM

I attended a different kind of bird walk in February.

More accurately, it was a "ramble," the term Kane County Audubon uses for hastily organized birding adventures. This one began at 5:15 p.m., across from the Paramount Theater in downtown Aurora.

 

I've been on evening walks before, the usual targets being owls or woodcocks. This time we'd be looking for peregrine falcons, and our chances for success were excellent.

In simple terms, the plan, concocted by KCA member and Aurora resident Vernon LaVia, was to spot a falcon or two and then gather at a nearby tavern.

Roughly 20 birders found the idea irresistible. Even my wife went along, curiosity overtaking her non-birding instincts.

This was a classic stakeout, and Vern had us covered. On the previous three nights, he'd observed a female peregrine reporting to the top of Leland Tower between 5:15 and 5:45. A bit later, he saw a smaller falcon join her, presumably a male.

The Aurora female, shown here, has been a welcome Leland Tower tenant for a dozen years.
The Aurora female, shown here, has been a welcome Leland Tower tenant for a dozen years. - Courtesy of Eva Dorman
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For LaVia, this is personal. He's been watching the female for a dozen years, and the pair for about seven. They roost during winters on the 22-story Leland, favoring a ledge on the building's eastern side. Partnering with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, LaVia installed a plywood nesting box on the roof in 2016.

Our group assembled on a concrete plaza across from the Paramount and waited, keeping an eye on the Leland's upper levels. LaVia, naturally, felt some pressure to "show the bird." He'd done his homework, called the meeting, and now he needed his falcon friends to do their part.

No worries. Like clockwork, the female flew in, landing in the expected place. All of us grabbed a quick look through one of the spotting scopes, just in case it would be our only view of the evening.

Again, no worries. In fact, our view was about to improve.

The falcon took off and we lost her. LaVia hustled down Galena Boulevard, across the bridge spanning the Fox River, to check the west side of Leland Tower.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He relocated the bird and called us over. Now the setting sun was at our backs, casting a warm glow on the building. The falcon was perched near the top, and within minutes the male bird landed on a structure above her.

We couldn't have asked for a better show. Calm conditions and a temperature near 60 added to our satisfaction.

As we stood there looking up, fixing binoculars and scopes on the birds, theater fans began streaming across the bridge; the Paramount's matinee of "The Secret of My Success" had just ended.

People wanted to know what we were looking at, and we were happy to let them see for themselves.

Birders in downtown Aurora observe peregrine falcons perched on top of Leland Tower on Feb. 22.
Birders in downtown Aurora observe peregrine falcons perched on top of Leland Tower on Feb. 22. - Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

Maybe a new birder was born along the edge of the Fox. One could do worse than starting a life list with peregrine falcon, the fastest animal on earth.

The peregrine is a nice conservation story, too. It was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999, and the Illinois endangered list in 2015. A ban on the pesticide DDT helped bring it back, along with captive breeding and release programs.

The bird also has adapted well to urban settings, using tall buildings in place of rocky cliffs, its native habitat. Downtown Chicago is home to seven breeding pairs, according to Mary Hennen from The Field Museum, who also directs the Chicago Peregrine Program.

Looking at the greater Chicago region, there are 15 successful breeding pairs, Hennen said. Confirmed nest sites include Elmhurst, Joliet and Romeoville.

The Aurora falcons are clearly a pair, but the nest box has gone unoccupied, and juvenile birds have not been sighted. Nest failure isn't unusual, but LaVia isn't ruling out an alternative nest site. Leland Tower may only be a winter roost. For now, the falcons' family life is a mystery.

LaVia's monitoring of the pair includes the occasional stroll around Leland Tower's base, a streetscape strewed with random bones and bird parts. Aurora's ample pigeon population has good reason to be nervous.

Alas, a visit to the boneyard was not on the evening's agenda. With daylight fading, Gillerson's Grubbery, a block away on New York Street, was beckoning. This part of the ramble, like the first, was perfectly orchestrated by LaVia. He knew the owner, and I think the beer list as well.

We raised a toast to our leader and to the neighborhood raptors that brought us all together.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in Neighbor. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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