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This AEP online video image was taken Saturday evening. The webcam site is on pace to match last year’s 28,000 hits.

‘DRAMA’ at 26 stories high

With falcon pair lying low, some watchers fear worst

Photos courtesy of American Electric Power
Roosevelt and Freedom have starred in an online reality show set at One Summit Square.

Is the nest empty?

Observers of Fort Wayne’s peregrine falcon pair hope the longtime partners’ era hasn’t passed, but many fear the worst.

Since 1997, Roosevelt and Freedom have nested at One Summit Square, in a custom box built five years before by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

At 26 stories high, about 400 feet above ground, the falcons’ are afforded privacy – as far as they know. But their movements can be observed through a camera connected to a website hosted by American Electric Power.

Many eyes are watching. YaVonda Ulfig, spokeswoman for AEP, said the website has had 14,000 visits this year, on track to match the 28,000 visits last year.

But there’s less to see on the webcam these days. Regular watchers say Roosevelt hasn’t been seen since spring, and the pair haven’t raised chicks since 2007, according to the DNR.

Freedom was banded as a chick and re-released into the wild in Evansville in 1994, eventually making her way to Fort Wayne. That puts her age at 17 years; the typical peregrine falcon lives to 18 or 19, said John Castrale, a non-game biologist with DNR Fish and Wildlife.

“She’s getting up there,” Castrale said.

Roosevelt hatched in the wild in Columbus, Ohio, in 1994. He joined Freedom in 1997, and the birds over the next decade hatched about three dozen young.

Although female Freedom and male Roosevelt observed typical bonding rituals this spring – digging in their nest, bringing each other gifts – Freedom again didn’t lay any eggs.

As a female peregrine tallies years, the odds also rise that another female will come along and challenge her for her prime real estate. Castrale predicts in the next few years Freedom likely will die of natural causes – or a webcam viewer with coincidental timing may catch a glimpse of a “younger woman” that forces Freedom from her nest.

“With the peregrines, there’s quite a bit of drama,” Castrale said.

There aren’t many other falcons to take over the nest site, but there are more than when Freedom and Roosevelt first arrived in Fort Wayne.

Castrale has worked with the birds since 1989 and was involved in the efforts to reintroduce them in Indiana from 1991 to 1994.

At one time during the 1960s and 1970s, the birds were extinct in this area; now there are about 200 pairs in the Midwest. In Indiana this spring, 11 of 12 nest sites produced offspring, and the DNR banded 28 chicks, Castrale said.

Castrale believes the birds compel people to watch in part because of their speed – they’re believed to be the fastest animal during their hunting dive – and their agility.

In a photo from a 2007 visit to the Fort Wayne nest, where Castrale removed Freedom’s last chicks to band, Freedom was captured attacking Castrale’s protective helmet. It was clear she was unhappy and concerned for her young.

“They’re such a dramatic bird,” he said. “If you visit a nest site, it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush.”

Local celebrities

As Freedom and Roosevelt regularly raised chicks, they caught the attention of local media and the community, especially after AEP began its online reality show in 1999.

The falcons’ first brood was given names for Fort Wayne’s sports teams at the time – Fury, Wizard, Rhino and Komet.

The babies’ themed names over the years humanized them to children: Charger, Electron and Kilowatt one year; Maumee and Kekionga another. In 2003, a group of Bunche Elementary School students submitted names for the fledglings: Swifty, Liberty, Hunter and Spirit.

Mary Anne Reid has watched Freedom and Roosevelt from her home in Georgia since 2008. While they haven’t raised young during that time, they’ve still been captivating, she said.

Reid said she’s been coming to terms with the likelihood that Roosevelt has either died or left Freedom for another mate.

Her forum, “Bird Cams Around the World,” covers close to 100 peregrine falcons as far-flung as Europe, Great Britain, Australia and North America.

Remote bird-watching is a habit Reid never expected to develop when, years back, she casually clicked a link for a webcam trained on a barn owl.

“I stumbled into this one boring evening when I got home from work,” she said in a telephone interview.

Reid believes at the heart of her fascination and others’ with the birds of prey is their obscurity. Webcams are popular for any number of animals – puppies, pandas – but most of those creatures can be seen in zoos or at home.

The peregrine falcon is different, she said.

And not only do the webcams offer a close-up view, they also show a soft side of the birds completely foreign to the animals’ stereotype and a fascinating view of co-parenting.

Reid has watched bald eagles tending their babies with their deadly talons balled up so they don’t hurt the young. She’s watched them try to keep fledglings from flying into buildings or stumbling out of a nest.

“There is such a tender side,” she said. “It gives you a window into an incredible piece of nature.”

The ferocious side comes out when their offspring are threatened.

“They will do anything under the sun to defend their territory,” she said.

Of late, the members of the forum have speculated that Roosevelt, not seen since the spring, possibly moved on to another mate. They hope he hasn’t died.

Freedom, meanwhile, appeared as recently as last week. To regular watchers – last week included postings from Pennsylvania, Georgia and the Netherlands – she appeared a bit scruffy and tired.

They’re keeping a special eye on her; it’s not unusual for online birdwatchers to intervene with wildlife authorities if a bird appears sick or threatened.

Reid said Freedom and Roosevelt became so well known and beloved because they mated for so long at the same site.

“They were just awesome parents,” she said.

aturner@jg.net

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