Welcome to the 2022 Season of the National Aviary’s Peregrine Falcon Nest Cam!
Each spring and summer, the National Aviary hosts a live stream of the Peregrine Falcons residing high up on the southeast side of the Cathedral of Learning on the main campus of the University of Pittsburgh. From there the falcons can access Schenley Park and the Monongahela River to the south. Morela, a female Peregrine Falcon, and her mate, Ecco, had a successful nesting season in 2022. While the nesting season is over as the young Peregrine Falcons begin to disperse, you can read about the season below!
2022 Nesting Season
June 28, 2022: We are saddened to share that one the Peregrines that hatched this year at the Cathedral of Learning has died. The male Peregrine was found at Allegheny County Airport and was identified by the bands on his legs. The first year after fledging is an extremely dangerous one for Peregrine Falcons, and typically fewer than half of juveniles survive their first year. Peregrines are unlikely to be preyed upon by other animals, but navigating our built environment can be challenging and hazardous for them, and they often collide with buildings and vehicles. We always hope for the best outcome for our Peregrines and their chicks, but sometimes the glimpses we get into their world, whether on camera or otherwise, reveal sad occurrences like this. Importantly, it is only because the bird was banded that we can make the connection to the nesting earlier this year at Pitt.
June 10, 2022: This was a big week for the young Peregrine Falcons: as of today, two have fledged (one around June 5 and the other on June 7), and the last one is still “thinking about it!” A lot has happened to get the young birds to this point. They have molted their down, grown in their juvenile flight feathers, and have been practicing walking out onto the ledge, perching, and exercising their wings to gain the strength they need to fly. Parents stay close by during these formative days. To encourage their young to fly, they may fly close to the chicks while holding prey in their talons. Eventually, the young falcons get the message, learning that they will have to fly to eat, and take that first step off the ledge!
Morela and Ecco’s young will stay close to the area this summer. Although they have fledged, or are close to fledging, they still have a lot to learn before they disperse to stake out their own territories. This can be a very dangerous time for the fledglings, as they learn to navigate the urban environment, with its hazards of moving vehicles and reflective glass windows.
May 31, 2022:
You may have noticed some changes at the nest recently. First, the chicks have been banded! Last week, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Endangered Bird Biologist Patti Barber banded the chicks at the Cathedral of Learning. Using special equipment, a biologist with the Game Commission retrieved the three chicks from the nest and brought them inside where they were banded with small, lightweight bands that go around one leg. Each band has a unique number on it—one that identifies the bird in the U.S. Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory database, and another bi-colored band with numbers and letters that can be identified with binoculars. Banding helps researchers gain insight into the natural histories of birds and monitor their populations.
Before they were returned to the nest, Patti and her team performed a quick physical exam for each chick. The chicks are healthy and thriving. Based on size, it is likely this brood has two females and one male. As is the case with most raptors, female Peregrines are larger than males.
You may also notice in the coming days that the chicks are off-camera. As more of their flight feathers grow in, the chicks will soon begin what is known as “ledge walking”: while not quite ready to fly, at this stage they are venturing out further from the nest on foot. This gives them practice with perching, and provides space for them to stretch and exercise their wings. Fledging is right around the corner!
May 16, 2022: It has been an eventful couple of weeks at the nest. Morela and Ecco’s chicks are growing rapidly, eating heartily, and are beginning to grow in “pin feathers.” Pin feathers are feathers in an early stage of development. These tiny spike-like structures grow out of follicles, much like human hair does, and they are encased in keratin, the same protein that makes up human hair and fingernails! As each feather grows, the surrounding keratin sheath falls away and disintegrates and the new, full-sized feather unfurls from within it. You may see the chicks preening, scratching, and grooming themselves, or each other to help facilitate this process. That, and they’re probably a little bit itchy, too.
While the nest cam gives us a view into the natural world so we can see amazing things like the development of these chicks from hatching to fledging, it can sometimes reveal events that are sad or unpleasant. Morela and Ecco’s fourth chick hatched on May 2, much later than its siblings. It was very small compared to the other chicks, and it appeared to be somewhat weak. Despite Morela and Ecco’s attempts to feed and care for it, the chick did not survive. These unfortunate circumstances are not uncommon. Peregrines typically fledge just two or three young from each brood. One study shows that in broods of four, the chick that is last to hatch has about a 50% survival rate. We are hopeful for positive outcomes for Morela and Ecco’s other chicks, which seem to be doing well.
April 26, 2022: It’s Hatch Day at the Cathedral of Learning! Two of Morela’s five eggs hatched overnight. The first hatched at 12:38 am, and the next hatched sometime in the early morning hours. Both were visible on camera at 7:03 am when Morela gave the chicks their first feeding. It will likely be a couple of days before the remaining eggs hatch.
Like all raptors, Peregrine Falcons are altricial, meaning they require significant parental care upon hatching. They are small at hatching, covered in sparse downy fluff, and are unable to sit up on their own. Raising young chicks is a tall task. At this stage, the chicks require near-constant care from their parents. Morela will brood them to keep them warm as their down grows in, and both parents will help with feeding the chicks as they grow.
April 22, 2022: Life at the nest has been slow and steady for Morela and Ecco as they continue incubating their clutch of five eggs. The first of the eggs should hatch in the next few days and the others will follow suit. It is unclear what will happen with the fifth egg, which was laid much later than the others. Morela and Ecco may continue to incubate. It’s also possible that the egg won’t hatch, which is a common occurrence in birds of all kinds—not every egg hatches, and that can happen for a variety of reasons.
Over the next few days, things will start to get busy at the nest. Hatching is a complicated process and it is hard work for a small chick. The chick needs to position itself within the egg so that it can pull itself out. It begins to communicate with its parents and siblings, making “peeping” calls from inside the egg. It takes its first breath from an air sac in the egg, and uses a tiny ridge on its beak, called an “egg tooth,” to crack the shell. Then, it works to tap its way out of the shell, taking plenty of time to rest. This process can take up to 72 hours.
April 7, 2022: Birds can be surprising! Last week, on March 30, Morela laid a fifth egg, almost 5 days after she’d laid the fourth one. Both Morela and Ecco had started incubating once the third egg arrived, which is typically a sign that only one more egg will be laid.
Morela’s surprise fifth egg isn’t unusual, though this fifth egg is unique. Peregrine Falcon eggs are usually a ruddy brick red with small spots. The egg Morela laid on March 30 is white on one side with red speckling, while the other side is the typical reddish color we would expect. When a bird lays a large clutch, it’s not unusual for the last of the eggs to be a different size, shape, or color. This variation is normal when the nutrients needed to produce eggs decrease as each egg is produced. Morela appears to be healthy and is acting normally.
The timing of this fifth egg being laid might affect incubation, and there is a chance the egg won’t fully develop. This is a very normal situation across species—not every egg that is laid hatches. But, Morela and Ecco are dutifully sitting on the eggs, and their nesting success last year shows that they are well positioned to give their eggs the best chance to thrive.
March 28, 2022: Morela’s fourth, and likely final egg of this nesting season, was laid around 6:30 am on March 26. It appears that she began to fully incubate the eggs after the arrival of the third egg on March 23. Peregrine Falcons incubate their clutches for about 34-35 days, so we should start to see hatchings in late April.
Now that Morela almost certainly has a full clutch to incubate, Ecco will be stepping up his involvement at the nest. Morela will be on the eggs overnight, but Ecco will play an important role in bringing her food, and he may also do some of the incubating himself. The division of incubation duties varies from pair to pair, but last year Ecco was on the nest often.
March 25, 2022: Morela laid her third egg on March 23. This may be her final egg of the nesting season, but we will have to wait to find out. She appeared to be incubating the eggs after the second one was laid, which would mean this third egg is the last one in the clutch. Only time will tell!
March 22, 2022: Morela’s second egg arrived sometime around 3 am EST yesterday. While Peregrines don’t begin to incubate fully until the second-to-last egg is laid, parents will cover the eggs to prevent them from getting wet or too cold, or very hot. Morela laid four eggs last year and we may still expect two more. But, Ecco and Morela both look like they may already be in an incubation position, so it could be that this second egg will only be followed by one more. Only Morela knows how many eggs will be in her clutch this year—we have to wait and see!
March 18, 2022: Today’s the big day! Morela laid her first egg of the season around 8:30 am. Peregrine Falcons take breaks of around 48 hours in between laying eggs, of which there are usually 3 to 5, but may take as long as 72 hours. The female Peregrine will begin incubating once she has laid the next-to-last egg. Many birds delay incubation of the early eggs in their clutches. This strategy helps the eggs develop at the same pace and hatch relatively closely to one another.
March 10, 2022: We are inching closer to potential egg laying, and Morela is continuing to show signs that she is settling in for the coming breeding season. Among the earlier signs of Peregrines preparing to nest is visitation to the nest site, and both Morela and Ecco have been visiting regularly for weeks. Last week Morela hit a major milestone and spent the night roosting at the nest. The pair have been observed mating off-camera, so it’s hopeful that Morela will begin laying eggs very soon.
Peregrine Falcons typically have a clutch of about 4 eggs. The process of laying eggs takes several days, with a break of around 48 hours between each egg. Once the next-to-last egg is laid, the female will begin incubation.
March 1, 2022: The countdown for egg laying is on! Last year, Morela’s first egg was laid on March 17, and courtship at the nest has intensified in recent weeks. Morela and Ecco have been observed on camera bowing to one another – a hallmark of Peregrine courtship and a hopeful sign that eggs are on the way. Both birds are making regular visits, which will only become more frequent as we get closer to potential egg laying.
If you tune in regularly to the Nest Cam, you’ve likely seen Peregrines in the snow, rain, wind, and sunshine. Peregrines are some of the most widely distributed birds, found on every continent except Antarctica. They are well equipped to deal with Pittsburgh’s cold, damp springs when they’re laying and incubating eggs, and our hot and humid summers when they’re teaching their offspring to hunt. Their adaptability serves them well during our unpredictable springs!
February 16, 2022: We are still a couple of weeks away from Morela laying her first egg of the season, but there is plenty to see at the nest! Morela and Ecco have been making frequent visits to the nest box after hunting: Morela has been seen with a full crop, which shows she’s eating well. Peregrines naturally nest on cliff ledges, but have taken well to nesting on man-made structures like buildings and bridges. The Peregrine Falcon’s nest, called a scrape, is no-frills: it’s a shallow, bowl-shaped depression in the natural substrate or gravel. Both males and females work to perfect the scrape before eggs are laid. They lay on their chests and push gravel or dirt away with their legs. Males will often create several scrapes, and the female will choose the one she likes best.
February 9, 2022: With nesting season around the corner, Morela and Ecco are courting! Much of this species’ courtship takes place “on the wing” as the birds fly together. The pair engages in spectacular high soaring, power dives, and loop-the-loops. While we will not have the chance to see these flights on the National Aviary’s Nest Cam, we will be able to see various courtship behaviors at the nest scrape, which are a very important feature of Peregrine pair bonding.
The male begins performing displays on the nest ledge earlier in the season than the female. While keeping an eye on the sky, he bows and calls “eee-chup” repeatedly (more urgently if he spots the female flying past), rocking side-to-side on his feet. If female flies in and joins him at the scrape, then the two will face one another, bow, and excitedly “eee-chup” together. The purpose of all of this, as with all avian courtship behavior, is to synchronize and stimulate the pair’s breeding condition—because, in nature timing is everything, and the window of opportunity to breed will not be open for very long.
February 1, 2022: Welcome to the start of the nesting season! Morela and Ecco have returned to the Cathedral of Learning and have been making frequent visits to the nest box. The pair have been observed engaging in courtship behaviors like bowing at the nest. Keep an eye on the camera over the next several weeks as courtship intensifies!
For more news about all of Pittsburgh’s Peregrine Falcons, visit Outside My Window, Kate St. John’s Bird Blog.
The History of Peregrines at Pitt
2002 – Spring 2015: The Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh has hosted a pair of Peregrine Falcons since 2002, when “Dorothy” began nesting here with a tiercel (male falcon) named “Erie.” In the fall of 2007, after Erie disappeared, another male (“Erie II”, or “E2”) took over. Dorothy fledged a total of 43 chicks, 22 with Erie and another 21 with E2. She disappeared in the fall of 2015 at age 16, which is very old for a Peregrine Falcon.
Fall 2015 –2019: In November 2015 a new female, “Hope,” arrived at the Cathedral of Learning from her former nest site at the Tarentum Bridge (about 12 miles away) where she had fledged at least four young. Hope’s initial mate was E2, succeeded by “Terzo” when E2 died in March 2016. Hope nested at the Cathedral of Learning for four seasons, 2016 through 2019, during which time she displayed aggression toward her chicks. Hope’s behavior was very unusual. She raised 8 offspring to fledging age, out of 16 total hatchings. We, and the experts we have consulted, have no explanation for Hope’s highly unusual behavior.
Fall 2019 – present: In September 2019 a new unbanded female Peregrine arrived at the Cathedral of Learning, named Morela (Polish for “apricot”) for the distinctive apricot-colored wash on her chest and face that makes her recognizable on camera. Because she is unbanded, we don’t know where she came from. Morela and Ecco raised their first clutch, fledging four chicks in 2021.
Many thanks to our partners: University of Pittsburgh, M&P Security Solutions, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
More About Peregrine Falcons
Peregrine Falcons are the world’s fastest animal, diving at speeds of over 200 miles per hour! These fierce birds of prey grow quickly, too. Peregrine Falcons nest on cliffs or ledges of tall buildings (like University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning) where they lay a group of 2 to 5 eggs (called a “clutch”), in a bowl-shaped depression in gravel.
The female Peregrine incubates the eggs for about a month, sitting on them to keep them warm, and when the chicks hatch, they are small, nearly featherless, and very dependent on their parents. But, they mature very quickly, and within a week of hatching they nearly double their size! Within a month, they go from having soft, downy white feathers to dark brown feathers, or plumage. By around 5 weeks old, they are ready to fledge the nest! Peregrine Falcons stay with their parents through the beginning of summer, learning to hunt and navigate their world.
The next time you are out on a walk, look for Peregrine Falcons on the ledges of tall buildings or under the bridges along Pittsburgh’s three rivers!
Questions about Peregrine Falcons and other wild birds? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.