Peregrine falcons nested on the Francis Scott Key Bridge for close to 40 years

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed after being hit by a ship in March, a home and birth place for peregrine falcons for almost four decades was lost.

“The peregrine falcon pair that was located at Francis Scott Key Bridge no longer has a viable nesting location since the collapse in late March,” according to a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). “The site had been occupied annually for 38 years.”

The collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

These birds mate for life, however if one dies or is made to leave by a competitor, the remaining bird will take on a new partner – this is how a nest site can be active for years and beyond the lifespan of one or two birds.

Adult Peregrine falcon with eggs at the Francis Scott Key Bridge in 2010. Photo by Craig Koppie, USFWS.

The USFWS believes the same was the case this year.

“Based on life cycle and timing, it is believed that eggs may have been laid and lost but there is no way to confirm this,” according to the USFWS.

Information submitted to eBird by bird watchers indicates peregrine falcons were seen on and near the bridge in March.

The bridge fell March 26.

According to the USFWS, “In addition to the pair at the bridge, there are four known nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in the Greater Baltimore area.”

The Maryland-DC Breeding Bird Atlas indicates the peregrine nest nearest to the one that was on the bridge is at a commercial office building at 100 Light Street in downtown BaltimoreChesapeake Conservancy has a web camera aimed at it.

According to Jody Couser, senior vice president of communications for Chesapeake Conservancy, the first egg in that nest this year was laid February 27.

In the past few weeks, both of the adult falcons have been tending to their brood at the Light Street nest, according to Couser.

I’s unknown what happened to the adult falcons if they were on the bridge at the time of collapse – some adult birds of prey who’ve lost their nests when trees fell due to wind/bad weather have survived by flying away.

On April 8, an adult peregrine falcon was found alive in Bear Creek, not far from the Key Bridge. It was rescued by crew members aboard a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vessel and taken to Owl Moon Raptor Center by Nancy McDonald, a volunteer bird of prey rescuer.

The bird had two, puncture wounds with one deeper than the other, according to Suzanne Shoemaker, executive director of Owl Moon. She said it’s impossible to know what caused those injuries – the falcon is not federally banded, which could’ve helped to identify where it was born and/or banded.

Whether the injured falcon nested on the Francis Scott Key Bridge or shares any history with those that did will remain a mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is the history made by the peregrine falcons at the Key Bridge.

“The nest site on the southernmost anchor pier cap that supported the bridge over the Patapsco River channel was the preferred nesting location on the bridge,” according to USFWS. “A nesting pair was first observed in 1986 and the pair was documented through 2004. During that period, 43 eggs had been laid producing 10 chicks.”

Peregrine falcon chicks in Delaware in 2013. Photo by Craig Koppie, USFWS.

Because of the widespread use of a pesticide known as DDT, eggs of many types of birds, including peregrine falcons, became unviable and chicks weren’t hatching. Although DDT was banned in 1972, it took years for populations of some species of birds, which were on the brink of extinction, to bounce back.

Other reasons for nest failure include bad weather, poisoning, other health issues, human interference and abandonment of nests by the birds.

Peregrine falcons were removed from the the endangered species list in 1999 – those that nested and hatched on the Francis Scott Key Bridge were among many across the United States that played a role in the recovery of their species.

The peregrine falcon at Owl Moon Raptor Center will hopefully be seeing freedom again in the very near future.

“He’s doing fine – his wound is not closed over, but close enough that we can consider releasing maybe later this week,” said Shoemaker. “It depends on flight testing him – we always flight test before we release to make sure they’re flying well.”

Donna L. Cole is an award-winning investigative and multimedia reporter. She’s also a volunteer bird of prey rescuer for Owl Moon Raptor Center.

Six people were killed in the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse. Donations to the families impacted by the collapse can be made here – https://www.baltimorecivicfund.org/key-bridge-response-fund

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