How Hamiltonians help the falcons shacked up at the Sheraton

For more than 25 years, peregrines have nested on a ledge 18 floors up on a downtown hotel. FalconWatch keeps a close eye on them — and you can, too
By Justin Chandler - Published on Aug 04, 2021
FalconWatch observes and protects birds nesting in downtown Hamilton. (Hamilton Community Peregrine Project)

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HAMILTON — Around 4:30 p.m. on June 12, 2020, Griffin fell from Hamilton's Standard Life Centre, a 14-storey office building in the middle of downtown. The young peregrine falcon, who was still learning to fly, got up and tried to take flight but made it only to a nearby patio. He then took off, crashed into the nearby Robert Thomson Building, and fell to the ground. Fortunately for the raptor, he wasn't alone. Members of the Hamilton FalconWatch had seen Griffin go down and were soon there to take him to safety.

Since at least 1995, falcons have nested on a ledge 18 floors up on the south face of the Sheraton Hotel in Hamilton, next door to the Standard Life Centre. Throughout that time, FalconWatch (formally, the Hamilton Community Peregrine Project) has observed and protected the birds who’ve nested there. The mostly volunteer group bands chicks for identification, tracks the birds’ comings and goings, aids those learning to fly — and helps those in distress.

Peregrine falcons live about 15 years, growing to the size of a crow and boasting a one-metre wingspan. Considered the fastest animals on Earth, they are capable of surpassing 300 kilometres per hour when they dive. Previously endangered due to the use of DDT pesticides, Ontario now considers the distinctively coloured bird of prey a species of “special concern,” meaning it lives in the wild and isn’t threatened but could be at risk of becoming endangered again. Some peregrine falcons have adapted to urban living, which has its ups and downs: tasty pigeons and tall perches are plentiful, but so are wind tunnels and obstacles. As a defence mechanism, young peregrines will stop moving when they feel threatened, but on busy city streets, that can prove deadly. According to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, 70 per cent of young peregrines do not live more than a year. It was an awareness of the risks that falcon chicks in Hamilton face that inspired the formation of the local falcon watch.

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A falcon feeds her chicks
Lily feeds her chicks Griffin and Whitehern in April 2020. (Hamilton Community Peregrine Project)

Twenty-five years ago, founding watch member Mike Street says, he wasn’t aware of any similar groups dedicated to falcons: “We were the guinea pigs.” After it was discovered that two falcons (later named Mom and Dad) were nesting at the hotel, Street — who was then leading the Niagara Peninsula Hawk Watch — attended a meeting with the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Ministry of Natural Resources, and members of the Hamilton Naturalists’ Club. They decided to recruit volunteers to start the falcon watch, which would be managed by the club, a non-profit dedicated to wildlife conservation and study. Today, the group includes about 30 active volunteers.

One of the ways it works to protect falcons is through banding, a process by which identifying markers are placed around chicks’ legs so that their movements can be tracked.

But before the birds can be banded, volunteers have to reach them: At the Sheraton nest, hotel staff take a crew up to the roof. Then a climber scales down to the nest and takes the chicks into the hotel, while another climber stays out on the ledge to distract the parents, who might abandon the chicks if they notice the nest is empty. Sometimes, distracting the parents during banding involves fending off aerial attacks. (According to Sheraton manager Colin Watson, hotel workers have encountered similar challenges: “We have to work around their existence. If the birds are sitting on the nest and raising a clutch, you do not try to clean windows at that time of year, because they will get very aggressive toward the guys hanging off the building.”)

Climbers John Millar and Chris Phinney have worked with FalconWatch for about 25 and 10 years, respectively, and take turns being the one on the ledge. Phinney, who says he was “literally roped into it” by Millar, has been struck by protective birds and still has the scars to prove it. Millar, a rock-climbing instructor, notes that the two wear long sleeves and helmets to guard themselves from talons. “For the most part, they’re glancing blows,” he says. Millar, who works with the Toronto-based Canadian Peregrine Foundation and performs rescues, says protecting the birds — and having the stories to share — has kept him motivated. “It's a way to give back to nature and hopefully help promote the recovery of the species,” Phinney says. 

A diagram of the view from the falcons' nest
A diagram by the Hamilton Falcon Watch maps out what can be seen by the camera at the falcon nest. (Hamilton Community Peregrine Project)

When the chicks enter the hotel, Anne Yagi takes over. She’s helped with the banding for 25 years, first as a staffer with the Ministry of Natural Resources and, since 2016, as an environmental consultant. (The ministry tells TVO.org that, because peregrine falcons are no longer considered endangered, authorizing people such as Yagi to assist with banding now constitutes its only involvement in this effort.) “It's an amazing group; they're well organized, and consideration for the birds is on the top of their list,” says Yagi.

Each chick gets one band per leg — a black one to show they’re from Canada (this signals to American falconers that they can’t legally capture the birds if they go south during migration) and a silver band for a migratory program that the United States administers. Each has an ID number so the birds can be tracked throughout Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Yagi determines the birds’ weight, age, and sex and then sends the information to the Canadian Wildlife Service and its U.S. counterparts.

But the banding is by no means the end of FalconWatch’s involvement. As chicks can run into trouble when learning to fly, the group organizes “feet on the street” shifts: two coordinators take six-hour shifts during the week, and volunteers work in two-hour shifts from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, monitoring where chicks go and calling in help if needed. Co-organizer Christa Sanders, who joined the group about four years ago on her sister’s recommendation, started out with a feet-on-the-street stint: “I did the one shift, and I was addicted,” she says. Such shifts start when the birds begin to fly, at around five weeks, and last until a hatchling is able to survive on its own, which is at roughly nine to 12 weeks. Co-organizer Pat Baker says that prospective FalconWatch members should know “it's not difficult” to be a volunteer: “You don't have to be an avid birder or anything. You just have to have an interest in nature.”

A falcon lands on a ledge
The FalconWatch website carries a live feed of the birds. (Hamilton Community Peregrine Project)

If volunteer monitors see falcons in need, they call the watch’s rescue team, which brings equipment such as gloves, antiseptic, and large towels used to herd and cover the birds. They also bring a box the peregrine can be placed in so that it won’t hurt itself. Uninjured birds are taken back up to the nest, and injured birds are brought to the Owl Foundation in Vineland, in Niagara Region, for veterinary care. Griffin, for example, stayed at the Owl Foundation for a week recovering from bruising before being released in Hamilton. Between 1994 and 2020, 64 chicks fledged at the Sheraton nest. FalconWatch conducts an average one rescue per year — and it estimates it has saved the lives of about a dozen peregrines.

“One peregrine saved, for a species in recovery, can make a huge difference. And it has,” says Mark Nash, director of the non-profit Canadian Peregrine Foundation. Across Ontario, there are now about a dozen active falcon watches — or fledge watches, as they’re often called — affiliated with the foundation (Hamilton’s is independent). Nash recalls getting a phone call from Chicago asking for help identifying a falcon by its band. It turned out the bird had come from Etobicoke, where it had been saved a whopping six times by volunteers in a fledge watch there. The foundation can trace the family trees of falcons across North America back to birds protected by Ontario watch programs, Nash says, which demonstrates that “the average Joe can do something to help, and you can teach people to help.” What’s more, he adds, banding records show that urban falcons outproduce falcons that live in the wild — meaning that having peregrines well-suited to both wild and urban environments is good for the long-term survival of the species.

Because there were no new chicks in Hamilton this year — while Lily, the resident female, has fledged six chicks since 2016, her eggs failed to hatch — there haven’t been any feet-on-the-street shifts. But that doesn’t mean that volunteers and others haven’t been keeping a close eye on the birds. A camera stationed in the nest sends a feed to the hotel guests, volunteers, and the public. "I'm not sure [the nest] is going to hit the top-10 things in Ontario anytime soon,” Watson says. “But because it has been around now for over 20 years, there are people who do know the story who come back at that same time yearly. It does become something that they look for and see."

Griffin is released on the morning of June 21, 2020 following treatment at the Owl Foundation after a fall
Griffin is released in June 2020 following treatment at the Owl Foundation. (Hamilton Community Peregrine Project)

The feed is live on the FalconWatch website — and is a topic of great interest and discussion in the organization’s Facebook group, which tracks the birds currently in residence and their avian drama. At the beginning of this year, the Sheraton was home to Lily and to Ossie, a male. In early May, though, Ossie disappeared and was replaced at the nest by Judson, a falcon from New York State who happens to be the grandson of Madame X, the closest thing Hamilton has to falcon royalty: in the time between 2001 and her disappearance in 2013, Madame X fledged 40 chicks. The group assumes Judson beat Ossie in a battle over territory, but, as there were reports of a third falcon still in the area as recently as late June, it’s not yet known whether he’s truly gone. For a time, Lily didn’t allow Judson to get too close, but he kept coming back, and she now seems reconciled.

According to Charles Gregory, who runs both the website and the Facebook group, more people have been active in the group during COVID-19. “The pandemic has given each member more ‘time on their hands’ to interact online,” he tells TVO.org via email. “The level of ‘interest’ remains the same. There is just more ‘opportunity’ to be involved and ask questions.”

Although Street recently left FalconWatch after moving to Kanata, he still checks in with the Hamilton birds via video. “The falcon watch comes down to keeping an eye on the birds and enjoying birds,” he says. “And then, of course, the successful fledging of all the chicks — that's the reward for doing this.”

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