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Bridge Dwellers

Wildlife officials conduct
joint effort to protect falcons

Peregrine falcon nesting box
to be returned to bridge for spring season

By Tess Worrell
Contributing Writer

(January 2013) – From traffic flow to impact on local businesses to design, experts planning the Milton-Madison Bridge wrestled with balancing the variety of interests involved to achieve solutions that worked for everyone – including the peregrine falcons nesting below the road deck.

Falcons

Photo courtesy of the Ky. Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

A peregrine falcon and her chicks
spent last spring and summer
under the Milton-Madison Bridge
until the chicks became old
enough to fly away.

About 10 years ago, a pair of these protected birds chose the bridge for their nesting site, raising a brood of chicks each year since. Numerous federal and state laws protect not only the birds but their nests. So how were engineers supposed to construct a bridge near the nesting site then destroy the bridge containing the current nesting site, all without disturbing the birds?
Kate Heyden, avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, credits the cooperation between agencies and construction companies with accomplishing most of these goals, with an effort that has drawn attention nationwide.
“Throughout this project, work has gone into keeping the pair safe. The falcons are doing incredibly well all because of the generous folks who care enough to care for them,” says Heyden.
She notes that the once endangered peregrine falcons now live primarily in urban areas, particularly seeking high places along rivers because this mimics the traditional cliff dwellings of the birds. Thus, bridges have become a favored nesting spot.
“As other communities anticipate bridge construction, they are looking to this project as an example of how bridge building can include the required protection for the birds,” says Heyden.
Throughout the summer’s construction, Heyden and other wildlife experts monitored the well-being of the pair and their chicks from the shore via a spotting scope. Constant communication between all those involved kept wildlife officials informed as to the progress of the construction with plenty of opportunity for input on protecting the birds. Timing and placement of blasting, movement of crews, and other details were all coordinated, with Heyden monitoring the impact on the birds at each stage. The extra effort seems to have paid off.
“The birds have continued to thrive throughout the process,” says Heyden.
They were able to successfully raise three chicks this summer in the midst of heavy construction. The pair seems content to stay in the area as they are still frequently spotted.
To ensure more chicks in the coming year, Heyden built a nesting box identical to the box the pair has used for the past several years. She recently dropped it by Walsh Construction Co, which is building the new bridge.
“They have graciously offered to install it on the new bridge,” says Heyden. “We hope to install it soon so that the pair get used to it before they nest in the spring.”
Even the placement of the new box had to be carefully considered. “We wanted to make sure the box would appeal to the falcons. They like protected areas and to be out of the way of traffic or any kind of disturbance.”
Avoiding activity thus became a prime consideration. Further, experts had to place the nest out of the way of blasting charges, which will be used when demolishing the old bridge. Likewise, everyone agreed placement should avoid the pier caps since crews will continue to work on those for the foreseeable future. Once the box is placed, everyone will wait to see whether the pair accepts the choice.
All those involved fervently hope the pair does choose to stay and nest in the area both for the protection of this pair and for the protection of the species. In the early 1960s, experts discovered that DDT, a widely used pesticide ingested by meat and fish eating falcons, caused falcon eggs to have such thin shells the chicks were crushed in the nest by the incubating adults. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, by 1968 falcons were completely eradicated east of the Mississippi River. Reintroduction of captive bred falcons began in Kentucky in 1997. By 2001 there were four nesting pairs. Now there are 13, all from natural reproduction.
“Interestingly, the male of this pair is the last captive-bred bird released. He’s still going strong at age 15, which is the maximum life expectancy for these birds. He’s the oldest falcon in Kentucky,” says Heyden.
Heyden said she looks forward to seeing whether the pair accepts the new box and then watching them raise the next generation of falcons. Though still heavily protected, falcons have been removed from the Endangered Species list. Heyden credits this outcome with cooperation of groups such as those that have come together for the bridge project.
“This project, and this pair in particular with the work that has gone into keeping them safe, demonstrates how falcons have succeeded in doing so well. There are many new falcons in this world because of this kind of cooperation,” says Heyden. Heyden encourages those interested to follow the progress of the birds in the spring. “They are easy to spot from the bank of the river with binoculars and are very entertaining to watch.”
The bridge project’s official website, www.MiltonMadisonBridge.com, also offers frequent updates on the progress of the birds.

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