Peregrine falcon chicks hatch in Melbourne as Facebook fans watch on
The peregrine falcons at 367 Collins Street in Melbourne’s CBD have hatched a new brood of chicks, to the delight of the thousands of fans who monitor the birds via a livestream video feed.
One of their eggs hatched on Sunday, with another cracking open early Monday: developments tracked on an almost minute-by-minute basis by the 4,000 members of the 367 Collins Falcon Watchers Facebook group.
“Amazing passage of play there,” wrote one appreciative member on Monday morning. “Mum got up and went away for about 90 secs, coming back with fresh pigeon for morning tea.”
The post neatly captures the experience of the livestream, which rather resembles Test match cricket, with long periods of meditative tedium interspersed with bursts of frantic excitement.
Dr Victor Hurley, the volunteer leader of the Victorian Peregrine Project, first noted falcons trying – without success – to raise eggs in a metal rain gutter on a city building back in 1991.
“They don’t build a nest,” he says. “They just dig a scrape in a sandy or gravelly ledge on a cliff face and plop their eggs in it and that’s it.”
In 1992, he placed in a wooden tray with some sand on a high-up window ledge – and since then the birds have returned annually to the office tower near the corner of Queen and Collins streets.
Initially, Hurley maintained a camera broadcasting the birds’ activities into the foyer of the building (which now hosts a falcon-themed café). Two years ago, the building management upgraded the service to an internet feed. The peregrine reality show quickly developed a cult following in Melbourne and around the world.
Peregrine falcons feed on birds and small mammals, swooping down on their prey at speeds of up to 300km/h. They are extremely territorial, with the Collins Street female (twice the size of her male partner) jealously guarding the entire city against would-be rivals.
“One year,” says Hurley, “we had our female get beaten up by another female wanting to take over the site. She had mild concussion, and we took her into care for a couple of days. When she came back she chased off and presumably killed the new female, before proceeding to go back to breeding.”
Right now, each chick is less falcon and more snowman – two white balls of fluff occasionally visible under their mother’s plumage.
Hurley hopes the two remaining eggs will hatch in coming days, in the same sequence in which they were laid.
Still, in 2018, many falcon fans were traumatised when only one of the chicks survived. The others slowly sickened and eventually died.
In drought conditions, Hurley explains, the birds become susceptible to a protozoa they contract from eating the brains of starlings and pigeons.
“For reasons I’ve never understood, all raptors really like the brain material of other birds and vertebrates. And so it’s the first thing they eat. While the adults can carry this disease, it tends not to kill them if they’re in good health. But the young are under so much metabolic and physiological stress because they double their body weight 40 times in 30 days, they seem to succumb to the impact of it.”
Hurley avoids naming particular chicks because personalising them makes their deaths so distressing. He says that nearly 20% of the dead first year falcons found within a hundred kilometres of Melbourne turn out to have been trapped, poisoned or otherwise deliberately killed.
That’s why Hurley – who signs his emails “raptorially yours” – urges admirers of the birds to recognise the importance of Melbourne’s increasingly beleaguered green spaces.
For, as well as feeding on pigeons, starlings and other urban species, the peregrines rely on parakeets from the Exhibition Gardens, grebe off Albert Park Lake, and quail from the Altona grasslands.
“In conservation, our wins tend to be temporary and our losses are always permanent. So let’s not allow things to go by easily because we lose our green areas, we lose them forever effectively. If we provide spaces for them, the birds can do the rest. Nature will figure it out if we just give her some room.”
The peregrine falcon ranked 21st in the Guardian/Bird Life Australia bird of the year poll in 2017.