Indiana State University Newsroom

Three falcon chicks tagged at Statesman Towers

May 31, 2012

Two state biologists donned hard hats, jackets and gloves Thursday (May 31) and ventured onto the roof of a stairwell atop the 15-story Statesman Towers complex at Indiana State University.

A pair of adult peregrine falcons swooped nearby in the air and squawked their displeasure as the humans walked past the birds' nest and gathered three falcon chicks up in their hands. The chicks, though only about 4 weeks old, had already begun to explore their surroundings.

The humans meant no harm to the chicks that hatched during the first week of May. They simply wanted to place bands around their legs to aid in identifying the birds so biologists can continue to monitor the Midwestern resurgence of a bird of prey that just decades ago was extinct in the eastern United States.

The effort was surprisingly easy, said John Castrale, a non-game biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Biologists had expressed some concern upon discovering the chicks - one male and two females whose wings have not yet fully developed - had already emerged from their nest and were walking around on the roof about 150 feet above a concrete sidewalk.

The young birds, which have already grown to 80 percent of adult size, stood or lay motionless as Castrale and his assistant, Amy Kearns, picked them up. They brought the chicks inside an electrical/mechanical room atop Indiana State's Scott College of Business to band them and draw blood samples. While the work was done out of sight of the young birds' parents, the adult falcons continued their calls of protest.

Steve Lima, professor of biology at Indiana State, cautioned a small group of observers to remain inside or, at the very least, stay near a door in case the adult birds decided to swoop down on them. After all, the falcon is a bird of prey whose beak and claws routinely pull apart the bodies of small birds and other animals that are its primary source of food. Even a six-foot tall human could be injured by a protective parent bird.

The banding and taking of blood samples went smoothly as a video camera rolled, still cameras clicked and falcons young and old shrieked. Within 30 minutes, the biologists accomplished the task and returned the chicks to the roof of the stairwell, not far from a nesting box built specifically for falcons about 10 years ago.

The humans then packed up and entered an elevator, marveling among themselves at the opportunity to be so close to such storied creatures whose curved beaks, powerful claws and wing span of up to four feet make them so different than the birds that commonly grace Midwestern backyards and parks.

"These are still pretty rare birds," Lima said. "Given the history they've had of almost going extinct in North America, it is quite a treat to have them breeding on campus where students can see them and interact with them - to hold them, in some cases - and see the banding in action. It's a pretty unique experience."

Castrale said about 20 pairs of adult peregrine falcons now call Indiana home and about 300 pairs are known to exist in the Midwest. That's quite a comeback for the birds, which were all but wiped out by DDT and other pesticides during the 1960s.

Falcons began their recovery in the early 1990s after falconers and other scientists learned to breed them in captivity and release the young into the wild, Castrale said.

"They are now off the federal endangered species list and we are considering taking them off the state list because they are doing pretty well," he said.

Lima said the three falcon chicks that hatched atop Statesman Towers are the first of their species to be born in the Wabash Valley in at least 50 years.

Falcons first began to thrive again in Indiana in larger cities such as Indianapolis, which has an abundance of tall buildings, and Gary, home to the smokestacks of steel mills and oil refineries.

While their arrival in Terre Haute was a bit longer in coming, the Indiana State campus had served as winter home to a single female falcon, known as Helga, since 1998. The parents of the new falcon chicks apparently chased Helga away when they began to nest on campus about three years ago, Lima said.

Castrale noted that he worked with Lima and others at Indiana State to install a nest box at Statesman Towers because they knew Terre Haute had the potential to serve as a good home for falcons.

"These birds look to nest on high structures. They're looking for tall buildings and smokestacks and industrial areas. They like open areas," he said. "Three years ago, a bird tried to lay an egg on a ledge here but the substrate wasn't proper and they rolled around and fell off. I'm glad to see that they're using the nest box this year."

Lima said that he and Castrale are already looking out for the ISU family of falcons as the university plans to demolish Statesman Towers in a few years.

"We're hoping to put a nest box or two up on some other buildings and see if we can get them to switch to another building." He said. "My guess is they'll find another nest box and use it if we put one up."

Photo: - One of three peregrine falcon chicks that hatched in early May on the roof of Indiana State University's Statesman Towers complex. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - John Castrale, a non-game biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, carries two falcon chicks after removing them from their nesting area atop the Scott College of Business at Indiana State University. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Stephen Butts, a building operations technician at Indiana State University, holds one of three peregrine falcon chicks that hatched in early May at the university's Statesman Towers complex. Butts discovered a falcon nest earlier this year while performing maintenance at the Scott College of Business Building and helped monitor the nest and ensure its safety. (ISU/Tony Campbell)

Photo: - Bands like this on peregrine falcon chicks from a nest at Indiana State University will help biologists track the progress of the once nearly extinct birds, which have been removed from the federal endangered species list and are doing so well in Indiana they may be also be removed from the state list. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

Contact: Steve Lima, professor of biology, Indiana State University, 812-237-3677 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or