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Falcons return to Spartan Stadium to nest for the third year in a row

peregrine falcon perched on the Spartan Stadium nesting box
Sophia Saliby

Updated March 27, 2024 at 7:55 a.m. ET

Peregrine falcons are listed as a threatened species in the state, but there are several pairs of the birds in the Capital Region that have made their homes in not-so-natural spaces.

Like two of the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s power plants. For the third year in a row, a pair of falcons is preparing to nest at Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium. 

Over the past few weeks, a pair of peregrine falcons has been seen around MSU’s campus. 

Just recently, the two birds have started stopping by the nesting box high up on Spartan Stadium and they haven’t been quiet about it. 

female falcon in the MSU nesting box, standing over an egg
Sophia Saliby
The female falcon laid her first egg of 2024 in the early hours of the morning on March 27.

Mostly, they’ve just been perching and examining the gravel at the bottom of their box. And on Wednesday morning, the female laid her first egg of the year. She'll continue to lay a few more over the next few days and then incubate them.

"I think oftentimes, the public doesn't really recognize how much wildlife is really in your own backyard," said Drew Lacommare, president of the MSU Fisheries and Wildlife Club.

The student group has led the peregrine falcon project at the school and helped install the nesting box two years ago. 

"This project is really important for their ecology because it gives them a safe place to nest every year," Lacommare said. "They know they can come back and nest, and it'll be safe, their babies will be safe."

Peregrine falcons typically nest on cliff edges on rocks, so the box is supposed to mimic that environment. 

"It's just a big wooden box, a little bit like a birdhouse with no front, so they can come in and out on their own," Lacommare said.

Michigan's peregrine falcon population was also completely wiped out in the 20th century due to the use of DDT and other chemicals. A collaboration between several Midwestern states led to their reintroduction in the 1980s. That's when the falcons started to be introduced to nesting in more urban environments.

"It was a very experimental thing to try to put birds in cityscapes because nobody knew if they would actually take to cities, but everybody said, 'Well, a tall building kind of looks like a cliff, maybe it'll work.' And it's worked really, really, really well," said Karen Cleveland, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.

As of last year, there were at least 23 active nesting sites for peregrines in Michigan. The number may seem low, but Cleveland notes the birds are fairly territorial and what the MSU falcons are doing now is typical for a pair returning to their nesting site.

"A nest is basically crib," she said. "It's not a home, it's a crib. And so, in the same way as if you've got a family and somebody in the family is pregnant, everybody's going to be getting all like nesting behavior type activities going on if we have to get ready for the baby."

Cleveland says the falcons are not necessarily courting when they call to another or share food, but rather, they're reaffirming their pair bond. You might also see them get on their stomachs and use their leg to kick back rocks to form a divot in the gravel in their box. Cleveland says it's a natural behavior of the birds to form what's called a scrape.

"They nest on these bare rocky surfaces. They basically try to make a little cup that will keep the eggs from rolling off."

Two peregrine falcons in the Spartan Stadium nesting box
Sophia Saliby
While peregrine falcons don't mate for life, they do often have long-term pairings with partners as long as they continue to successfully hatch chicks and aren't challenged by younger birds.

Pickles on the mend

Lacommare is almost positive the birds hanging out around the nesting box this year are Apollo and Freyja. The MSU falcons successfully raised chicks in 2022and 2023, three the first year and four in the second.  

That includes a chick given the name Pickles by elementary school students. He can’t live in the wild because he was injured in a car accident last year just as he was starting to leave the nest.

"He had pretty severe damage in his shoulder that they needed to do surgery," Howell Nature Center Curator of Wildlife Care and Education Jen Ewing explained.

"His air sac was ruptured which they were able to repair, which usually, that's a very intense surgery to even do those."

small peregrine falcon in an animal carrier lined with newspaper and towels with medical gauze on its shoulder
MSU Fisheries and Wildlife Club
Pickles received care at two wildlife rehabilitation centers before being moved to the Howell Nature Center.

Pickles was first sent to Wildside Rehabilitation Center in Eaton Rapids before getting moved to a raptor sanctuary in Grand Traverse County. He eventually ended up in Howell where Ewing has become his primary caretaker. 

"I jokingly say that he's like a puppy sometimes. He just loves anything I throw at him," Ewing said. "Most raptors don't even like enrichment. And he will interact with toys and newspaper and all sorts of things that I give him."

After his initial surgery and recovery, the wildlife rehabbers thought he wouldn’t be able to fly again, but Pickles surprised them. 

"One day he just started to fly, and so, they were really excited about that because we can still, you know, train those behaviors and allow him to do a little bit of flight in controlled settings where he can't get hurt or injured," Ewing said.

Even though he can fly, Ewing says Pickles can’t get up to the 200 mile an hour dive speed that healthy falcons need to catch prey, so he can’t be released. Instead, he’s being trained to be an ambassador for his species for educational events. That training involves a lot of food. 

"He has different food items that he's more motivated for than others, so quail, which is a bird is obviously probably his favorite food to work for. "

Ewing works routinely with Pickles at least once a day, getting him used to flying to her glove and being touched for health checks.

Pickles perched on a glove
Jen Ewing
Howell Nature Center
Pickles was moved to the Howell Nature Center in November of 2023.

"He at least knows when I'm going to walk in every morning when I go train with him. I say 'Good morning, Pickles.' And usually he flies down to the perch that we work on, and he's ready to go. "

Ewing says she’s aiming to move Pickles into the nature center’s space for raptors by the end of the summer, so he can start to get acclimated to being around people and other animals.

Drew Lacommare with the MSU wildlife club says finding out the bird got hurt was disappointing, but Pickles couldn’t have ended up at a better center. 

"He's in a place that I know really well, the people, they're great, and he's living the happiest life he can despite his injury," Lacommare said.

As for MSU’s falcons, now that the female is starting to lay eggs, in about a month's time, there should be some new fluffy chicks growing up at Spartan Stadium. 

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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