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Goodbye, Dorothy the falcon - The Pitt News

The Pitt News

Goodbye, Dorothy the falcon

Dorothy%2C+Pitt%27s+peregrine+falcon%2C+passed+away+over+the+weekend.+
Dorothy, Pitt's peregrine falcon, passed away over the weekend.

Dorothy, Pitt's peregrine falcon, passed away over the weekend.

Dorothy, Pitt's peregrine falcon, passed away over the weekend.

By Mark Pesto / Senior Staff Writer

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Dorothy, a peregrine falcon, caught the city’s attention when it lost sight of her wings threading through the clouds above the Cathedral of Learning in November.

Now, a month later, the skies are still bare.

Through a webcam focused on her nest, Pitt students could watch Dorothy, the female half of a couple of peregrine falcons that have claimed Pitt as their home since 2001.  Here, she raised three to five fledglings each year, a total of 43 birds, and spent her life raising her young and hunting for prey on the ground below.

Sometime after Nov. 2, however, Dorothy disappeared from their nest on the 40th-floor ledge of the Cathedral.

Though no one has found her body, Pittsburgh’s leading birdwatchers have concluded that Dorothy likely died of age-related causes. Although wild peregrines live an average of 12 years, the venerable Dorothy was almost 17.

“[Dorothy] was dynamic, energetic, fierce and powerful,” Kate St. John, a Pittsburgh birdwatcher and former WQED director of information technology, wrote on her blog. “From the time I met her in 2001 until her egg bound spring of 2014, she had fire in her eyes.” 

After her presumed passing, St. John posted a video tribute to Dorothy on her blog, Outside my Window.

“I was happy to put photos of her at her best,” St. John said.

According to Art McMorris, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s peregrine falcon coordinator, Dorothy had been showing signs of old age for several years.

Peter Bell, a Pitt chemistry professor and creator of a Facebook fan page for Dorothy and E2, Dorothy’s most recent male partner, said Dorothy’s advanced age kept her from laying healthy eggs. In the spring of 2013, only two of her five eggs hatched. One of the chicks had obvious neurological issues and died within a week, while the other was hit by a car on Forbes Avenue the following June.

In 2014, Dorothy became egg bound, a dangerous health problem in which female birds produce eggs but can’t lay them. Although the condition proved temporary, the eggs had shattered before she laid them, and Dorothy did not successfully nest that year. This year, although she laid four eggs, only one hatched — and that chick, which again had a neurological impairment, died soon afterward.

Dorothy’s energy and spirit was not unlike that of other peregrine falcons — which swoop down to catch their prey at speeds of 200 miles per hour and have wings that stretch as long as 3.6 feet, according to National Geographic.

In 1972, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared peregrine falcon’s an endangered species, and parts of Pennsylvania became one of the “reintroduction sites” in the ’70s. Efforts to protect and recover the falcons were so successful that by 1999 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed peregrine falcons from the endangered species list, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission website.

Although peregrine falcons are not nationally recognized as endangered, the Pennsylvania Game Commission still lists them as such. In 2013, there were 40 known nests in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission website. But pesticides and close association with human structures threaten the peregrine population’s growth.

On Nov. 30, the National Aviary — an independent, nonprofit, indoor zoo dedicated to birds — again caught snapshots with their motion sensitive cameras of peregrine activity at the nest site on the Cathedral. Viewers could see E2 performing courting flights with a female peregrine.

Using the camera’s images of leg bands that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed on the birds at birth, St. John confirmed that the new female wasn’t Dorothy.

But E2’s new partner, Hope, isn’t a stranger to the Pittsburgh area. Since 2010, she had nested at the George D. Stuart Bridge in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, 22 miles northeast of Downtown.

“We’re all very excited to have a healthy female falcon at the site again,” Bell said.

Although peregrines will often fight for mates and nesting space, St. John said no one saw a fight or a challenge throughout the month of November, leading her to conclude that Dorothy had died or departed before Hope moved in.

St. John offered several possible explanations for Hope’s move from Tarentum to Oakland, including competition for nesting sites from bald eagles. St. John added that Hope most likely struggled to find a mate at the George D. Stuart Bridge. Cue E2, who McMorris said was actively soliciting a new mate after Dorothy’s death.

According to St. John, nesting peregrines prefer the Cathedral of Learning because it looks like a sheer cliff —their preferred natural habitat — and because the Pitt administration protects them from intruders. Because peregrines are sensitive to intruders, St. John said anyone who tried to track Hope down from inside the Cathedral would make her feel harassed.

“People should not try to find her in the building,” St. John said.

Bell also expressed concern that, during nesting season next spring, activity inside the Cathedral could frighten Hope away — who, unlike Dorothy, isn’t accustomed to human activity near her nest.

“Hope might say, ‘Whoa! This isn’t safe! I don’t want to raise kids here!’” Bell said.

Pitt spokesperson John Fedele said although Pitt doesn’t have an official policy regarding the Cathedral falcons, the University tightly controls access to the 40th-floor room through which the nest is accessible.

It’s far too early to tell whether Hope will accept E2 as a mate and move to the Cathedral on a permanent basis, McMorris said. Hope will reveal her decision next March or April when she lays her next set of eggs.

“I don’t think she knows yet,” McMorris said. “And if she doesn’t know, we don’t know.”

But Bell is optimistic about Hope’s chances at the Cathedral, as construction has disrupted the other prime nesting site within the city: Downtown’s Gulf Tower.

“I think she will [stay],” Bell said. “We like to say that this is the ‘Taj Mahal’ of falcon nesting sites.”

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Goodbye, Dorothy the falcon