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Montreal peregrine falcon chicks take first flights into a world full of danger

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The world is full of dangers when you're a falcon chick less than six weeks old and learning to fly -- even if you're a member of the fastest species on Earth.

This week, three falcon chicks named Hugo, Polo and Estebane started to spread their wings around the nest site on the 23rd floor of the Universite de Montreal tower, with hundreds of online viewers watching their every move.

It's a moment that's "exciting, but stressful," says Eve Belisle, who has been watching the Universite de Montreal falcons since 2007 and runs Facebook and YouTube pages dedicated to them.

"We all want to see them fly," she said in a phone interview. "But it's stressful because there's always the risk of injury."

Polo was the first falcon to take flight, on Sunday, in an attempt that began with awkward flapping but ended in a safe glide to a rooftop lower down. Hugo was even less elegant, slipping from the nest site on the tower and half-falling, half-flying to a lower perch.

Because females are bigger than males and take longer to learn to fly, Estebane will likely spend a couple more days exercising her wings before taking off.

While the chicks landed safely, their species faces tough odds of making it to adulthood, according to David Bird, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University. Bird says about 50 per cent of falcon chicks don't survive to their first birthday. Other estimates put that number at two-thirds.

In an interview, he said the periods where the falcons fledge -- or learn to fly -- are particularly dangerous, especially for city birds. An inexperienced juvenile can fly into a window, get caught in a wind gust, or flutter to the ground, where it's at risk from cars or dogs.

Even if they survive to adulthood they face other dangers, including competition with other falcons, pesticides and chemicals -- including the flame retardants used to put out forest fires -- and, lately, avian flu.

However, Bird said there's no doubt the falcons are survivors. Widespread use of pesticides such as DDT and killings by humans decimated their numbers by the 1960s and 1970s. But in the decades since DDT was banned, recovery projects have been successful, to the point where the falcons "have gone from being near extinct in eastern North America, to now almost in some eyes becoming a pest species," he said, noting some people don't like birds on their building ledges.

Part of their success, Bird said, is their ability to adapt to cities, where highrise buildings have replaced cliffs as nest sites, and where an ample pigeon population provides plentiful prey.

Urban falcons, including those at Universite de Montreal, have become ambassadors of sorts to the public in recent years thanks to livestreamed nest cameras.

Belisle helped install a nest box in 2008, where more than two dozens chicks have hatched over the years. They are filmed 24 hours a day.

This year, hundreds of people have tuned in every day to watch as the falcon chicks poked their way from their eggs, grew rapidly in size under the care of their parents, Eve and M, and had their white baby down replaced by sleek brown flight feathers.

At times, watching the nest isn't for the faint of heart.

On June 11, a fourth chick, dubbed Elyse, caught sick and died in the nest box in full sight of horrified viewers. Last year's sole chick also died.

"It's really real life, and it can be sad sometimes," said Belisle. She said the toughest part of her work comes when she has to comfort a distressed public, or answer numerous questions on Facebook or YouTube from people worried about the chicks' health.

However, she says the worry shows that people have formed a genuine connection with nature and with the birds.

"By watching, if you're someone who lives in a city and doesn't have a lot of access to nature, it's like a window that opens," she said.

Belisle said she and the other volunteers will be on the ground for the next few days, ready to rescue a chick if they end up in trouble. After that, Polo, Hugo and Estebane will spend a few weeks near the nest as they learn to hunt from their parents. Then, they'll fly off for good, or at least until they grow up and maybe pop up on a nest camera somewhere.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Wednesday, June 26, 2024.

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