published Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Falcons released near Rock City

“Chatty,” the second of two peregrine falcons released, flies for the first time after being released from a hacking station on the bluff behind Bill Chapin's residence, CEO of See Rock City Inc., on Lookout Mountain early Monday morning.
“Chatty,” the second of two peregrine falcons released, flies for the first time after being released from a hacking station on the bluff behind Bill Chapin's residence, CEO of See Rock City Inc., on Lookout Mountain early Monday morning.
Photo by Dan Henry.
  • Peregrine falcons released
    Rock City, in partnership with S.O.A.R. (Save Our American Raptors), released two peregrine falcons Monday. The birds will be tracked through GPS monitoring devices and will hopefully come back to nest in the Chattanooga region.

The rising sun warmed the Lookout Mountain brow with a rosy haze Monday when the first of two captive-bred, 6-week-old peregrine falcons flew the coop to freedom.

Lookout, a fledgling, flew from the hacking station just before 6:32 a.m.

His sibling, Chatty, took a bit longer, flapping his wings over and over for his first flight. Just before 8 a.m., he hopped from the hacking box to the rock below and kept exercising his wings while jumping up and down on the bluff behind Bill Chapin’s home near Rock City.

“That’s really what we want to see,” said falconer and bird specialist John Stokes. “We want them to spend some time getting to know the area. Imprint it. What we hope is that they’ll come back here to nest.”

Finally, after another 10 minutes of warm-up on the rocks, Chatty launched, and he made it worth the morning’s wait.

He played to his audience of bird enthusiasts and journalists, flying in a wide circle over the valley directly in front of them. Then he sailed back toward the hacking station and landed just out of sight in a nearby tree.

Lookout, too, rested in the woods nearby.

“They’re like kids with their first bicycle,” said Mark Ross, a bird enthusiast who drove from Florida to watch the event.

Last week, another brother falcon, Bruce, was released from a hacking station atop the First Tennessee Bank in Chattanooga. To birders’ delight, Bruce has been hanging around the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters buildings on Cameron Hill.

“The ones that hang around the longest have the most chance of success at coming back,” Stokes said.

Falconers and hacking

Often reported to be the fastest birds in the world, peregrine falcons can achieve speeds of more than 200 mph when stooping — dropping on prey with their wings closed, say Stokes and Dale Kernahan, a husband-and-wife team who operate Save Our American Raptors, a nonprofit birds of prey environmental education organization they call SOAR.

When not targeting small and medium-sized birds such as pigeons and starlings, the peregrine’s average cruising flight speed is 24 to 33 mph.

Peregrines virtually were eradicated from eastern North America by pesticide poisoning in the mid-20th century. After significant recovery efforts, the falcons have rebounded and now are a regular sight in many large cities and coastal habitats in the West.

To help restore the falcons, local and eastern birders have adapted the centuries-old tactics of falconry and hacking.

Falconry was an ancient hunting sport in which men trained predator birds to hunt for them. They trained the birds by removing the baby falcons from a nest as soon as they could feed themselves, but before they could fly.

The term “hacking” comes from an old English word for a type of wagon, called a hack, that falconers of the Elizabethan era hauled to the top of a hill before putting the young flightless falcons inside. The trainers delivered food to the wagon every day, but left the falcons free to come and go as they pleased.

Over a period of several weeks, the young peregrines developed muscle tone and experience in flight and hunting ability, even as they were being tamed to the food deliverer.

As soon as the falcons began to capture birds on their own, the ancient falconers retrapped them and kept them for hunting.

Now modern-day falconers have adapted the technique to give falcons a “soft release” into the wild as the birds gradually gain full independence.

Quail or hamsters are dropped into today’s hacking boxes through a tube so the birds don’t see or associate people with the food. After they fledge, the birds will return for occasional feedings at the hacking station until their hunting skills allow them to survive on their own.

Tracking the birds

Hatched in captivity in Minnesota, Bruce, Lookout and Chatty are the sixth, seventh and eighth peregrines released in the Chattanooga area in recent years. Most of the releases have been through the partnership of SOAR and Chapin’s Rock City Gardens.

So far, no one knows of the other five falcons released at Rock City — Garnet, Frieda, Rocky, Zenith and Ted — returning to settle. But no one has stopped hoping.

Peregrines, by nature, are wanderers, Stokes said. In fact, the word peregrine means wanderer or pilgrim.

But it was a hacked peregrine from Cloudland Canyon in Georgia that roosted with a mate on the railroad bridge near Chickamauga Dam for more than a decade.

Roi, as the male came to be known, flew into a wall downtown and broke a wing in 2007.

Although University of Tennessee veterinarians in Knoxville tried to save him, the falcon was found dead in his cage one morning.

When he was found with the broken wing, he wore a leg band indicating he had been hacked by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on July 22, 1993.

Because a local birding club had met at the dam almost daily over the years to watch and document birds — especially Roi and his four mates and 17 chicks — Roi is thought to be the best-documented peregrine falcon in history.

Kernahan hopes Lookout soon will knock on Roi’s “most documented” door, thanks to a state-of-the-art tracking device he wears.

Lookout carries a backpack with a solar satellite transmitter, equipped with a built-in global positioning system. The gear alone costs $4,000.

“This will be the first time this solar tracking has been applied to a peregrine falcon in the South,” Kernahan said. “Up in the Arctic, these birds are known to travel all the way down to Colombia, but there’s never been a study done before on a Southern peregrine falcon. That’s an exciting piece of this.”

Though it sounds heavy, the solar satellite transmitter weighs only 22 grams.

Kernahan will be able to track him through readings from satellite telemetry. Already Stokes and Kernahan are blogging almost daily about Bruce, who like Chatty, wears a regular radio transmitter that will send signals locally for about two months.

When the readings begin on Lookout, there could be about three years of travel mapping to keep up with. That, too, will be added to SOAR’s website so the public sees Lookout’s whereabouts, Kernahan said.

“We want to make people more aware of these great birds,” she said.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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