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How a Seattle skyscraper became a refuge for falcons

A once-endangered bird of prey thrives in a downtown high-rise

At 55 stories, 1201 Third Avenue is the second-tallest building in Seattle, which makes it a perfect nesting spot for the world’s fastest animal. Clocking in at over 200 miles per hour in a dive or, in falconer parlance, a “stoop,” Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) have been nesting on the former Washington Mutual building since 1994. According to the Urban Raptor Conservancy (URC), the prevalence of the pesticide DDT “caused widespread decline in Peregrine populations” so dramatic that, by 1976, there was only one known pair of the birds in all of Washington State.

DDT was banned in 1972, allowing the falcon populations to recover—and the birds were pretty common sights in the 1990s. But it wasn’t until 1994 that the nest on top of what was then Wamu Tower was discovered. Now, thanks to the work of the Urban Raptor Conservancy, the falcons of 1201 Third Ave are banded as fledglings to keep a record of who they are and where they go.

Since 2015, the cause of the Peregrines has been taken to heart by the building manager, Crystal Gamon.

“I started in 2015 and participated in my first Peregrine falcon banding during my first month,” said Gamon. “I was fortunate enough to help out with a presentation by the Falcon Research Group for a tenant during my first week. I got to hold an American Kestrel; I was in love.”

A falcon chick from the 1201 Third Avenue nest gets its bands.

“It was just icing on the cake to find that while managing the second-tallest, most beautiful building, [it] had a Peregrine Falcon nest on it,” Gamon continued. “Prior to being on 1201 Third I would watch hawk and owl nests on Cornell Lab Bird Cams, so to have one on my building was a dream.”

Luckily for Seattle residents, the building owners at the time, Wright Runstad & Company, installed a Falcon Cam more than 25 years ago so everyone can keep an eye on the birds.

“The falcon camera has existed long before me,” explained Gamon. “The way the Peregrine nest came to be, as told to me, is that 26 years ago Peregrine falcon researchers noticed a pair favoring the tower for perching. At the time, the Peregrine was endangered or nearing endangered, and the researchers approached Wright Runstad & Company looking to put a nest on the roof so that if they decided to lay eggs there, that they would be in a semi-protected—not [rolling] off the edge—state.”

Wright Runstad agreed, according to Gamon, and the camera and microphone were installed soon after. While the camera failed earlier this year after many years of service, “our fabulous engineering team was able to order a new one and put it in a temporary location until the Falcons leave the nest, and they can get out and replace the permanent mount one” with movement and zoom controls so researchers can better follow the falcons, said Gamon.

Researchers lift a baby falcon from the nest for banding—with an appropriately placed Seahawks logo in the background.

Each year, according to Gamon, the camera is washed and rocks are added or replaced. A Seahawks logo watches over the nest—that addition was Gamon’s idea after seeing the metal fabrication by a local artist in Pike Place Market.

“I called my engineering team to see if they could hang it over the nest,” said Gamon. “Those engineers are rockstars and made it happen.”

The Urban Raptor Conservancy’s (URC) banding process is fairly simple: Once the fledglings are captured and the engineers and researchers are safe from being raked by the talons of the adult Peregrines, the process takes less than 30 minutes for both birds. The falcons are removed from the nest, covered, taken to an enclosed area, and measured for identification bands. The bands are clipped on, the numbers recorded, and a non-invasive vitamin is given to the birds.

Because of the Migratory Bird Act, fledglings in the nest cannot be medically treated, but both of the fledglings in this nest were identified as healthy females. At banding time, the males have much brighter yellow legs than the females.

A falcon stands in its home at 1201 Third.

According to Ed Deal with the URC, the city has reached its capacity of Peregrine Falcons. “They are extremely territorial, so the closest nests to here are the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge or the West Seattle High Bridge,” explained Deal. “We’ve never had them closer than two miles. There’s more than enough food, but the limits are territorial behavior and limited nest sites.”

But 1201 Third, said Deal, is a prime location for the falcons: “This is the premier site. So high up, so inaccessible, and an unending supply of pigeons. They’ll take anything, gulls, crows, smaller hawks. They usually take their prey in the air.”

Without the partnership of Gamon, Wright Runstad & Company, and the 1201 Third engineers, the URC wouldn’t have the access they need. Two other city nests are on City of Seattle property and not within URC’s purview, making what happens at 1201 Third all that more important for the welfare of the city’s fastest resident.

A falcon soars above downtown Seattle as researchers look on.