- By Ken Herman American-Statesman Staff
This is a love story, perfect for Valentine’s Day. It involves a local bird we’ll assume yearns for a mate and a family. It also involves a local man who misses his wife.
Just about every day, semiretired carpenter Chris DuCharme, 66, drives in from Bastrop, parks his car and bikes to the University of Texas, where he spends hours and hours standing at Hogg Auditorium and staring up at the UT Tower, camera in hand.
This newspaper told you about DuCharme back in 2015 and how he patiently photographed hawks atop the Capitol. His current fascination is Tower Girl, the name given to a peregrine falcon that calls the UT Tower home. DuCharme’s been watching and photographing Tower Girl for several years.
She’s something of a rare bird in that, possibly because of injuries, she doesn’t migrate north for the summer and is a year-round campus resident. And, as far as anyone knows, she’s never reproduced.
We’ll let Esther Robards-Forbes, a public affairs representative for UT’s College of Natural Sciences (unnatural sciences — including political science — are taught elsewhere) tell the story because she does it so well.
“In the eight years that her bird watchers have been observing her, she’s never had a mate show romantic interest,” Robards-Forbes reports. A couple of seasonal visiting male falcons “hung out with Tower Girl the past couple of years, but it seems she could never move the relationships out of the friend zone, and they only displayed platonic behavior.”
“Tower Girl is getting up there in years. Her watchers estimate she has maybe four or five more breeding seasons to raise a clutch of eggs before she reaches the end of her lifespan,” she told me.
To help, UT installed a nesting box on the Tower. UT also has installed a webcam (not yet streaming) to keep an eye on things. Eggs collected in recent years had not been fertilized.
“But,” Robards-Forbes said, “it seems this year love is in the air. A male falcon has been coming most days to visit, the birds have been displaying courtship behavior, and a little over a week ago photographers caught them in the act of copulation.”
DuCharme, of course, was one of the photographers who captured the action. (And no, you weirdo, I didn’t ask to see the photos.)
Acknowledging my horribly inappropriate choice of words, I asked DuCharme if he was excited when he saw Tower Girl and an unidentified male do the bird part of the birds-and-bees thing we’ve heard so much about.
“I was just stunned,” he said of what he witnessed on Jan. 26. “It really changed things.”
Now, we wait and hope.
There’s lot we don’t know, including if Tower Girl is capable of reproducing and whether this male is interested in something more than dating.
DuCharme said he is hanging on to cautious optimism: “It seems like there’s possibilities we never had the previous years.”
“I just want to see her succeed,” he said. “That’s really what it’s about. Whatever it means to me, I don’t know. The focus is on her and hoping it will work.”
But there’s more. In 2011, DuCharme’s Bastrop home was lost in the wildfires that ravaged that region. In 2012, his wife, Caryl Dalton, 62, died three days after their wedding. She had brain cancer. They had been together more than 20 years.
That’s the other love story at work, most often seven days a week, as DuCharme, who has no children, watches and waits to see if Tower Girl will become a mom. As we gazed up to the falcon perched on the Tower, DuCharme acknowledged something of a spiritual link, through his late wife, to the falcon.
“It’s part of the connection with my wife,” he said, recalling she shared his passion for the quiet bliss of watching birds. “She realized long before I did that I was doing something I needed to be doing.”
“It was one of the things that brought us together. Constantly,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing it. It’s a connection. Still exists. So grateful for it.”
“She gave me so much,” DuCharme said. “I really can’t explain it.”
I felt like he just had.
Elsewhere on campus, Tim Keitt, an integrative biology professor, also has been keeping an eye on Tower Girl.
The professor shares DuCharme’s anticipation about what could be.
“That would be terrific and I wish them the best in their nesting,” Keitt said of the lovebirds. (He didn’t say lovebirds but — because of Valentine’s Day — let’s assume that this wasn’t some fly-by encounter.)
“But we just don’t know about her reproductive status, whether her eggs are viable or not,” he cautioned.
So while we all await developments, let’s pivot back to Robards-Forbes for her very human’s-eye view of all this. She’s hoping the Tower camera soon will show “evidence of little baby falcons.”
“I think single girls all over Austin can identify with a strong, independent lady with a ticking biological clock who longs for love and family,” she said. “Our fingers are crossed Tower Girl has finally found it.”