Herman: Looks like this won’t be the year that UT falcon becomes a mom

April 26, 2018

Contrary to popular belief, journalists, in general, don’t like being bad news bearers or deliverers of disappointing developments.

So I’m going to let somebody else handle this one. Let’s see. Hey, how about you, Esther Robards-Forbes?

“I must deliver the sad news that our scientists do not believe that Tower Girl’s eggs are going to hatch this year,” Robards-Forbes, a spokeswoman for the University of Texas College of Natural Sciences, said in an e-mail this week. “We all had our fingers crossed for her.”

I told you about Tower Girl back on Valentine’s Day. She’s a peregrine falcon and long-time resident of the UT Tower. And I told you how UT officials and unofficial Tower Girl watcher Chris DuCharme thought they had seen reason to believe this would be the year that Tower Girl had a child.

RELATED: At long last, is motherhood approach for UT Tower falcon?

They watched and waited, including from a camera installed near a Tower-top nesting box built for Tower Girl. The camera’s still active and very interesting to watch.

It’s believed that Tower Girl has an injury or some kind of condition that prevents her from seasonally migrating as her species is wired to do. She’d been seen this year socializing (canoodling?) with a visitor/suitor, hence the optimism about offspring.

Tim Keitt, a UT integrative biology professor, explained the situation in a memo about the non-insect portion of the birds and the bees.

“Tower Girl laid as many as four eggs in previous years, as well as this spring,” Keitt reported. “Laying eggs is normal behavior for a female bird as her reproductive cycle is governed by the seasons. Birds will often lay eggs on a cycle even if they have not been fertilized.”

And he noted there had been “reports that Tower Girl did mate with a migratory male falcon this year.”

“These male birds may mate opportunistically during migration before reaching their breeding territory in the far north, where they will reunite with their mate, assuming she survives and returns, something not guaranteed by any means as the survival of birds from one year to the next is often quite low.”

Lots to digest there: Birth, death and opportunistic mating during road trips.

More from Keitt: “We do not know why the eggs laid by Tower Girl this year and in past years have not hatched. It may be the case that she is infertile and cannot produce young. Another possibility is that her eggs were not fertilized by any male, either because she did not mate or the mating occurred at the wrong time of year.”

Going forward, the prognosis doesn’t seem great for Tower Girl to become a mom.

“For Tower Girl to produce chicks, she will almost certainly need to pair with a resident male falcon. Since the nearest population of resident peregrine falcons is in Big Bend, Texas, we may never see another resident-type falcon migrate to Austin,” Keitt reported. “If this were a common event, we would likely see many ‘Tower Girls’ around Austin rather than the single bird present today.”

And Keitt wants us to know some more facts of bird life, including that out of billions of wild bird eggs produced each year, “considerably less than 1 percent will result in an adult bird.”

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The perils are many.

“Predators target many of these eggs before hatching. Chicks often fall prey to predators after hatching, as well,” he wrote. “A small percentage will leave the nest. However, natural mortality in the first year is also quite high as the juvenile needs to learn to hunt and feed itself.

“Hitting buildings, power lines and cars, getting eaten by outdoor cats and occasionally getting shot by hunters take yet more toll on bird populations. If a peregrine survives to breed, it may live up to 15 years,” Keitt wrote. “However, rearing chicks itself is stressful, and it is well-documented that adult survival plummets as the number of chicks fledged increases.”

Those of us who have fledged an offspring can attest to the periodic, yet rewarding, stress involved.

Finally, Keitt noted there is “little scientific value” in collecting Tower Girl’s eggs.

“We believe that we should minimize human disturbance to Tower Girl, no matter how much we might like to interact with her,” he wrote. “Our policy is therefore not to disturb the nest box unless it is absolutely necessary.”

“Part of learning about nature, which we hope is an outcome of the nest cam, is accepting the reality of low survivorship of wild animals. We still hope that a resident male shows up, no matter how unlikely,” he concluded. “In the meantime, we will avoid disturbing the nest box, which risks driving Tower Girl to another nesting site.”

DuCharme, who drives in from Bastrop every day, continues to spend time near the Tower checking on its resident falcon, as he has for eight years. He says he’s watched closely enough this year to have known since mid-March there’d be no chick this year.

He’s disappointed, but not surprised. “The bottom line is if there is no mate, it won’t happen.”

So that’s the deal. But if you happen to know a nice resident male peregrine falcon who might be a good match for Tower Girl … .