Photos: Rare Falcons Raise Their Chicks On Lakeview Balcony

By Melissa McEwen in News on Aug 24, 2015 2:55PM

It all started with shots of peregrine falcons on Instagram perched on a 28th-floor balcony overlooking Chicago's spectacular city skyline.

The shot caught photographer Luke Massey's eye and he took a chance—he emailed the Instagrammer, who turned out to be Dacey Arashiba. And Dacey in turn took his own chance, inviting Massey, who he'd never even met, to stay with him in his Lakeview high-rise and follow the lives of these spectacular birds. These were bets that paid off with a series of incredible photos that might be the first to follow urban falcons from their hatching in a balcony flower box to their first flights.

Audubon featured the photos and story of how Arashiba fought for them to stay at his building and connected with Massey. We talked with Massey about his experiences taking pictures of these balcony-dwelling raptors.

"The way Mary Hennan [of the Chicago Peregrine Project] described it is that in Chicago all these high-rise buildings are pseudo-cliffs, and because it's on a main waterway it's in this bird migration flyway, so it's this perfect place for all these peregrines to nest. I think there are twenty pairs of them now in Chicago, it's a very good spot for them," says Massey. This is good news, because in the '60s peregrine falcons became endangered due to DDT. But since the DDT ban, populations have recovered and this year their status in Illinois was changed to "recovered."

Arashiba generously let Massey camp out in his spare bedroom and basically turn his apartment into a wildlife photography center.

"So I got the whole transformation from the tiny little white fluff balls when I saw them that looked completely, well, useless and defenseless, to six weeks later seeing them turn into peregrines flying around the skyline like above Chicago and chasing pigeons and chasing each other and chasing herons and gulls. It was quite incredible to see the transformation," says Massey.

The parents were nick-named Steve and Linda, and the observers continued the theme by nicknaming the hatchlings after famous Perrys: three girls, Katie, Joe and Luke, and a boy, Refrigerator, named after the legendary Bears defensive lineman.

Massey was surprised that in general they didn't seem bothered by his attempts to document their lives. At first he was very careful in order not to disturb their nest, setting up remote controlled cameras while they were out hunting away from the nest. But soon enough Linda arrived home while he was working on the balcony. And she didn't seem to care at all.

"I guess the fact that they nested on the balcony showed they didn't care too much about people because Dacey is always at home and he said sometimes he'd be grilling on his balcony and a peregrine would land on the railing," Massey said. "This is before they were nesting so they were quite human tolerant. From experience when I've worked with peregrine falcons in the UK, I've seen them alarm-calling at people when people have been 50 meters away from their nest, let alone two feet from the nest."

And the denizens of the city also didn't mind him poking around their buildings. Massey says in the UK he often has problems getting access to shooting sites, but when he approached the managers of nearby buildings where the falcons often hung out, he found they didn't mind him going up on their roofs to photograph the birds.

"I got access straight away to these other buildings. The peregrines would all line up along the railing and you would have people grilling on their BBQ, or just admiring the view, and a peregrine would be six feet along the railing from them and they just really didn't care," says Massey.

But it wasn't always easy navigating the heights and realities of balcony living. Massey says it was challenging to get shots of them flying because he didn't want to go out on the balcony and risk scaring them when they were trying to feed the chicks. And then there was the issue of height.

"There are a few shots where I had to lean out of a window and it is just a sheer drop to 28 floors below, and you're holding relatively expensive camera gear and you don't want to fall out and you don't want to drop your camera. But the shots were worth it in the end," says Massey.

Watching the birds day in and day out, it became apparent that peregrines have their own personalities.

"The males a lot smaller than the females and [Steve] was a bit stupid; he'd turn up and wouldn't really know what to do, and as the chicks got bigger the females got bigger than him or about the same size, so they'd mob him and he'd kind of just drop the food and run away," says Massey.

Refrigerator wasn't much bolder, huddling in the flower box while his sisters roamed the balcony. "He didn't seem the brightest bird around… whereas the three females always got fed and they knew what was what."

Massey turned out to be a better roommate than the falcons, who were frankly a bit messy.

"Dacey put a tarp down because he had been warned about it- they are bringing in maybe between 8-12 birds a day to feed and you've got six peregrines living up there and they are all pooping and the carcasses just get left there…it was pretty stinky when it was hot, it was like a big abattoir for all the different birds the peregrines had killed and brought up there, with all those random legs and bits and pieces dotted around the balcony" says Massey.

When the chicks first hatched, Massey says migratory red-wing blackbirds were passing through Chicago. Exhausted by the journey, they likely made an easy catch. But after that boon was gone, they switched to a diet of mostly pigeons.

These days Massey is in Spain where he's photographing the Iberian Lynx, a critically endangered big cat suffering due to lack of its major food source, rabbits. The project aims to raise awareness and also to boost the rabbit population. You can learn more here.