Marv, the peregrine falcon, is back in Grand Forks. It’s tempting to say that Marv is home, but Marv is a wanderer. His proper name, Falco peregrinus, says it all. It means “wandering falcon.”
We don’t know where Marv spends much of the year. Peregrine falcons are known to migrate great distances. Nevertheless, a water tower on the UND campus is the focus of Marv’s attention through several months of the year. He’s been the “patriarch” of the local falcon aerie since 2014. This will be his seventh nesting season here.
Marv apparently made his first appearance this year 10 days ago, on Friday, March 13. Dave Lambeth, dean of local bird watchers, recognized Marv by his characteristic pose on the water tower, tail outward. This allowed Lambeth to inspect the leg band that Marv was wearing. Sure enough, this is the very bird.
Regional raptor expert Tim Driscoll, who lives in Grand Forks and follows falcons throughout the midcontinent area, had banded Marv in Fargo. The bird was named after Marv Bossart, a Fargo television personality who died in April 2013, about the time that Marv began developing in an egg.
Marv has become an important part of the establishment of a midcontinent peregrine falcon population. Peregrine falcons probably occurred in the Red River Valley in pre-settlement times, but they likely would not have nested here. They are cliff nesters, and the Red River Valley is notoriously flat. The nearest places that could properly be called cliffs are along Lake Superior and in the Little Missouri Badlands. Peregrines are known to have nested there historically.
Lately, however, these wandering falcons have taken to urban living. Skyscrapers have become ersatz cliffsides, and so have water towers. Although the UND water tower is not the highest point in Grand Forks, it does provide amenities that falcons look for, an east-facing nesting spot within a wide view, and an abundance of food, the better to feed nestlings.
Peregrines are known for “a prodigiously catholic diet,” to quote the American Ornithologists’ Union monograph on the species. This implies a wide range of choices. These usually involve birds. It’s not for nothing that the peregrine became known as “the duck hawk.” Driscoll’s careful study of the local peregrines has demonstrated a preference for medium-sized birds. Local birders were amazed to learn how common black-billed cuckoos were here when Driscoll shared his findings. Peregrines seem to have a taste for them. They’re also apparently good at finding the cuckoos, which are, by human notions, rather elusive birds.
By coincidence, Marv’s return occurred on the day that Suezette and I began our “social distancing.” We’d ordered up a number of books to help fill the time, and one of them, “The Falcon Thief,” arrived in our mailbox on Friday the 13th this month. It’s a new book, published this year, by British writer Joshua Hammer. A kind of “true crime” story, the book opens with the discovery of a clutch of falcon eggs strapped to the waist of a passenger waiting in Birmingham Airport in the United Kingdom. He was bound for Dubai, which has become the center of a new sport, raptor racing.
The arrest led author Joshua Hammer to trace the trade and the techniques of egg thieves. Some of these are collectors, practicing a hobby called “oology.” There’s some of that motive – an outdated one, to be sure, and one that threatens uncommon species and species at risk. The motive in this case, however, was cash. The perpetrator expected to sell the falcon eggs, which he had taken great pains to keep “alive” so that buyers could rear the chicks and train them for the racing world.
The peregrine falcon is an icon of the conservation movement, of course; great pains have been taken to rebuild the species after catastrophic declines in the population when the use of DDT as a pesticide became widespread. As apex predators, peregrine falcons ingested the chemical when they fed, which caused weakening of the egg shells and nesting failure.
Human fascination with the falcons long precedes the threat to their numbers, though. The peregrine may be the archetype for the ancient Egyptian sun god, Horus, whose symbolic embodiment is a falcon. In a “stoop” – the dive a falcon enters when intent on prey – a peregrine can literally appear to be coming from the sun. This lends emphasis to the notion that the peregrine is really at home in the sky. Like others of his species, Marv has wandered the sky, seeking and taking prey, then returning to his “cliffside” summer residence on a water tower in Grand Forks.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.