Peregrine falcon makes winter home at Statesman Towers

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
February 4, 2009

For 10 years, Helga has traveled to Indiana State University to take up residence on campus. It was only in late 2007 that professors learned her name.

Helga, a peregrine falcon, often can be found surveying her winter home from atop the Statesman Towers -- home of the College of Education and the College of Business. It's also where the raptor finds many of her meals.

"We have plenty of pigeons so we're happy to have her clean house," said Michele Boyer, chair of communication disorders and counseling with the College of Education, whose office on the 15th floor allows her to often watch Helga perched nearby. "Sometimes we see a puff of feathers falling when she hits one."

Steven Lima, ISU professor of biology, said Helga arrived on campus in 1998 several months after she hatched on the craggy cliffs along the northern shores of Minnesota's Lake Superior. She has returned every year since.

"I've seen her on campus screaming by - she's going so fast she's actually making sound - and the students never notice her," Lima said.

Peregrine falcons have been clocked diving at more than 200 mph. They use their tremendous speed to help them overwhelm their prey, which in Helga's case consists mainly of pigeons and starlings.

Peter Scott, an ISU associate professor of biology, parks close to the towers before walking to the Science Building and each morning during the late fall and winter months scans the building for the falcon.

"She seems to like the towers equally well," he said. "On windy days she likes to sit on one of the indented places. She loves the ledge, it's like a cliff."

Until late 2007 though, the professors and others who watched the falcon from when she would arrive late in the year until about mid February knew little about her. A photograph changed all of that. A Terre Haute photographer captured the falcon in mid-dive, and from the photo a portion of bands on her legs could be deciphered. That photo helped to unlock the key to the past and the bird's name.

Helga hatched during the summer of 1998 on a cliff on the north shore of Lake Superior in Lake County, Minnesota. That's where she also was banded and christened Helga as part of peregrine falcon recovery efforts after the birds went extinct in the eastern United States because of DDT poisoning.

"It's a pretty good success story," Lima said. "The program overall was quite successful."

Many of the peregrine falcons - once the hunting birds of English earls - moved into cities, nesting on bridges, power plant smoke stacks and tall buildings.

"They like cliffs, rocky cliffs," Lima said. "What's the closest to that in the Midwest'"

In 1999, the species had recovered to sufficient numbers and was removed from the Endangered Species List. Yet sighting them is still relatively rare in Indiana.

"Most important is she's around for the Christmas bird count in Terre Haute. Otherwise, it's pretty hard to get that species," Scott said. "At the Christmas bird count in 45 places in Indiana there are usually only three a year."

Lima said an effort was made to keep Helga by building her a nesting box on one of the towers. However, she has not used it. "Undoubtedly she has a nest and a mate somewhere," he said.

Those who enjoy watching Helga as she sits on the towers or maneuvers through the air wonder where she will go when ISU tears down the towers in the future.

Scott said she could move over to one of the dormitory buildings or perhaps choose another tall building in Terre Haute. Boyer knows she will miss watching the bird when the College of Education moves into University Hall later this year.

"It's been fun over here to watch her. Every fall and spring someone new discovers her," she said. "She's part of our College of Ed and College of Business family."

Tips:
Peter Scott suggested those wishing to sight Helga use binoculars. They should look for a bold, dark vertical stripe on the side of her head, through or behind the eye. Peregrine falcons also have pointed tips on their wings to allow for more maneuverability and faster diving.

Photo: "Helga", a peregrine falcon, makes her winter home at Statesman Towers on the Indiana State University campus in Terre Haute. Photo copyright 2007, Jim Sullivan, used with permission

Contact: Steven Lima, professor of biology, Indiana State University, 812-237-3677 or slima@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications & Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-7972 or jsicking@indstate.edu

Story Highlights

For 10 years, Helga has traveled to Indiana State University to take up residence on campus, providing the university's biology department with a unique research opportunity. It was only in late 2007 that professors learned her name. Helga is a peregrine falcon, who hatched in Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior.

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