ROCHESTER — On the roof of the Mayo building — about 300 feet above the ground — Tom Behrens reaches out to retrieve an adorable young bird, a chick that looks like a bunch of cotton balls with big yellow feet.
For the parents of this little peregrine falcon, however, it’s far from a feel-good moment.
They repeatedly lunged at Behrens, hitting him in the head at one point. The rumbling calls of kack-kack-kack-kack are so loud they drown out a rumbling freight train nearby and the midday carillon concert just across the street.
However, it is Behrens and the naturalist Jackie Fallon, and not the birds, who are regulars in this nest. For 35 years at the Mayo Clinic, they came here almost every spring, risking the wrath of peregrine falcons to pick up young birds to band before bringing them safely home.
“The defense starts to ramp up as soon as the first egg drops,” Fallon said. “They’ve invested a lot in those chicks and the eggs and all that. We’re just a giant predator as far as them go – and we keep coming back.”
In the United States, it’s nesting season for the peregrine falcon, a remarkable raptor that weighs just a few pounds but can fly over 200 miles per hour. Once endangered, the birds thrive in part on habitat provided by a surprising ally – that emblem of American business, the skyscraper.
Tall buildings in urban areas resemble the historic homes of peregrine falcons, which were known to nest on towering cliffs near water, said Fallon, vice president of the Midwest Peregrine Society. Many towns in the Midwest are located near rivers or large bodies of water, Fallon noted, and provide plenty of prey.
From buildings in Seattle, Omaha and Baltimore to structures in St. Paul and Minneapolis, webcams are streaming the latest episodes of a peregrine falcon recovery this spring that spans power plant nests in Wisconsin, chicks on a university tower in California and – new this year – a courthouse area in New Jersey.
In Mayo, which is celebrating the 35th anniversary of its peregrine falcon program, a webcam attracted more than 112,000 page views last year.
Peregrine falcons helped control a population of pigeons in Rochester that would otherwise put staff to clean up on the clinic’s campus, said Behrens, who is Mayo’s unit chief for facility operations.
His department makes the nest, takes care of it and is probably the most affected by the pilgrims. Window washing, roof work, and other outdoor maintenance should be scheduled around nesting season, when hawks fiercely defend their territory.
“They pretty much own the skies of downtown Rochester,” Behrens said.
Not every town of 121,000 has a skyline, but tall buildings have been part of Mayo Clinic’s presence here since the late 1920s.
That’s when the clinic opened the 297-foot-tall Plummer Building, which briefly boasted of being the tallest building in Minnesota. Across the street, the Mayo Building, which usually houses the Pilgrims’ Nest, was 20 stories tall in the late 1960s.
“I think the reason we have tall buildings to begin with is efficiency in patient care,” said Matt Dacy, director of the clinic’s Heritage Hall museum. “You could have a highly integrated vertical structure that allowed easy mobility for patients and staff. Who knew that was a perfect environment for hawks?”
Jean Sherlock Matheny has spent many hours over the past 11 years on the clinic’s campus while her husband was being treated for heart failure. She spent the time looking out the windows and observing the pilgrims from different angles.
Lake City artist Sherlock Matheny did a study of birds for a large oil painting. This winter, on her first visit to Mayo since her husband’s death, the sight of a video of pilgrims in the lobby, she said, displaced her sadness for a moment.
“It was a comfort,” Sherlock Matheny said. “It really was.”
It’s a message the clinic hears from other patients, including those watching the live broadcast on televisions in hospital rooms.
“Nature heals,” Fallon said. “Nature is soothing. And we’ve brought this little piece of nature to downtown Rochester.”
In the 1960s, peregrine falcons were eradicated in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. In Minnesota, the last known breeding pair was seen in 1962 at Whitewater State Park, nearly 30 miles east of Rochester.
The chemical DDT was the culprit, Fallon said. A federal ban on the insecticide paved the way for restoration efforts that initially targeted 20 breeding pairs in the Upper Midwest. Today there are more than 350 pilgrim couples in the area. They produce between 600 and 700 chicks per year.
Minnesota alone has more than 70 breeding pairs, including Hattie and Orton, with the hawks raising their young this spring at the Mayo Building.
Hattie was born in 2015 from a nest in the Mayo building at the University of Minnesota. Fallon banded the bird and later named it in part for Hattie Mayo, wife of one of the clinic founder’s physician sons.
The Pilgrim found his way to Rochester and mated with Orton, who came from another nest in Minneapolis. The birds have been at the Mayo Clinic since 2016, so far producing 24 eggs and 16 falcons that have survived to fledging.
Over time, peregrine parents have become more defensive of their nest and offspring, especially Hattie, who like the other females is the larger of the two.
When Fallon and Behrens collect the chicks for banding, they are always accompanied by caretakers who hold brooms or umbrellas aloft for protection. The idea is not to hit the peregrines but to give the birds decoy targets for their attacks.
Last spring, Hattie ran her claw across Behrens’ scalp and drew blood even as her son-in-law tried to cover up.
“I thought he hit me on the head with a broom!” he called back. “I go, ‘Why did you hit me?’ It took me a while to realize that Hattie had nailed me.”
On a rainy day last month, Behrens took care to wear his hard hat as he climbed onto the roof.
Inside, Mayo held a ceremony in which Fallon placed bands around the legs of four young birds. They are ringed so that researchers can collect data on the lifespan of basking sharks, their breeding success, distance traveled and overall population. The raptor’s offspring was also named in a public competition that attracted more than 1,700 suggestions.
One will go through Rebel. The names Nova and Comet recall the comet and supernova that graced the night sky in 1987, when Mayo launched its program. And the fourth bird was named Tom, according to Behrens.
Over the years, Mayo Pilgrims have produced a total of 70 young falcons. If the past is any guide, Behrens’ work with the birds will continue in the weeks to come as they begin to learn to fly.
“I will get a call on a Saturday from a policeman saying, ‘One of your birds is down here, stopping traffic,'” he said. “There were times when I chased them down the middle of the road, and all of a sudden they were on top of a car – and then this one quickly ran into a red light Upside down.”
“I’m just a maintenance guy – I take care of the buildings,” he added. “And it all revolved around this falcon program.”