ATLANTIC CITY — The female peregrine falcon that has roosted for years at the now-closed Atlantic Club Casino Hotel has passed her breeding time at age 18, but she is still strong and feisty and helping to raise younger birds.
She and her mate successfully fostered a chick put into their nest last year, said Kathy Clark, of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program.
The story of the Atlantic Club peregrines starts in 1985, when a pair first set up housekeeping on a ledge there. That female started having chicks in 1988, said Clark, but was injured and died in 2001.
That’s when the current female took up residence there, having babies until about four years ago, when age prevented her from having any more.
“What is unusual is she is still there, a good parent and a fierce defender,” said Clark. “And she still has a mate.”
So Clark put three fake eggs on her nest last spring, then brought in a two-week-old chick from a nest where there were four hatchlings, which is a high number for any pair to feed.
The female responded as though she had laid the eggs and hatched the chick herself.
The building’s avian tenants have remained steady as the casino’s name changed from Golden Nugget to Bally’s Grand to the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort to ACH to the Atlantic Club, which closed in January 2014.
The Atlantic Club pair are part of a successful statewide reintroduction of the bird, which had become extinct east of the Mississippi River by 1964 as a result of the use of the pesticide DDT. The chemical damaged the birds’ eggs.
Reintroduced in the 1980s, the peregrine population has been stable since 2000 at between 20 and 24 pairs. In 2016, there were 23 known pairs in the state, according to a recent report by the Department of Environmental Protection.
Once the casino closed in 2014, and the bustle inside the building stopped, the male and female became much calmer, Clark said. They sat where they nested on the ledge outside the butler’s kitchen in the penthouse, paying no attention to visitors.
But their old fighting spirit returned.
Hundreds of birders — mostly amateurs with a deep knowledge of identifying species on the wi…
“She did get to be her usual, aggressive self after I gave her the fake eggs, and more so after the chick,” said Clark.
Clark said she had to open the door after leaving the chick to retrieve a towel from the nest area.
“She was attacking me,” said Clark. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I just gave you that chick, I’m not going to take it.’ But it’s instinctual.”
Females generally stop being able to reproduce at about age 15 or 16, Clark said.
Statewide, the falcons had average nest success and productivity this year, according to the DEP, doing best when nesting on towers and buildings, with less success in nests on bridges or natural cliff sites.
Nest success across all types of sites was 67 percent and an average of 1.57 young were produced per active site, said the DEP. But at natural sites on cliffs, the productivity rate was just 1.14 per site.
Peregrines first started nesting again on cliffs in the Palisades along the Hudson River in 2003, according to the DEP.
There are several reasons why natural cliff ledges can be more dangerous, Clark said, including predation by great horned owls. The large owls frequent natural areas more than the highly urbanized areas where peregrines nest on tall buildings.
Another problem is storm runoff from roads atop cliffs.
“A good nest ledge will include overhead protection. But the number of good ledges in the Palisades is very limited,” Clark said.
She hopes the birds will learn to choose better locations.
The Atlantic Club birds aren’t the only pair of peregrines in Atlantic City.
Another pair have been spotted atop one of the city’s water towers in the north end. The contractor who painted the tower this year voluntarily built a nest box for them.
They had been using a space that was too small for the past few years.
“The chicks didn’t have enough space to flap their wings. They would usually land in the parking lot,” said Clark. “They had enough feathering they would float down without getting hurt but couldn’t get back up again.”
Neighbors would call her and she would go pick up the chicks, she said.
Life can be tough for peregrines. The typical turnover rate in most nest sites has been about five years.
“Either they get out-competed by a younger bird or injured and die,” she said. “They live so hard and fast, any injury is not going to be good for them.”