Famous falcons: How Melbourne’s high-rise peregrines wooed the world
It was a fresh spring morning in late September, about 8.30am, when one of Melbourne’s favourite birds of prey felt something move in the nest beneath her.
Under her belly, the first of her four eggs just beginning to crack open. Over the next six or so minutes the tiny chick squirmed and struggled its way free.
Thanks to a webcam fixed on the nest, viewers that morning could watch the small miracle unfold in real time from their breakfast table.
In the hours that followed the rest of the eggs hatched, and those four balls of grey fuzz made the nest atop a Collins St tower the talk of the town.
The Mirvac livestream of the 367 Collins Falcons on YouTube has been a source of joy for many eager bird watchers for several years now, but this breeding season marked the first time the actual hatching of the chicks was captured on camera.
Mother and chicks piled together overnight. Image captured by Kate Williams via Mirvac
Interest in the falcons has spiked, with more than 25,000 new fans flocking to the livestream and its Facebook community this spring to share their love of Melbourne’s peregrines from all over the world.
But the story of how these high-order predators became some of Victoria’s most beloved online personalities practically predates the internet itself.
Finding the falcons
Head of the Victorian Peregrine Project and falcon expert Victor Hurley was involved from day one, when he was brought in to mediate between the falcons and the workers who first discovered them in 1991.
“The workers must have been working on the antenna deck at the top of the building, and were being swooped by the peregrines, and it turns out they had eggs in one of the gutters of the ledge that they’re currently on,” Hurley says.
“The union, ironically, got involved and said, no you’ll respect these birds, and we can work around them.”
VPP founder Victor Hurley perches by the nest box for a press conference in 2010, in the days when the project banded chicks to track them after fledging. Picture supplied
The workers, the VPP and the management of the building at that time all came together to make a home for the falcons at 367 Collins St. They also decided to share their discovery of the resident raptors with the rest of the building’s inhabitants through CCTV footage of the nest.
“In the early days, before the webcam, one of the things the builders did back in ’91 was they laid 400m of coaxial cable from that level down to the foyer, and I was able to bring a large screen television which I owned, and plunked it on a pedestal in the foyer, and people could see the vision just in the foyer of the building for the first 20 years or so,” Hurley said.
A local sideshow
Despite only being a small-scale attraction, Melbournians were instantly enamoured with the building’s live-feed, and people began going out of their way to drop by.
“People would come there with a little fold out chair and their lunch, and sometimes they’d bring their kids, or a school excursion and they’d sit there and just watch for half an hour,” says Hurley, who remembers being contacted by avid falcon fans each year.
“A lady from Sydney regularly used to ring me every year in September, wanting to know when was the best time to fly her grandchildren down with her to see them,” he says.
“The security guards who sat next to the TV would register 20,000 people a year stopping to look at the peregrines.”
A timeline of the Melbourne falcons’ 30-year journey from obscurity to celebrity.
The Victorian news media were quick on the uptake too.
Archived articles from the Age show that by 1993 the falcons were already “Melbourne’s favourite birds”, and annual press conferences held by Hurley and the VPP garnered support from all kinds of sponsors.
“Ford Motor company sponsored [the VPP] for more years than they did the Australian Tennis Open,” says Hurley.
The attention garnered by this light-hearted Melbourne news staple also helped support the important work the Victorian Peregrine Project continue to do to monitor this once-endangered native species of predator.
Back from the brink
In the 1960s and 1970s Victoria’s native population of peregrine falcons suffered a population scare due to the detrimental effects of now banned pesticides.
“That was part of the motivation for doing the original study, was with the banning of DDT and Dieldrin,” says Hurley, referring to the early work of the VPP.
DDT and Dieldrin were linked to eggshell thinning in peregrine falcons, meaning lower survival rates for chicks, and serious population decline globally, which the Victorian species has since recovered from.
The fast-growing chicks line up along their ledge, waiting for their next snack to be delivered. Image captured by Kate Williams via Mirvac
In Victoria though, this species of falcon remains very rare, with only 250 nest sites identified by the Victorian Peregrine Project.
However, thanks to COVID-19, public interest in the CBD falcons has spiked, and more awareness is being raised about these birds every day.
The 24-hour surveillance and the unwavering attention of hundreds of watchers has allowed the VPP to observe new facets of the peregrines’ behaviour.
“We’ve recorded them bringing in quail from the Altona grasslands, grebe off Albert Park lake, various parrots and honeyeaters from Exhibition Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens,” says Hurley, of the birds’ varying diet.
Watchers were also able to observe that, while incubating, the female sat on the eggs overnight, but her seasoned male partner sat on the eggs for a good two-thirds of each day, more than previously thought.
New information like this is now more accessible than ever, thanks mostly to the large online community which has banded together to share their observations, and love of the falcons.
In 2016 the footage of the falcons was finally moved online in the form of Mirvac’s YouTube livestream.
“It was time to do something a little more 21st century, a number of things came together,” says Hurley, who says he grew tired of lugging his old flatscreen into the CBD every breeding season.
The move to the digital sphere fostered a new kind of public engagement through social media.
Leigh Stillard, the moderator of the 367 Collins Falcon Watchers Facebook group, saw an opportunity to connect all the people across Victoria, and the world, who had taken an interest in the peregrine falcons.
“I founded the group four or five years ago now, when they started having the livestream. I wanted to talk to a lot of the people who were keen,” says Stillard.
“I was quite proud, by the end of the first year we had 300 members, and it’s been consistently doubling every year.”
Consistently, that is, until this year.
Following Melbourne’s 6.0 magnitude earthquake in September, a clip of one falcon’s reaction caught on the livestream went viral, gaining 186 million views globally in the space of a single week.
The Guardian’s description of the birds’ reaction to the earthquake was one of many that went around the world.
This sudden exposure, combined with the isolation of Melbourne’s latest lockdown, drove thousands of new fans to join the Falcon Watchers Facebook group.
According to Hurley, the group had about 2000 members at the end of August 2021, and in just six weeks grew to over 23,000. The membership count now stands at 27,400.
Raena Jackson-Armitage was among those new members and says checking in with the falcons helped her feel connected during an isolating time.
“I’m still doing a lot of work from home, and it gets pretty lonely. Sometimes I’ll pop the stream up on my TV as company while I work,” she says.
“I joined the group because I like seeing all the fun little moments and screenshots that other people find,” she says.
Group admin Stillard says the continued engagement with the falcons still resembles the old days in the Collins St foyer, from pensioners watching with their grandkids, to teachers keeping the livestream on in their classrooms.
Stillard also hopes that the online community not only connects people to each other but fosters an academic interest in the younger generation.
“The great thing about the group is it provides a lot of visibility for the good work [Victor Hurley and the VPP] are doing, and hopefully that leads into support and conservation,” Stillard says.
But, if nothing else, Hurley is just glad to see his passion project of 30 years reaching, and touching, so many people during a trying time.
“There’s a lot of people who’ve been really thankful that they’ve got something to look at and invest time in while they’re in lockdown, and that’s been really gratifying to see that it’s brought something positive into people’s lives.”