In the past few days, 10 falcon chicks - most from eggs filched from nests on bridges in and near Philadelphia - have been placed atop tall buildings in Trenton, Reading, Harrisburg and Williamsport to boost the region's slowly
rebounding peregrine population.
But on the Girard Point Bridge, the adult peregrines have been staging their own drama of natural selection as two younger females compete for dominance in an established nest.
Brauning figures that whatever her fate, the feisty old bird that dive- bombed biologists raiding her nest last year did not go gentle into that good night.
This year, he said, "we went in to pull the eggs off the nest and it was a different female."
And when an assistant checked the bridge later, two adult females were vying for the attention of the male. Said Brauning: "We don't know who's in charge."
While the peregrines settle that question, other events confirm the success of the long effort to bring back falcons from virtual extinction east of the Mississippi.
* A pair of peregrines has apparently nested on one of the top floors of the burned-out Meridian building near City Hall. Last month, said Brauning, ''the adult pair appeared to be carrying food into a location very high on the building."
If they have young, he said, the chicks now should be just about ready to fly. He thinks this falcon couple hangs out around Rittenhouse Square.
* Another falcon pair appears to be patrolling the Ben Franklin Parkway and the area of 26th and Market. Peregrines, which have a nearly four-foot wing span, have their own hunting grounds, places where they swoop down at 200 miles an hour to snatch pigeons and other prey.
* More falcons than ever are nesting on the bridges over the Delaware River in and near Philadelphia. This year, a couple appear to be nesting mid-span on the Ben Franklin Bridge, in addition to pairs earlier confirmed on the Betsy Ross, Walt Whitman, Commodore Barry at Chester and the Pennsylvania Turnpike bridge at Bristol.
In fact, Brauning said, the Philadelphia area is now approaching metropolitan New York as the East's Coast's peregrine capital. The buildings and bridges around the Big Apple boast nine pairs of birds with 35 young.
The swift peregrines, once denizens of remote cliffs, vanished from the East in the mid-1960s, after pesticides disastrously weakened their eggs' shells. Now there are 102 Eastern pairs.
The old female bird at Girard Point showed up on the bridge by the mid- 1980s. Her band showed that she came from the Brigantine Wildlife Refuge near Atlantic City, part of a major effort by the Peregrine Fund and others to bring falcons back to the East.
Not much is known about her male partner or her two potential female successors.
The Girard Point birds had bad luck with offspring. Some eggs never hatched. Two chicks plunged to their deaths in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Last year was only the second time chicks fledged, or flew, from the bridge. The whereabouts of those young falcons is unknown.
This year the Game Commission and the New Jersey Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife used a $50,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to place "hack boxes" in other cities.
The chicks were hatched by a professional breeder, most from the eggs stolen from bridges. Three chicks from the Walt Whitman went to the state's Fulton Building in Harrisburg. One from Girard Point went to the Berks County Services Building in Reading. Three from the Turnpike Bridge went to a state office building in Trenton.
A few days after chicks are placed in the hack box, biologists open a door so the birds are free to take their first flights.
This year, video monitors will allow people to watch the new falcons in Trenton, Reading, Harrisburg and Williamsport.
Brauning says he'd like to add a video monitor in Philadelphia - possibly at the Academy of Natural Sciences - but so far biologists haven't been able to get close enough to the Center City peregrines. Toxic contamination has
closed the Meridian building to all but cleanup workers.
"I can't get into it to do any nest inspections or banding," Brauning said.