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Nearly as sure a sign of spring as the swallows of Capistrano or the crocuses in the side yard are the peregrine falcons returning to Salt Lake City.

Three of the famous birds were spotted downtown around the last of February, said Bob Walters, special projects coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Judging by its leg band and sex, one is almost certainly "Perry," the male peregrine who has nested in the area for the past several years.Another of the falcons, unbanded, may be "Penny," the female. The third was a banded female.

Presumably, the rare birds are checking out possible homes, including nesting boxes set up by the division.

"There are four boxes downtown. There are two on the Beneficial Life Tower, one on top of the University Club and one on the Tribune Building," Walters said.

But that doesn't mean the endangered falcons will be nesting on any of the manmade cliffs downtown."Don't be surprised if they do exactly what they want to do," he said. Last year, because they couldn't nest in their traditional haunt, the Hotel Utah, Penny and Perry built a nest on a 300-foot rock cliff in the North Salt Lake vicinity.

There, fewer Utahns got a chance to see the birds swooping about their business, but Walters said it was actually better for them to raise a family out in the country.

Falcon-watchers who tried to assist the young as they fledged "didn't have to fiddle with getting in front of cars," as happens in the city, he said. "We got to watch a bunch of beautiful flights . . ..

"The fact is, what this is all about is helping them be successful, regardless of where they choose to nest."

The peregrines, nearly wiped out by decades of use of the insecticide DDT, are making a comeback now that the spray has been banned.