Two of the three red-tailed hawk chicks on a ledge of the Franklin Institute - webcam stars that have attracted thousands of viewers since they hatched on April 16 - took their first flights yesterday, observers said.

The news spread quickly through followers who have been posting comments on the Ustream.tv Web site, which shows the Franklin's cam feed. Online viewers spiked from an average of about 300 at any given time to 800 by midafternoon.

Overall, the site has attracted 359,011 unique visitors since it went live in early March, Ustream president Brad Hunstable said.

The drama started shortly before 9 a.m. when Della Micah, a Plymouth Meeting woman who was checking the cam feed on her laptop from a sidewalk below, tweeted on the site: "I think one may have flown! Just realized only one on the nest & one on the ledge. Wow!"

But the next time she looked back at the ledge, it was there. She never saw it fly.

Janet Wieczerzynski, a Northeast Philadelphia woman who saw the post, grabbed her binoculars, and leaped into her car with her son, Matt. About 11:30 a.m., she saw one flap more vigorously than usual. And "all of a sudden, it just went," she said.

The bird flew over their heads, across the Vine Street Expressway, then into trees. An adult flew right behind it.

A second hawk flew off midafternoon.

"We're losing our babies," said Troy Collins, a senior vice president. "To watch three eggs, then three birds survive everything nature has to throw at them, and to see them preparing to leave the nest is truly remarkable."

But they're not yet independent. Typically, once they fly - or fledge - the birds stay very close to the nest for a few days, then nearby for about 21/2 weeks until they are good at sustained flight, said Doug Wechsler, an ornithologist with the Academy of Natural Sciences.

They start learning to hunt after about four weeks, and the parents will keep feeding them for another four weeks after that, he said.

Indeed, it might be easier to hear the youngsters than see them.

"When the chicks are hungry, they start screaming, telling Mom and Pop, 'I'm hungry,' " said ornithologist Leonard J. Soucy Jr., founder of the Raptor Trust, a bird rehab center in Millington, N.J.

He's not surprised at all the hoopla. He recalled New York's Pale Male, a hawk that 17 years ago generated worldwide attention when he took up residence on the ledge of an apartment building near Central Park. (He and his latest mate, Lola, are still there.)

"It's a phenomenal thing to see something that is the epitome of a wild creature sitting outside your [urban] balcony," Soucy said.

People became almost addicted, he said. "I call them hawkaholics."

Glenolden's Kay Meng, who has photographed the hawks extensively, thinks people are drawn to "something that's bigger than ourselves."

"For me, it's an affirmation that life is good and that there are miracles every minute of every day if you are open to them."

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Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.