Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey - Nancy Cowan (2016)

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 27. Moving Day for Falcons

When it comes to understanding the behavior of hawks and falcons, my husband is often more intuitive than I am. I need to see a situation unfold in order for the tumblers to fall into place in my brain. Frequently Jim and I reach the same conclusion. The following story illustrates how an out-of-the-ordinary situation enhanced my understanding of peregrines late one spring.

It began with an invitation from Chris Martin, the Audubon peregrine biologist, to help move three hatchling peregrines from a dangerous, narrow window ledge on the ninth floor of a building in Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire. The plan was to recover the young eyasses from the ledge and take them to a nest box Chris had installed on the roof of the same building. We were eager to join him in this adventure, knowing that whatever transpired would be another learning experience. Admittedly, part of our quick acceptance of his invitation was the thrill of dealing once again with wild peregrines.

On the appointed morning, we met Chris at the building where the peregrines had nested. We wondered why Chris felt the youngsters were in danger at the site the female had chosen. We soon found out why.

When we got to the ninth floor, we seemed to attract people from every hallway on our progression to the window ledge. By the time we reached it, we had been joined by a group who had for the last weeks been taking personal interest in the welfare of the infant peregrines. It was like a gathering of fond uncles, aunties, and godparents at a christening. Most of them had their cameras with them.

As soon as I spied the window, I understood Chris’s concern. The window ledge was just that—a narrow ledge running across a solid windowpane. At the outer edge of the ledge was a concrete balustrade standing about two feet high. The space between each of the concrete spindles was no wider than four inches. The distance between the window and the balustrade was no more than five or six inches. It was incredibly cramped. What was she thinking?! I wondered.

The female had been observed landing on the top of the balustrade and then dropping down into the space on the ledge. The male, being smaller, was able to sail in for a landing between the spindles. To exit, both adults squeezed through the spindles to eject their bodies into freefalls. There was absolutely no place for a youngster to stand to work its wings. There was no space from which to fledge. With the three young all at the fuzzy stage, there was barely enough space for the family. Once they began sprouting primary and tail feathers, there wouldn’t be enough room for the three to live, let alone for the parents to join them when they flew in with food.

Chris maneuvered the windows above the ledge, opening them slightly so that he could stick his shoulder and arm out. He then lowered what looked like a triangular butterfly net down to scoop up one baby falcon at a time while the narrowness of the window opening protected him from the onslaught of the angry parents.

Baby falcons are so homely as to be cute. A youngster caught up in the net and pressed against the window gave the arresting vision of “peregrine under glass.” All the young had obviously been eating well. With big beady eyes peering through the pane at all of us and exposed pink tummies showing through their down, each was carefully lifted upward one at a time. Chris was focused on the task at hand, ignoring the din produced by two very vocal parent birds. Every once in a while a taloned foot would slash through the window opening as one of the parents dove past, but he managed to remain unscathed. Finally all three babies had been brought into the room. Chris began banding each with our assistance.

Outside, the adults were diving back and forth, raising a terrific hue and cry. In downtown Manchester on a lovely spring day, it was impossible for the racket to go unnoticed. Looking down, I saw a group of people gathered watching and pointing at our window. Across the street, up and down the building that faced us, the windows were full of people who worked in those offices. Afterward, there was quite a public reaction to “moving day.” Some enjoyed the show. Some felt concern turn to relief when they realized the disturbance was so the young falcons could be moved to a safer place. Some were perturbed there had been any interference at all with the peregrines. Most of the onlookers did not realize the entire process was being carried out with approval from federal and state wildlife agencies and was performed by a professional biologist from the Audubon Society.

After the banding, the young were loaded into a pet carrier, and we headed up to the roof. Jim and I waited while Chris negotiated the uneven rooftop to leave the young peregrines at the nest box. When he rejoined us, we headed over to a building across the street where a spotting scope had been focused on the nest box. We admitted to each other that we were tense about moving the falcons from one spot to another. Would the parents accept the new location to take up the care of their offspring?

Once settled at the spotting scope, we watched the agitated peregrine adults as they returned again and again to the window ledge nest site. The female perched and looked down into the empty space on the ledge. The male flew through the narrow spaces in the balustrade and then turned to fly back out. Employees of the nest site building came to the window to see what was going on, and the adults dove at them. The peregrines flew to the building from which we watched. They took perches on the cornices at either end and they watched, too. Then they flew back and forth over the corridor between the two facing buildings. It was a strange sensation to be above them, looking down at the tops of their wings and their backs as the pair flew below us over the busy street. We continued to watch, and we worried.

Two hours went by. It might have helped if the youngsters had gotten hungry and begun to call for food. Then perhaps the parents would hear them and find them on the roof. But these kids were exceedingly well fed. Through the scope we watched the young peregrines waddle about and then snuggle down for naps. We were beginning to question ourselves. Had we done the right thing? Would this move work out, or would we have to reverse the entire process and place the eyass falcons back into the original nest site, horridly unsuitable as it was?

The adults continued to return to the window ledge, then sail back and forth over the street. As I watched, something finally tugged at my brain. On all the flights up and down the street, to and from the window ledge, the adults were looking down. “Chris,” I said, “babies don’t fall up. The parents are looking down for them.”

Jim agreed. “They never saw the youngsters go up onto the roof. They just saw them disappear through the window. The adults will keep looking for them there.”

“I think I need to go back up on the roof,” Chris said. “Maybe I can get the adults to look up and see the young birds.” We enthusiastically endorsed Chris’s plan.

Chris returned to the nest site building, traveled up in the elevator, and laboriously made his way to the nest box to take one of the youngsters in his hands and hold it high. This was a nice touch but hardly necessary, for as soon as he gained the roof, the adults spotted him and began to circle above him, screaming as they wheeled through the air. They might not have known where their babies had gone, but they certainly recognized the bearded baby-snatcher when they saw him again! One of them was in a full-on stoop at Chris’s head when he raised the baby in his hands. The adult pulled up instead of whacking him. Chris returned the eyass to the box and left the roof as quickly as he could.

“Do you think they saw their youngsters?” Chris asked when he rejoined us. He was laughing because there was no doubt they had. But the adults had not yet joined their young on the roof, so Chris settled down to wait. He would not leave his post until he knew all was well and that the adults would accept the new site to resume caring for their young. Having witnessed the adult birds’ reaction to Chris’s appearance on the roof, we were more confident and elected to head for home. Once out of the building, we looked up. The adults were back on the cornices across the street from the nest box, but they were now looking up at the roof. Forty minutes later as we neared home, my cell phone rang. It was Chris. “The parents flew to the roof and landed by the nest box. They are feeding the young right now.”

The peregrine family proceeded to raise the young in fairly normal fashion after the change in locale. We got frequent e-mails from the peregrine watchers in the buildings and were treated to reports as each of the three babies fledged and when they began hunting. I enjoyed the photos and the reports, but one thing still bothered me: Where would Mrs. Peregrine choose her nest site next spring?