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June 28, 2004

Angels In America

I don't usually like posting full articles, but I really loved this story from the NYTimes.com and want to make sure it's saved here for posterity. These are my kind of people.

For Falcons as for People, Life in the Big City Has Its Risks as Well as Its Rewards

The New York Times
Published: June 28, 2004

SALT LAKE CITY, June 27 - While missionaries explained the Mormon faith and young brides posed for their wedding pictures in Temple Square, a group set apart by their bright orange vests had another mission entirely - witnessing and abetting one of the most basic coming-of-age rituals in nature.

Two peregrine falcons are teaching their two fledglings to fly in the middle of Temple Square, the headquarters of the Mormon Church and the most popular tourist site in Salt Lake City, with a cadre of human volunteers keeping a daylight watch under the nest, prepared to act as a safety net.

Peregrine falcons usually nest on high cliffs, but some make their homes on tall buildings and bridges in urban areas.

It takes a young falcon, known as an eyas, a week or so to learn to fly - a period that Bob Walters of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources refers to as Hell Week.

Flight training for young falcons that are born in urban areas is all the more treacherous because they often crash into buildings or fly into traffic. When that happens, Mr. Walters said, "it wrecks your whole day."

Every city with peregrine falcon nests has a different approach. New York City has 15 nests, said Chris Naderski of the city's Department of Environmental Protection. Some are monitored by 24-hour Web cameras, some by bird-watchers and some by bridge workers.

In California there is one volunteer in Los Angeles, where falcons are nesting on buildings along Wilshire Boulevard, and another in the Bay Area, where falcons are living on the Golden Gate Bridge, said Brian Walton of the Predatory Bird Research Group at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Here in Salt Lake City, volunteers - clad in bright orange vests with reflective yellow strips so they can be easily seen by drivers - have taken shifts over the last two weeks watching over the nest and its fledglings. Utah's Department of Transportation has installed large orange signs: "Falcon bird watch area. Prepare to stop."

"If a bird flies into the street, Bob will try and catch it and I'm supposed to throw myself in front of the cars," said June Ryburn, 75, a retired office manager who has spent 13 hours a day watching the birds.

There were only about 200 American peregrine falcons left in North America in the 1970's, and they were considered an endangered species until 1999. Now there are more than 3,000, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Their recovery is due in part to the banning of the pesticide DDT, which weakened falcon eggshells, and in part to the breeding of falcons in captivity.

But the urban landscape remains a threat to the birds. The survival rate for falcons is about 40 percent in cities and about 50 percent in the wild, said Dr. Bill A. Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund, an organization that works to save peregrine falcons and other birds of prey.

Of 16 eyases in Salt Lake City between 1986 and 1996, when peregrine falcons were last spotted downtown, five died, three from flying into traffic or buildings and two from disease, Mr. Walters said. Six of the survivors had help from bird-watchers, he said, including one baby falcon he caught as it was flying into traffic.

At Temple Square last week, Mr. Walters said, the young male falcon tried flying before his sister, but navigating Salt Lake City proved difficult. He flew over traffic but slammed into the window of a bank and then hit a nearby mall.

"When he was crashing into the building, I was running across the street, stopping traffic and saying, 'Don't hit me, I have to save this bird,' " said Nate Everts, 26, a volunteer falcon watcher.

Somehow the bird bounced off the second building and flew back to Temple Square uninjured. This time he landed on the Mormon Temple, the most sacred building of the faith.

"They chose the right spot," said LaNita Larsen, 59, a bird-watcher. "There are a lot of people praying while their babies learn to fly."

The bird-watchers stand out amid Temple Square's meticulously groomed gardens. It is hard to miss their binoculars, shorts and orange mesh vests.

They were monitoring the young female until late Wednesday night as she struggled to take her first flight. She stood on the edge of her nest and peered at the 10-story drop below. She flapped her wings and dangled one leg off the edge, but she did not move. She yelped loudly when her parents flew by.

A crowd quickly gathered on the ground. The bird-watchers focused their binoculars on the nest and talked with one another via walkie-talkies. One volunteer sat on the walkway with a towel, waiting to catch the baby bird if she happened to fall. Two more were stationed on the side of the street, waiting to run into traffic if necessary.

The Holloways, a Mormon couple from Sequim, Wash., were visiting with their seven children when they noticed all the commotion.

"We thought everybody was looking at the prophet," said McKenna Holloway, 18, referring to Gordon B. Hinckley, the president of the church. "Then we realized they were looking at birds."

At 6:54 a.m. Thursday, Mr. Walters was already back at work and saw the female eyas take her first flight. Hell Week is not over yet, but he and his weary team are hoping the birds will soon have enough experience to navigate the city safely.

Posted by Highwaygirl on June 28, 2004 02:08 PM to the category Animals
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