Peregrines take flight
The young birds' first flights stress and exhilarate their rescue team.
Bob Walters is the DWR's Watchable Wildlife program coordinator. He is an avid birder who loves Utah's amazing wildlife, particularly Salt Lake City's resident peregrine falcons.
FOR ME, July often marks the beginning of Hell Week. Why the grim name? It’s the 7- to 14-day stretch when I work with a group of dedicated volunteers to monitor and intervene — wherever necessary — to save the lives of young peregrine falcons as they learn to fly in downtown Salt Lake City.
Learning to fly is a process, not a single event, and almost all peregrines come down to earth at least a few times. The downtown area (outside the grassy grounds and flower beds of Temple Square) is a difficult place to learn to fly. Everywhere you look, there are hard surfaces: asphalt, concrete, brick, metal, glass and motor vehicles.
Another complicating factor is that the young birds are landing on foreign objects. Raised on pea gravel, they have to learn to land — and hold on — to rooflines, window sills, ledges and other structures. It takes them at least a few attempts to adjust to the different feeling under their talons.
If the birds are unharmed and successfully rescued, we band them and give them an elevator ride to the rooftop below the beehive on the Joseph Smith Memorial Building (formerly the Hotel Utah). Then, their parents step in, tempting the youngsters to try again by providing much-needed morsels of food. Sometimes, they conduct fly-bys, holding food in their talons. Other times, they touch down and lift off again quickly, trying to lure the would-be flyers into the air.
If a young bird is injured, a bird rehabilitator examines it and determines whether the bird needs to be treated or sidelined before it goes back up to the roof to continue flight trials. A rehabilitator also examines any birds rescued at twilight and assesses whether they need to be held in a secure place overnight.
Years ago, we chose to release the uninjured birds from the top of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building because the young fliers have a clear view of the temple to the northwest. The temple has many horizontal ledges and few windows, and it’s surrounded by gardenlike grounds (and no motor vehicles). It’s the best location in the area for a soft, successful landing. If we’re lucky, the young birds practice flight by going back and forth between these two structures.
Young peregrines dislike, even hate, direct sunlight and will do nearly anything to avoid the direct rays of the sun. They often nap on building ledges and rooflines for long periods, resting up from the last exhausting flight. When sleeping, they resemble big, brown beetles with rear wingtips that look just like the fins of older-model Cadillacs.
When they aren’t trying to find a place out of the sun and napping, the young peregrines rummage around ledges and crannies where they often find food scraps. They eagerly devour anything edible, never knowing when their parents might track them down and provide a meal.
Despite our best efforts, the youngsters often end up in precarious locations far from the Temple Square area. I have many memories of finding individual birds in both tragic and comical predicaments. One year, during a violent windstorm, we found a bird on the apex of the Eagle Gate Tower with one toe locked into a caulk joint, its tail whipping side to side, hanging on for dear life! On a different occasion, one of our volunteers caught a falling bird — with one hand — in traffic, just east of South Temple and Main streets.
If you’ve gathered that flight training is stressful for the birds, it’s downright grueling for the members of the Salt Lake City Watchpost/Rescue Team. For up to two weeks, we work all daylight hours (from roughly 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.). We use binoculars to track the birds, so we can anticipate (and prevent) potentially fatal landings. (At the beginning, these novice fliers do not know where hey are going, much less where they will end up.)
There have been some years when we just couldn’t rescue them. Some broke their wings or had high-speed, bill-first encounters with glass surfaces. And it was heartbreaking for many watchpost/rescue workers. It is to the credit of our volunteers that 21 of 27 young-of-the-year birds have survived. (Or reached a point where workers remarked to one another that “he/she is flying so well that we couldn’t catch him/her if we wanted to.”)
Focusing to that degree on a young bird — or a larger brood of four, like we have this year — at different locations in the downtown area can cause high levels of anxiety. When asked about the effort, one of the team members described it as “hours and hours and hours of tedium, interspersed by brief infrequent bursts of intense excitement.”
Additionally, it’s often very hot at fledging time (annually in July and August), which is why the key to surviving the week is to seek, find and — wherever possible — remain in the shade. Otherwise, you’ll cook and end up flat on the sidewalk. And, we normally have so few volunteers that we can’t afford the loss of even one person. We’ll definitely need their help the next day.
In 2007, when we handled four young peregrines, we were rescuing and releasing the birds in groups of two and three, multiple times throughout the week. It’s not an exaggeration, nor am I embarrassed to say, it nearly killed me.
As busy and stressed as we are, though, there are some incredible opportunities for our watchpost/rescue workers. They get to help the birds, and they answer questions posed by hundreds of visitors to Temple Square and downtown Salt Lake City. So if you’re downtown in midsummer, and you see a somewhat motley group of folks looking through binoculars and holding rescue towels, you’ll know you’ve found us.
When asked about this flight-training period, I always comment that I affectionately term it Hell Week. I say affectionately because, through all the stress and exhaustion, there is something about helping to get the young birds confidently airborne that is about as sweet a feeling known to man. It’s exhilarating to see these fledglings on the wing, trying to mimic their parents who are the fastest, most accomplished fliers on the planet.
For me, the Peregrine Cam (since 2006) and our volunteer watchpost/rescue team are Utah’s premier conservation education project. (You can even follow this year’s birds on Facebook!) Memories of falcon flights — and attempted flights — will always be cherished by those who put their time and effort into helping Salt Lake City’s famous peregrine falcons.