The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Flight of the falcon
My strange encounter with bird on the lam

JULY 21 - 27, 2005
NOW Magazine (VOL. 24 NO. 47)

It's a bright, hot day in downtown Toronto. At 35 days of age, the young peregrine falcon has just fledged, grown in all her flight feathers. She is restless, nervy, and takes her first step - off a building ledge 20 stories up.

She spreads her wings but glides downward and lands on a factory roof. The chances of her making it back to the nest are small. She's spent her life sitting on the ledge, gobbling pigeon squabs. She's totally inexperienced, out of shape and heavier than her hard-working parents.

But she tries again – and lands at King and University. That's where I find her, a ferocious-looking knee-high bird hissing among a gaggle of office workers. They're held back by a semicircle of pylons and caution tape placed by quick-acting security guards. Every cellphone is out and pointing at the bird, who looks ferociously royal in her gorgeous new feathers. This is a baby who has yet to make her first kill or land without stumbling.

Jan Chudy of the Canadian Peregrine Foundation arrives with a box, and security asks us to make a circle to enclose the bird while the foundation's Linda Woods tries to throw a sweater over it. The creature suddenly makes a break for it and the circle falls into disarray. Screams warn drivers as the animal's low flight barely misses cars on University Avenue.

Followed by the more athletic crowd members, Chudy, wearing a white linen dress, takes off in a high-heel-powered sprint that rivals Kathleen Turner's pumped pursuit in Serial Mom. By the time Woods and I catch up to her, she has the situation in hand. Between two beers at a sidewalk café sits a brown box full of disgruntled falcon. The superior coping skills of the beer drinkers have prevailed.

Mark Nash, co-founder of the foundation, drives up to take the bird away. "This is our 17th rescue this season," he tells me. There's a reason for the heroics of volunteers like Chudy and Woods. There are only 69 pairs of breeding peregrines in Ontario. It's an endangered species, with a natural mortality rate of up to 80 per cent in the first year. "Like human babies, they fall a lot," says Nash. "In the wild, most fledglings are gobbled up by predators. In the city, the problems are cars and glass."

If you see a grounded falcon, says Nash, do not disturb it. Warn others that it's an endangered species and call his mobile at 416-937-7226. Once rescued, the birds are treated for injuries or returned to the nesting site – often the top of a Toronto high-rise. This bird, Sher, had been monitored by the foundation since she fledged on Sunday. Alerted that she was having problems on her first flight, Woods had been watching her since 7 am.

"This is the kind of job we should be doing," one of the bar patrons tells his friend. "What do we do all day? Sell people rubbish." Woods is in a more practical mood: "We have to get this bird off the patio," she says. "No pets allowed."

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