Falcon abandons the nest

Birds: A biologist removes a chick from the Legg Mason building, and from its mother, to take it to a new home in the mountains.

May 21, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

They live in a ritzy high-rise with a sweeping view of the Inner Harbor and regularly dine on the city's choice fowl.

But for one young peregrine falcon roosting on the 33rd floor of the Legg Mason building, this avian dream came to a halt yesterday morning.

Craig Koppie, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Chesapeake Bay field office, arrived for his annual visit to the 26-year-old peregrine roost to band three chicks, or eyases, hatched late last month in a gravel-filled box that serves as their nest.

For the second year, he also planned to pack up one of the chicks and take it to a cliff-top aerie overlooking Harpers Ferry, W.Va., as part of an effort to re-establish the species in the mountains.

Once a federally endangered species, the birds were removed from the list in 1999 but remain rare in Maryland, and thus are carefully inspected by biologists like Koppie.

He arrives on the building's 33rd floor about 9 a.m., knowing he's in for a rough morning.

Before the chicks can be removed from the ledge and banded, he'll have to wrestle their nasty and protective mother into the building through a narrow window and subdue her -- a procedure that hasn't always gone according to plan.

"Your eye's healing up pretty good," Tom Murphy, the building's property manager, tells Koppie jokingly. On a previous visit, mom sank a talon into the flesh near the biologist's eye -- a gash that required stitches.

"She won't get a cheap shot by me ever again," Koppie says.

An adult female peregrine is about the size of a large crow, with a 3-foot wingspan and razor-sharp black talons she uses to shred her prey and defend her young.

The ledge's occupants

The first falcon to reside on the 33rd floor was a female named Scarlett. Bred in captivity by Cornell University, the bird arrived at what was then the USF&G building in 1978. By 1983, she was producing offspring with a male peregrine named Beauregard.

The nest's current female occupant, says Koppie, is a New Yorker whose leg band indicates she was born in an aerie on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Of the 15 peregrine nests in Maryland that Koppie monitors, he says this female -- which he calls "Slasher" -- is the most aggressive falcon he knows.

"I'm mentally preparing," Koppie says as he unpacks aluminum leg bands, duck-nosed pliers, a fishing net, a tiny leather hood and a heavy welder's glove.

Koppie preps for the encounter in a small conference room used by Legg Mason's Equity Research Group. As he slips on his welder's glove, employees crowd the windows overlooking the birds.

The birds are so popular that the company has a camera on them around the clock and shows the closed-circuit feed in the lobby.

From his office on the 33rd floor, Hugh Warns, Legg's director of equity research, said it's not unusual for him to glance out window and see the female peregrine dive-bombing an unsuspecting pigeon -- which usually disappears in a cloud of feathers. "It's like it explodes," he says.

Nor is it uncommon to find the family's leftovers -- disembodied pigeon heads or legs -- littering the building's ledges or plaza below.

Removing the mom

When Koppie is ready, he passes through an unmarked door in the back of the conference room and into a 70-square-foot space created by Legg Mason to study the birds.

At the sight of the biologist, the female puffs her chest menacingly, unfurls her wings and lunges at the glass.

As an assistant cautiously cracks open the window leading to the ledge, Koppie eases his gloved hand through. Feathers and a whiff of falcon droppings fill the room.

"All right, mother," he says soothingly.

The female lunges at his glove and snaps her talons around the leather, flapping wildly. Koppie sweeps a fish net over the bird and jerks the wriggling mass into the building.

He pulls the bird from the net and places her on her back, pinning her to the floor. As the falcon snaps her wings, he slips the leather hood over her head and then wraps the bird in a towel, subduing her.

"I'm sweating," he says, wiping his forehead.

The three chicks -- which the Legg employees have named Larry, Moe, and Curley -- now huddle alone out on the ledge, screeching. Their dad, whom Koppie doesn't know very well, is nowhere in sight.

Close call

Grabbing his net and a cardboard box, Koppie climbs carefully though the window. None of the chicks can fly yet, so Koppie creeps cautiously toward them over feathers and falcon droppings.

He takes the first one easily, slipping his net over the bird and placing it in the box. But the second bird -- Curley -- hops precariously closer to the edge of the ledge as Koppie approaches with the net.

As the Legg Mason audience looks on, Koppie makes an attempt to snatch the bird, which suddenly tumbles over the ledge.

Gasps fill the room -- until they notice that Koppie has somehow managed to swoop his fishing net underneath the bird, which plops unharmed into the webbing.

"For just a moment, my heart kind of dropped," Koppie says after he climbs into the building with all three birds in his box.

In the conference room, he crimps two pairs of aluminum bands around each bird's leg and tucks one of the birds into a plastic dog carrier, which he'll take to Harpers Ferry, along with five babies from other nests.

Mom and the other chicks return to the ledge. The Legg Mason staff buzzes about the close call as Koppie heads toward the elevator.

"Get back to work," he orders.

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