Sa­cred work: band­ing en­dan­gered species atop a church steeple

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Some 140 feet above Manayunk’s side­walk, six of us were crowded into a small space at the top of the St. John the Bap­tist Church steeple, the tall stone steeple ris­ing above the Manayunk sky­line, climb­ing a series of in­creas­ingly taller and in­creas­ingly rick­etier stairs and lad­ders to get there. We’re wear­ing hard hats and gog­gles and steel-toed boots, hold­ing flash­lights and cam­eras and binoc­u­lars, the group was risk­ing the crazy-high climb to per­form, may the Mon­signor for­give me for say­ing, sa­cred work.

We were band­ing baby pere­grine fal­cons. The world’s fastest an­i­mal, the pere­grine is an en­dan­gered species in Penn­syl­va­nia, one that be­came ex­tinct in the eastern U.S. by the 1960s but has been brought back, Lazarus­like, due to the ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­forts of 40 years of science.

As I wrote about two months ago, pere­grines have been nest­ing atop the St. John’s steeple since 2011, the same pair re­turn­ing ev­ery year to raise two to four nestlings. Five of us are guests of Art McMor­ris, the Bala Cyn­wyd res­i­dent and state pere­grine fal­con co­or­di­na­tor who mon­i­tors nests across Penn­syl­va­nia, who knows the adults at each site in­ti­mately and vis­its nests in May to care­fully weigh, ex­am­ine and band the chicks.

Last Tues­day af­ter­noon, Art vis­ited St. John’s, ar­riv­ing just af­ter band­ing chicks from the Gi­rard Point Bridge in Philadel­phia, that dou­ble-decker bridge that al­lows I-95 to cross the Schuylkill. He knew that four eggs were laid in the Manayunk nest about 30 days ago, and today he’d see how they were do­ing.

As most Manayunkers likely know, the stone steeple was ren­o­vated two years ago by the church, whose con­trac­tors worked closely with Art to ac­com­mo­date the fal­cons. In fact, they in­stalled an Art-de­signed wooden nest­ing box that sits in the south-fac­ing win­dow of the steeple; it al­lows him to, while stand­ing in­side the steeple, drop a panel across the front of the box to keep the par­ents — and their sharp talons— out of the nest box while he is work­ing. Equally im­por­tant, it pre­vents the chicks from fall­ing out of the box onto the side­walk be­low.

Af­ter crawl­ing and climb­ing through that re­mark­able series of chutes and lad­ders, we gath­ered at the top, Art care­fully open­ing the back door of the nest box to peek in­side. “Three fledglings!,” he crowed, “and one un­hatched egg,” and he ob­served that un­hatched eggs are not un­com­mon. “One fe­male,” he called out, “and two males.” As fe­male pere­grines are much larger than males, sis­ter tow­ered over her broth­ers. And amidst the ba­bies was a large col­lec­tion of bones from the many din­ners — mostly pi­geons — the par­ents had been bring­ing their young.

Through­out our time in the steeple, it should be noted, we were ser­e­naded by the pierc­ing cries of the an­gry par­ents out­side, con­tin­u­ously cir­cling the steeple, upset they had no ac­cess to their off­spring. Of course, we worked as fast as we could to min­i­mize the upset and re­unite the fam­ily.

Art care­fully took each bird out of the box, placed each in a draw­string bag and went to work. As he ex­am­ined each, the five guests took turns with two tasks, one record­ing Art’s notes and num­bers while another held the fledgling.

He started with the fe­male. “Big sis­ter is bird num­ber 1,” he called out. “She weighs,” and he at- tached the bag to a spring with a scale, “980 grams.” (That’s about two pounds.) He took her out of the bag, gave her to one of us to hold and be­gan the ex­am­i­na­tion amid her vo­cal protests. “The eyes are clear, the throat is clear, the feet are good, the ears are good. No par­a­sites.” He felt the skin in her chest for the keel, the large bone shared by all birds to which flight mus­cles at­tach. “The keel is good,” he called, “nice strong mus­cles.”

“Man, is she strong,” he said as she em­bed­ded a talon in his hand. “This is a tough one!” He placed a fal­coner’s hood on her, hop­ing the dark­ness would calm her down; it did, but only a tad. Then, he swabbed its throat for later cul­tur­ing to see if it had a cer­tain dan­ger­ous par­a­site.

He then placed two bands on its legs, a sil­ver one from the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice with a unique nine-digit code on the right leg, a two-color band with fewer dig­its on the left, the lat­ter be­ing more eas­ily read from afar.

“She is the most ram­bunc­tious nestling I have ever en­coun­tered,” he con­cluded, and Art has en­coun­tered hun­dreds in his time. “I have a feel­ing we’re go­ing to hear from this one again.”

I took a turn hold­ing the sec­ond bird, a smaller, thank­fully calmer brother. But his body was hot. “Yes,” Art replied to my sur­prise, “their tem­per­a­ture is 104, 105 de­grees nor­mally.”

Be­fore we be­gan this in­cred­i­ble af­ter­noon of work, we stopped in at the rec­tory, where Mon­signor Kevin Lawrence, the pas­tor, greeted us warmly. I asked about hav­ing en­dan­gered species as parish­ioners. “There are two great things about this,” he noted. “It’s a good use of the steeple, and,” he winked, “it cured the neigh­bor­hood’s pi­geon prob­lem.” Where pi­geons once cov­ered the church and steeple, I saw none that af­ter­noon.

When done and bless­edly back at ground level, I looked up — and cir­cling the steeple was the fe­male adult, the mom of this brood, no longer yelling as she had al­ready been re­united with her young af­ter we fin­ished. In a cou­ple of weeks, three more pere­grines will join her in the skies above Manayunk, and our world is a lit­tle bit bet­ter for it.

Once ex­tinct across the eastern seaboard, pere­grine fal­cons are nest­ing in mul­ti­ple sites in the city: here, Gi­rard Point, even City Hall, where Art was go­ing the next day.

Score one small vic­tory for science.


The three fledglings sit in their nest box, bands clearly vis­i­ble on their legs, big sis­ter in the far left cor­ner along­side a brother.


The larger fe­male fledgling is banded.


State pere­grine co­or­di­na­tor Art McMor­ris climbs just one of­many lad­ders to get to the top of the steeple.


The adult fe­male pere­grine soars along­side the St. John’s steeple.

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