Sacred work: banding endangered species atop a church steeple
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.