Toad in the Hole

May 20, 2005

Fun Science: Domestic Life of the Lords of the Air

I've got the habit of keeping the PG&E Building Falcon Cam in a minimized window on the monitor while I'm working or fooling around on the computer. For some days now, I've been seeing a field of view mostly empty of birds, looking pretty funky with scraps of down and feathers wiggling in the breeze, and lots of birdshit on the roof around the gravel nestbox. Reminds me of a house with too many adolescents.

I'd been wondering if the four young peregrines had fledged; they'd looked pretty ready the last time I saw all of them.

This morning, late, I saw one of the adults appear on camera, sitting on a square post that they sometimes use as a perch, taking in the sun. Later, another adult showed up, joined Adult A on the perch, and they went through a dance of movements -- head-bobs, pointed looks in the same direction, bows, head-turns, stretches -- by turns in sync and then opposite each other -- A down while B up and so on. There even seemed to be a little bill-touching.

The Bird B flew off, and Bird A spent some time stretching, preening, posing, the perfect abstraction of Swift Movement even when standing perfectly still.

A few minutes later, Bird A leaped from the perch to the rooftop, and the movement in the right margin of the viewfield turned out to be Bird B. More bowing and bill-touching ensued. Then Bird B began feeding Bird A with bits of a probable pigeon that was just below camera range. B ripped off pieces, "handed" them off, sometimes placed some directly into the opened bill of Bird A, sometimes seemed to be teasing A by holding a bit forward and then withdrawing it. Bits of white down from brunch clung momentarily to each bird, then blew away.

After several minutes of this, one of the young birds, distinguished by a pale, irregularly marked head and some still-fluffy body plumage, showed up at the right of the pair. They turned, in no great hurry, and fed Youngster by turns; Bird B also continued to feed Bird A intermittently. A picked up a drumstick fragment and took a few steps away, then disappeared to the right. I wonder if there were other youngsters hoping for a bite there.

Bird B finally backed off-camera, leaving Youngster to finish off whatever was left.

After a few minutes, Youngster had moved out of sight, and one of the adults had resumed the perch on the square post. More settling of feathers, preening and stretching, takingin the sun, and then one of the youngsters joined Adult A(?), perching on the parapet beside the post. Junior was a little fidgety, but both settled into basking.

Some years back, Joe and I were driving the pickup around the dirt roads in the middle of Sierra Valley. We rounded a corner and saw, on and beside a pasture fence about fifty feet away, four juvenile peregrines. They looked like a bunch of teenagers just hanging around, shuffling idly now and then, not much on their minds. They didn't startle at us -- vehicles make pretty good bird blinds -- so I turned off the engine and we sat there and watched in awe for a good 15 minutes before they got restless and left, one by one.

It was a strange thing to be seeing a flock of peregrines. They're not flocking birds, and aren't generally easy in each other's company. We were reluctant to believe that all four were siblings, and wondered if they joined up in juvenile motorcycle gangs the way ravens do before pairing off. Seeing the San Francisco pair evidently raising four to fledglinghood, we're reconsidering that.

That solitary tendency has to be countered, in a mated pair, by those little rituals I was seeing this morning, not just before mating but on a frequent basis as they raise their young and continue together. What I was watching was the fierce-and-solitary-predator equivalent of the pre-breakfast hug, of the cup of coffee and bun. Falcons don't bring flowers home, or a take-out pizza surprise; they bring pigeon parts.

And yes, I'll call them "fierce." Not ill-disposed toward the world, just jealous of privacy and space and hunting territory. There's a pair of peregrines known to hang out near the mouth of Bolinas Creek in Marin. Joe and I were standing in the pickleweed looking around one sunny day, and as we scanned the sky directly above us, we spotted two falcon silhouettes very high above, at the edge of visibility, a couple-three hundred feet at least, circling each other.Maybe our binoc lenses glittered; maybe they just saw something odd below. It's interesting to think about how much better they see than we do.

I started to say, "Hey, one of them's..." and before I could say, "moving" and drop my glasses, the bird was there at eye level, less than six feet from my side, clearly looking, checking us out. We could hear the wind singing through its pinions. Just as fast, it was gone, casually spinning back up the air column, rejoining its mate, leaving us gasping and gratified.

They can be just plain bitchy too. In that same spot, years earlier, we were gazing down the ranked and folded hills that line Bolinas Lagoon, watching birds and and the play of light in the water and the afternoon air. Down the lagoon, we could see a great wave of movement, rising fom both sides into the sky, gaining sound, and approaching us. It resolved into flock after flock of shorebirds, herons, and ducks, all streaming from the water and mudflats in a flow of panic, driven by a peregrine proceeding in a slow and lordly flight from the south end to the north. As it flew by, it turned its head from side to side, clearly watching its own effect, its shadow of reflexive fear among the birds of the water.

Posted at May 20, 2005 10:07 PM