His bandaged left arm in a sling, Kevin Vaughan looked out a 15th-floor City Hall window on Friday morning and saw an agitated peregrine falcon staring right back at him.
“She’s thinking, ‘Remember me?'” joked Vaughan who, just last week, got hurt when that same bird confronted him while on duty as a Pa. Game Commission volunteer atop the PNC Bank Building. “She flew right at my face, talons first, and when the world’s fastest animal is coming right at you, it’s a scary situation.”
For Vaughan, that meant breaking his arm while falling in an attempt to elude the falcon’s damaging talons. It also meant surgery this week.
But that didn’t stop him from ascending a pair of City Hall elevators along with fellow volunteers and Pennsylvania Game Commission officials on a mission to tag and examine the condition of four 21-day-old peregrine chicks.
The annual visit aligned perfectly with the installation of a peregrine-falcon exhibit in the hallway outside Mayor Michael Nutter’s office, according to city Building Services Administrator Richard Mariano.
Just after 10 a.m., Arthur McMorris — the commission’s peregrine falcon coordinator — donned a hard hat and gloves in which he carried four mesh “holding bags” into which he’d place three female and one male chick (talons first) to bring inside and give a health checkup.
He could only do so with two Game Commission officers waving brooms in the air to keep the chick’s 9-year-old mother and father (of unknown age) from attacking the humans not far from a box that serves as a nest.
“They’re fiercely protective,” McMorris said over the screams of falcons with claws he compared to those of a velociraptor. “They might even whack me. I have scars from falcons trying to chase me away and I’ll probably get more today.”
The process went smoothly, with no heated human-versus-falcon battles, as the chicks were brought inside, tagged, treated for parasites while data about each was logged into a yellow notebook and then returned to their nest within about an hour.
Of particular importance was ensuring that the chicks didn’t suffer from the potentially deadly Trichomoniasis. (Each came up clean.)
Having narrated the entire process, McMorris noted that the chicks will be fully grown by the time they’re a month old and flying within the next three weeks.
“The rate at which these grow is truly amazing,” he said over the chicks’ “alarm calls.”
McMorris said these annual efforts are integral to replenishing a peregrine falcon population that dropped to zero east of the Rockies in the 1940s and 1950s as a result of DDT insecticide.
Thanks to environmentalists’ efforts, the population has grown to 43 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in Pennsylvania. While McMorris said a convoluted formula makes it difficult to pinpoint an exact pre-DDT population, he hopes the numbers will return to past levels within a decade.
As for next year’s Game Commission visit, Mariano said he hopes to have a live-feed camera set up so people can watch from a safer distance.