The Last MCC Chick Fledges
Yesterday evening, I checked work email and found a nice note from Preston Kendall. We passed some emails back and forth and decided to meet on the garage roof Saturday (today) morning. As I stepped out the door of our building this morning at 9am, I could already see Preston on top of the garage with his camera out.
When I arrived on the garage roof, Preston greeted me warmly and then pointed excitedly at the roof of a small building to the southeast of the garage.
“I got here at 9:15am and the last chick was gone!” he said. “And then I saw movement and there she was, flapping her wings on that roof!”
So our last little slow chick fledged! She probably did so somewhere between 7:30am, when Sean walked by on his morning walk to the store and saw her on the nest ledge and 9:15am, when Preston arrived and she was on the small building’s roof.
The chick ran from one end of the roof to the other, flapping her wings, lifting off for short periods of time and then balancing precariously on the edge. The small building formed the northern border of a parking lot which was already filling with cars, many of which sported Puerto Rican flags. Crowds piled out of the underground ‘el tunnels on the way to the 41st annual Puerto Rican Parade on Columbus Drive, to our east. Normally, I would have wandered down to see the festivities, but today, we had a chick fledging right in the middle of all the confusion. One of downtown’s few gas stations sits at the southern border of the parking lot and to the south of that, bumper to bumper traffic on 8-laned Congress. In fact, due to the parade, all of the streets surrounding the fledgling were teeming with people and traffic.
“I hope she stays away from the ‘el tracks and the streets,” Preston said. “One year, and you are going to think I was stupid, one of these chicks went down right in the middle of Congress. I ran out there, holding my hands up and waving, hoping I didn’t get hit by a car. I managed to rescue it, though.”
“I don’t think you are stupid at all. Or, rather, if you are, then I am too, because I would have done the same thing,” I assured him.
After 45 minutes, Sean joined us. Max flew in at some point and landed on the building next to his chick. She ran to him and he dropped a bloody hunk of indistinguishable bird, touched her a few times with his beak and then took off again. That was very cool to see.
An hour and a half later, the chick abruptly took flight. Fortunately, Sean saw where she went. I’d come to the garage prepared with towel, leather gloves and a small pet carrier, so I grabbed everything as I ran towards the elevator, Preston hot on my heels. Sean watched the street before running after us, yelling, “Dearborn. Jeez, I think she landed on Dearborn!” Oh man, little girl, not in the street! Not on traffic heavy Dearborn!
We probably looked completely out of our minds as the three of us ran up and down Dearborn, looking under cars, in alleyways, at the base of buildings. Fortunately, our chick wasn’t in the street. Trouble was, she wasn’t anywhere else either. Again, Sean played the role of Quick T. Thinker.
“You guys keep scouring down here. I’m going to buy a fare for the ‘el and go up on the tracks, make sure she didn’t land up there. If she didn’t at least I’ll have a good bird’s eye view.” Great idea!
Unfortunately, in the rush to get to the ground from the roof, I’d thrown my pack and tripod into Preston’s car, with my cell phone inside. So, as Sean tried and tried again to call me, my phone merrily rang and rang in Preston’s car, two blocks away and 12-stories up. Finally, I came into view for Sean and he yelled down at me, furiously pointing at the Monadnock building. I ran down to stand under him.
“Excellent!” I said, running around to take the Exit Only stairs up to where he stood.
The chick stood on a good-sized ledge directly in front of me but up a bit, so maybe on the 3rd story of the Monadnock. Sean came over to stand next to me, leaning against the bars that separated us. “Sometimes I wonder why you own a cell phone,” he remarked dryly.
Preston ran up a few minutes later and we pointed the chick out to him. He grinned and sped up to the garage roof to get his camera.
I realized that the chick was tracking every slight movement Sean and I made, plus watching the traffic below, so I sat down and tried to stay still while I wrote in my field journal. Preston quietly took pictures from the 4th floor of the garage. I wanted all of us to stay as still as possible so that we wouldn’t spook her off of the ledge, a very safe place for her to chill out before trying to fly again.
“Sean,” I said quietly, “you can come down now if you want.”
“Ah, good idea,” I said. “But, seriously, don’t do anything dangerous, ok? She’ll be okay. If she lands on the tracks, we’ll be able to spook her off without anyone doing anything dangerous.”
No sooner had the word “dangerous” come out of my mouth than two pigeons flew by and landed on the chick’s ledge, about 12 feet from her. Sheesh. Speaking of dangerous behavior!
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” I muttered. “Stupid pigeons! They’re going to get themselves killed! Gah, I can’t look,” I said, squeezing my eyes shut.
“Then, give me the camera,” Sean whispered, holding his hand out. I groaned and slipped the camera to him through the bars, sat down and fixed my attention on recording events in my field journal, sure there was about to be a pigeon tragedy.
The chick seemed completely taken aback by the two pigeons staring at her. I considered the fact that she’d probably never actually seen live prey, or, really, the top half of a bird. I couldn’t imagine what she might be making of this. But, somehow, she connected the pigeons with FOOD and flattened down, staring at them intently. The two pigeons continued to blithely inch towards her. Her head began to bob as she worked on judging the distance – a common pre-dive-for-prey behavior.
“Oh, this is going to go so very Wild Kingdom any moment, isn’t it? This is not going to be good,” I groaned, imagining what a fledgling would do with its first live pigeon.
And still, the lead pigeon kept inching towards her. She waited. The lead pigeon stopped no more than 5 feet away from her. They stared at each other. Suddenly, she took off running for it and both pigeons lazily jumped off the ledge. The chick came to a screeching halt and looked around wildly.
“It’s safe to open your eyes now,” Sean said. “They flew away.”
The two pigeons came back a couple of times and the chick chased them each time, but never caught one. As well, she didn’t fall from the ledge, which was nice. Finally, she started to wander north on the ledge and Sean and I decided that if she was going to ground, she’d land in the street, not on the tracks.
Sean came down and we met with Preston in the garage. Wendy stood with Preston and we greeted her. We all babbled on excitedly about what we’d seen from each of our angles and about the stupid pigeons that almost got themselves killed.
After awhile, Wendy said she had go to meet a group of bird monitors to rescue a bunch of ducklings that had taken up residence in a hotel’s fountain, but would be back later. Preston also had to leave, so I thanked him profusely for helping us look for her on the ground earlier and went with Sean down to the 4th floor.
For the next little while, the chick napped. Then, the train went by. She didn’t seem to like the noise much (good!) and waddled north a bit more. That’s when I noticed there was a dead pigeon laying in an indent in the building, right off the fire escape, around the corner to the north of the falcon chick. I wondered if she’d do anything with the dead pigeon and hoped it hadn’t died of poison or anything. The pigeon moved. It wasn’t even near dead, but laying, very still, on a nest. I groaned again, but watched. Our chick waddled clumsily closer and finally rounded the small outcropping bend that led to the fire escape. She stopped in her tracks and looked at the mother pigeon. The mother pigeon jumped up off her nest and the chick ran for her.
Sean looked through the scope and said that he only saw eggs. The fledgling walked over to the nest and began curiously scratching around in it, putting her beak down near the eggs a couple of times. Meanwhile, the mother pigeon had landed south of her, on another outcropping, and was anxiously watching. I thought for sure the falcon would break some eggs, but she just messed up the nest, then wandered over into the corner, out of the hot sun. She ruffled her feathers, groomed for a bit and then closed one eye, napping.
“I’m starving,” Sean announced, looking down at his watch. “I’m going to run home for awhile. Want me to bring you something?”
“Nah. I’ll wrap up here in a bit. She could stay like this until tomorrow morning and the traffic is slowing down. I’ll call you when I’m on my way.”
Sean smooched me goodbye and I returned to watching the chick, who now had both eyes closed. Unfortunately for the mother pigeon, she’d chosen to nap just a few inches away from the nest. That poor pigeon stood up there for hours, watching and waiting to get back to her eggs.
Awhile later, I started packing my things to leave when I heard someone say “Hello!” behind me. I turned and smiled at the man walking towards me. He thrust out his hand. “I’m Tim Cunningham. The one in the Monadnock you talked to last week,” he said, with a wide smile.
What a nice guy! Tim and I stood and talked while gazing over at the chick, who had woken up some time ago and started up the steps of the fire escape. One step. Rest. Flap wings. Another step. Rest. She’d already made a floor. She seemed to be enjoying a wind that had kicked up in the last hour as a storm rolled in and had her wings stretched fully out. How cute.
She lowered and raised her wings a few times then flapped once and was gone again, back south down Plymouth, in the general direction of the nest ledge.
Tim and I blinked at each other. “I gotta go! Nice to meet you!” I yelled, running for the elevator.
I got to the bottom and started running south. A car went by me and pulled to a stop at the southern end of the MCC courtyard, by a small fenced in and locked area that houses some large heating and cooling machinery. Tim got out of the car and waved his hands, pointing wildly at the fence. I reached him a moment later and, of course, she’d landed in the locked area behind the jail and was sitting on the ground. Although I was relieved that she hadn’t landed in the middle of Congress, I realized that the space was probably too tight for her to get any kind of running start in order to get off the ground. She probably would be trapped back there.
“Hmmmm,” I said, pondering the problem.
Tim and I discussed the options, but finally he had to hit the road. He wished me good luck and drove off. “Hmmmm,” I said again.
I decided to go in and speak to the weekend MCC building manager and see if he might let me back there to get the chick. Realizing I was going to need help, I decided to call Sean. Sean didn’t answer, so I called Wendy. She answered by saying, “Look up on the garage!”
I looked up and saw her standing with someone and waving down at me. I grinned and told her what was going on. She said they’d be right down. Minutes later, Wendy and another woman walked towards me across the courtyard. Wendy introduced me to her friend and fellow bird monitor, Lesley, a very nice woman with a beautiful English accent. The three of us puzzled over the problem for a moment and then I went into the prison to ask for access.
The staff of the MCC could not have been more friendly or helpful. After a half hour, the lieutenant in charge came out and assessed the situation. Looking at our beautiful fledgling, he readily agreed to let us go in and try for a capture. Just as we prepared to go, Sean came back down. Wendy and Lesley decided to stay outside the fence, just in case the chick squeezed through the bars and went for the street. Sean and I followed the lieutenant around the building where he gave us access to the locked area and followed us in.
It really dawned on me, right then, that I’d never actually captured a falcon before. Trying to appear accomplished at this sort of thing, I handed Sean the pet carrier, donned the leather gloves and unfolded the large towel. I gave some vague directions of some sort, took a look at the chick, who was maybe 20 feet away, and started creeping towards her, towel held out in front of me.
The wind had really kicked up. It gusted powerfully enough to knock me a few stumbling steps forward as I tried to slowly make my way for the chick. In truly Newbie Falcon Rescuer fashion, I watched the chick carefully, looking straight at her. She, in turn, looked straight at me suspiciously. Over the wind, I heard Wendy yelling something at me, but I couldn’t make it out. Then, I entered a Falcon-catching Zen State. My world narrowed to me and the falcon as I stepped closer and closer and closer.
Later, I found out what Wendy, an actually accomplished bird capturer, had been yelling — directions. For instance, do not stare directly at her. She is a predator and will see that as an aggressive action. Avert your gaze. Try to make yourself smaller by walking towards her sideways. These instructions seemed familiar to me and I realized I’d actually learned all of that when I was studying animal behavior in college. Embarrassing.
Back in the present, finally, I stood about 3 feet from the chick, staring directly into her eyes. Her wings were up, but she stayed put. That is when a gust of wind caught my towel and threw it forward. The chick took wing. In a clownish movement, I threw the towel. It landed on the chick’s back half just as she made for the fence, squeezing herself underneath. I was very worried she’d get stuck and hurt herself. Wendy and Lesley were on the other side, trying to herd her backwards. *POP* went the chick, pulling herself through the fence opening and sprinting past Wendy and Lesley on her way through the courtyard.
Man, did I feel like a doofus. I sighed and took off running for the courtyard to help Wendy and Lesley, with the lieutenant and Sean right behind me.
The chick had taken to the air briefly and was sitting on top of a row of ornamental bushes in the center of the courtyard. Wendy stood to her north, arms held wide and Lesley to her south. I told Sean to take a wide berth around and try to get to the east of the chick. I slowly crept to the west. We had her surrounded. By this time, we also had quite an audience. The four of us slowly closed ranks, but as I brought the towel up, the chick took off again, into the air. She managed an impressive, if a bit unstable, flight, making for the top of the small parking garage to the south of the jail. I thought she was going to make it, but she was a few feet shy and ended up sort of sliding down the wall to land, of course, right back in the locked area.
The nice, and patient, lieutenant offered to let me back there again, but the chick had actually landed on top of one of the approximately 10 foot high machines. As we watched, she wandered around, wings spread, before settling down to groom. She seemed completely content. Since she was up off the ground, I decided she’d be fine. I thanked the lieutenant profusely and he said to come have him paged if she grounded again. Wow! What a lot of help!
I looked at my watch. It was about 5:00pm by then. I told Sean to head home, we’d call him if we needed him. After listening to Lesley and Wendy’s story about Operation Duckling Rescue (which went fine), I realized both women were probably exhausted and told them to head home too. Neither really wanted to go. Lesley elected to stay and keep me company while Wendy went home and got something to eat. We sat in the ever-worsening wind and watched the chick, who had settled in nicely and seemed like she was probably going to roost there. We had a very nice talk until Wendy returned at 6pm. I hadn’t eaten or gone home since 9am that morning, so I decided to pack it in, telling both women that I was fairly sure the chick was going to roost and promising I’d check in the next morning early. They decided to hang around a little while longer. I left them my pet carrier – Just In Case.
So, here I sit. I’ve showered and eaten something. It’s dark outside. Wendy called at dusk to report that the chick seemed fine and was roosting in the same spot. She said she’d check again on her bird rounds at dawn. I said a million thank yous to her and to Lesley.
“Don’t thank me! I had a great time today! Who gets to be that close to a falcon! I’m pumped!”
All the same, I feel full of gratitude. So, thank you Sean, for staying out with me for hours and for coming up with some of the best ideas of the day. Thank you Preston for running up and down Dearborn with me and for watching our chick for hours. Thank you Tim for having a sharp eye and spotting the downed chick. Thank you Lesley and Wendy for helping try to capture her and for staying out for hours on end to make sure she didn’t get into any trouble. Thank you Lieutenant, for being interested and for giving us access to the locked area. And finally, thank you falcon chick, for letting me get as close to you as I did today. You are truly magnificent.