Last year when I accompanied Dr. Art McMorris of the Pennsylvania Game Commission to do a story on peregrine falcons, I was fortunate to hold a chick as he banded it.
This year when I joined McMorris in the field, I held a trash bag.
Both tasks were equally important.
McMorris, who is the peregrine falcon coordinator for the Game Commission, has been banding chicks at nests across the state since 2007. Experience has taught McMorris how to band and process falcon chicks efficiently.
And his genuine affliction for the species allows McMorris to handle the chicks with a sense of compassion, one that is critical when dealing with the future of a species that is endangered.
It’s one thing to watch what McMorris does and write about it. It’s another to take part in the process and play a small part in the important work.
I’ve been fortunate to tag along with biologists from the PGC and Fish and Boat Commission as they do their work. Handling fish or wildlife on their own turf — whether it’s a black bear or bass — is a challenge that is faced with two priorities: the welfare of the animal comes first, followed by obtaining data for research.
But when it comes to peregrine falcon chicks, the work comes with a unique set of challenges:
• Peregrines nest on cliffs and skyscrapers
• The adults aren’t happy when a biologist rappels down a cliff and takes their chicks
• The chicks are only a few weeks old and vulnerable to stress
• One mistake in handling the chicks can result in a serious blow to a population that is endangered
But when McMorris does his work, he routinely overcomes all those obstacles with ease. On those occasions when I put down the notebook for a hands-on experience to work with McMorris, it offered a perspective of just how easy he makes the difficult job appear.
Last year when I held a chick as McMorris gave it a health check, the feisty youngster dug its talons into my thumb and didn’t let go. Even at three weeks old a peregrine’s talons are sharp like daggers, and its grip is relentless.
Despite the pain, I had to maintain a steady grip on the chick as McMorris swabbed its throat to test for disease, inspected the keel bone for flight muscle development and attached a band to each leg.
And this year as PGC biologist Rich Fritsky held the chicks, I acted as McMorris’ assistant by recording band data and handing him swab sticks, syringes, litmus paper and holding a small bag to collect the trash.
Still, whether I was holding a peregrine chick or a trash bag, it was evident that every task is critical because timing is of the essence. McMorris has to be methodical in his work not only for the sake of the birds, but he has a fellow biologist dangling from the side of a cliff waiting to return the birds to their nest.
While McMorris’ expertise allows him to do the job quickly, there is another element he employs that I feel benefits the chicks.
McMorris handles the chicks with delicate hands and speaks to them the entire time, like a pediatrician talking to a child getting a shot.
The chicks respond with loud, wailing sounds, the occasional stab of a talon or a sharp pinch from a beak.
But McMorris doesn’t take offense. While the falcon chicks scorn, he continues to talk.
And while the stab wounds on his fingers bleed, he keeps on working.
Once the chicks are safely back in the nest and everyone is once again on flat ground, then the eardrums can get a respite and the cuts will be bandaged.
And then its on to the next nest.
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky