Peregrine falcon

The male peregrine falcon sitting atop the St. John's Church steeple in 2016, as photographed by Roxborough's Judy Stepenaskie.

Two Wednesdays ago, I was standing near Judy Stepenaskie when she received the heartbreaking email that one of the peregrine falcons that mates in the Manayunk church steeple had been found a mile away in a Roxborough backyard. The bird was dead, with a cleanly severed leg, brought by the homeowner to the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center.

And Judy was heartbroken. Completely devastated.

Peregrine falcons, the fastest animal on earth – clocked in at a dazzling 240 miles per hour in a skydive – had vanished along the East Coast by the 1970s. Courtesy of the Endangered Species Act, the banning of DDT, and an amazing captive breeding program, peregrines have been released along the East Coast at several key locations, and have been staging a remarkable comeback.

Since 2011, a pair of peregrines – they mate for life – have taken up residence at the top of the steeple of St. John the Baptist Church in Manayunk, in the big stone steeple. Roxborough’s Judy Stepenaksie, with camera, scope, and binoculars in tow, has been their adoptive godmother, watching for them, checking up on them, and reporting on them over the last many years (she was featured in this column back in the spring). When they return each spring, she knows. When they lay eggs, she knows. When the young hatch, she knows – how many and what sex.

And when one dies – she knows. And takes it very personally.

Art McMorris, the state peregrine falcon coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, says he’s fairly confident the same male and female have been here for that entire nine-year run. While she was banded with leg bands at birth, he was not– his leg bands came as an adult. “During that span,” he told me last week, “he and his mate have produced 29 young, some of whom have been found nesting elsewhere.” So he was a very successful dad.

While animals die in the wild all the time, that this one passed away with one leg completely severed is odd, really odd. “In the past,” continued Art, “we have seen several falcons with one wing severed by collision with a wire (think cheese slicer), so that’s a possibility. Another is that a scavenger bit the leg off after the falcon was dead. But it’s hard to speculate.”

The Game Commission took the bird from the Wildlife Clinic last week, and their scientists are doing an autopsy, which should shed light on the cause of death.

But Judy has a theory. “I saw a drone being flown over the church steeple and over Pretzel Park next to the church, on two separate occasions. Both times I tried to find the person with the drone but was unsuccessful. Someone posted photos of the church steeple, taken by a drone, on one of the local Facebook sites. I commented on the post, asking people not to fly drones near the church and explained about the hazard to the peregrines.”

So did the drone accidentally hit the falcon? “What is more likely,” Judy continued, “is that the peregrine attacked the drone, seeing it as an interloper on his territory, especially if the drone was flying near the church steeple where the nest was. This would likely damage the drone as well. I have seen him attack other birds that flew near the steeple, including a red-tailed hawk, a turkey vulture and other male peregrine falcons.”

Not having evolved to understand drones, the peregrine dove at what it presumed was a bird, and got his leg chopped off by a rotor. Someone in Manayunk likely has a broken drone as well. Talk about unintended consequences.

Do we know this is what happened? No. But to me, this is completely logical.

As the birds have likely been dispersing for the winter season anyway – “peregrinate” is a verb that means “travel” – what will happen next spring? Will the female return? Will she mate?

If there is any good news in this, Art offers that “I am confident that the female will stay and attract a new mate and life will go on. Nest site loyalty is very high in peregrines, and they rarely leave a site where they have been successful. I’m sure Judy and the others will be watching closely, and the sooner a new mate arrives, the better!”

There’s even an outside chance, says Art, for the female to find a new mate before they disperse for the winter.

Judy remembers seeing this male falcon return to the steeple last spring, defending the nest site from others while waiting for his mate to return. That’s likely how she will remember him, perched atop the church steeple, waiting for his mate.

Rest in peace, Peregrine Falcon 45/AC Black/Green, the name Art uses for him based on his colored and numbered leg bands.

Judy, appropriately just called him “Manny.”

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org, and tweets @SCEEMike. Find the Schuylkill Center’s programming on their website, www.schuylkillcenter.org.

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