Four peregrine falcons hatched earlier this spring on top of the Superman Building in downtown Providence. Volunteers have now banded the birds so that biologists can keep track of them.
Every spring, about three weeks after the peregrine falcons hatch, Joseph Zybrowski, a licensed bird bander and volunteer with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and Jeffrey Hall, director of advancement at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, make their way to the 30th floor of the Superman Building. They’re carrying a ladder and a blue laundry basket full of gear for banding birds.
Local photographer Peter Green is with them to document the occasion. They've invited a small group of guests to observe and help. So before heading up to the observation deck, Green advises them to walk with their backs against the wall to shield themselves from the protective adult falcons.
“They’ll kind of fly towards you and then on a quick angle they’ll fly in the other direction,” Green tells them. “So as long as you’re against the wall, you’ll be safe.”
Within seconds of opening the door to the observation deck, the female peregrine falcon lands on the railing with a sharp threatening look.
In no time, she begins giving alert calls to her mate.
Green, Hall, Zybrowski and their guests step out to the deck one at a time walking along the wall, until they reach a sheltered corner below the nesting box.
Zybrowski sets up the ladder. A couple of helpers wave brooms to keep the falcons away from Zybrowski’s head.
First, he drills a slender strip of wood across the bottom of the nest to prevent the nestlings from falling out. When he reaches into the box to grab the chicks, he finds the adult female sitting in the box with them, trying to block him.
A master birder, Zybrowski grabs and releases her up into the air. She returns and remains perched on the nesting box while her male partner watches close by. He moves the chicks into the blue laundry basket and measures each of them before wrapping two metal bands around each of their legs.
The chicks put up a fight too as they cry, bite Zybrowski and try to kick their way out of his hands. While he’s banding them, you can see leftover meals the falcons have been enjoying: mainly small birds, including a woodcock and a yellow-billed cuckoo.
Within half an hour, all four chicks are banded. One female and three males.
The female peregrine falcon is calmer when Zybrowski puts the nestlings back in the box, almost as if she knows she's getting her chicks back.
Zybrowski has been a long-time volunteer with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the federal agency that keeps track of all the banding information.
Zybrowski came up with the idea in the mid-1990s to put a nesting box on top of the Superman Building. (He built and installed the box around 1996, but the falcons didn't take to it until 2000.)
"I had heard that there was a peregrine in the city,” recalls Zybrowski. “So I knew that they could be encouraged to come to nest boxes. It's one of those things, you know, if you build it, they will come."
Zybrowski has loved birds since he was a little boy. So he wanted to give the falcon a reason to stay in Providence. At the time when he installed the nesting box, peregrine falcons were considered endangered. Their numbers are healthy again thanks to conservation efforts. They were removed from the endangered species list in 1998.
Zybrowski says typically only half of the nestlings will survive their first year. "So if they make it through the first year, they are probably going to make it to the second [year],” he says. “If they make it to the second, they will make it to the fifth; if they make it to the fifth, they'll make it to the tenth."
In their first year, they may run into buildings as they learn to fly. They also have to evade predators and survive bad weather.
Zybrowski installed similar nesting boxes at Pawtucket City Hall and the Newport Bridge. The Mount Hope and Sakonnet bridges also have nesting boxes.
In all, Zybrowski says 47 chicks have been banded at the Superman Building to date.