Of Baseball, Randy Johnson and Peregrine Falcons

It was one of those off-Reecer Creek meetings of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association. Over hot cups of java at D&M Downtown, the subjects on the floor were this week’s column and the opening of the baseball season. In particular, the buzz was around the Mariners’ new pitching rotation. Felix was on all minds, of course, with a mix of caution and excitement over Ramirez, Paxton, Young and the new Cuban kid, Elias.

Jacques “Toot” Jesaistout, as always, wanted to compare the entire rotation to his hero Randy Johnson. In a repeat of the last time we talked pitching and wildlife, he made his plea. “You should write about peregrine falcons, like that one Randy Johnson hit with his fast ball that time. 95 mile an hour fastball… Man, it was just ‘Poof!’ Feathers everywhere…” In most cases, Toot needs to be footnoted, and this was no exception.

This incident happened when Randy was pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks. During the seventh inning of a spring training game against the Giants, March 24, 2001, he threw a fastball that struck a dove picking the wrong moment to fly through the infield. Feathers filled the air and the ump called a “no pitch.” Because I have previously compared Randy’s fastball to the speed of peregrine falcons, and their ability to knock loose a cloud of feathers from prey, Toot continues to insist that Randy clobbered a falcon. Oh, well.

Still, it is a good time to explore peregrine falcons. As the most widely distributed raptor on the planet, and strikingly handsome, they are what we watchable wildlife writers call a “charismatic” species.

With a lot of help, peregrines bred their way back from the brink of forever. They were not alone. Ospreys, American kestrels and bald eagles, too, suffered huge losses from exposure to DDT and heavy-metal pesticides. at one level or another, and all have slowly increased their own numbers.

From the time the problems were identified, and DDT was banned (1972) peregrine watching became a hobby. Falco peregrinus is a 15-inch-long medium-sized hawk, with pointed wings spreading almost 40 inches. Its almost-black helmet, slate‑blue back and buff and barred underside were made for school kid sketches. Its natural habitat of cliffs and canyons could be supplanted by the tall buildings and deep gorges of major cities. Rock doves – common city pigeons – substituted for the ducks, doves, flickers, magpies and jays of its rural diet. “Falcon cams@ watched transplanted falcons and nests on skyscrapers from Seattle New York. And the in-person watching was a big part of the hobby.

I remember standing with a crowd of sidewalk lunch-munchers watching peregrines nail pigeons in the urban canyons of Denver.  We watched them teach youngsters to fly and hunt. Knowing that half the young would die from accidents or starvation in the first year, it was high drama.

We would hold our breath as a falcon swooped after a pigeon, knowing it would miss four out of five times. We might imagine moving through the air at more than 220 miles per hour (faster than a free‑falling stone in its first ten seconds). We could fantasize about moving twice as fast as a great pitcher’s fastball, and still being in complete command. We could see that, at that speed, the bird’s strike with its strong clenched oversized feet was like a lightning bolt. The pigeon invited for lunch would explode in feathers and flutter toward the ground until the peregrine regrouped and snatched it in midair. For a moment, each of us could be a peregrine falcon.

This still happens in cities across the US, and it is easy to find out where. Seattle and Spokane are among several viewable peregrine locations in our state. Get started at www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/LearnAboutBirds/NestCams.aspx and click on the downtown Seattle peregrine link. Explore the site for nest activity location information.

Surf the net.  See www.frg.org/ for the Falcon Research Group’s web cam and photos of peregrines on Seattle’s Washington Mutual Tower. The group is also carrying out a project to track a couple peregrines through their migration range, from Chile to Canada.  Check out Sunny Walter’s great images of, and links to, Washington’s raptors at www.nwlink.com/sunnywww/Apn-Birds-Raptor.html. Here you will find photos of peregrines (and other raptors), information about research projects around the country and a slide show of two babies becoming falcons.

The peregrine is pure beauty and power on the wing. Find. Watch. Feel the air. Touch the sky.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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