Peregrine falcon chicks tagged at Custom House Tower

Thomas W. French with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife held one of three peregrine falcon chicks that were inspected and banded.
Thomas W. French with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife held one of three peregrine falcon chicks that were inspected and banded.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Norman Smith has been working with peregrine falcons for 35 years, but for him, the day each spring that baby falcons are tagged at the Boston Custom House Tower still hasn’t lost its enchantment.

“They’re really interesting birds for sure, and when you see them after 35 years, it’s just as exciting as the first day you saw them,” said Smith, Mass Audubon’s Blue Hills Trailside Museum director.

On Thursday, Smith and his colleagues tagged three baby peregrine falcons — a male and two females — who are a little over 3 weeks old, he said. The day they are banded is the only time the birds are handled by humans, he said.

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Since falcons began nesting in the Custom House Tower in 1987, crowds have gathered for a chance to see the rare birds.

“There are people who have seen the birds before, and people who have never seen the birds before in their life and were so excited,” Smith said.

But Thursday’s tagging festivities were made interesting by another routine happening at the Custom House. Engineers working on the facade outside the building found themselves in a precarious situation when they trespassed into territory the falcons saw as their own.

Smith said falcons began dive-bombing the workers on the tower in an attempt to protect the babies, who had begun crying in their nest.

“Peregrines can be very aggressive when they defend their territory,” Smith said, adding that the birds have been recorded flying at speeds up to 242 miles per hour, making them the fastest animal in the world.

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A peregrine falcon chick waited to be inspected and banded.
A peregrine falcon chick waited to be inspected and banded.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Smith said wildlife officials placed the babies’ mother in a box to try to stop the attacks, but others showed up from around the city to defend the nest. Eventually, the engineers decided to suspend their work for the day. None of the workers were injured, Smith said, but they were a little spooked.

Mass Audubon tags the birds with two tags — one on each leg. Smith said the US Fish and Wildlife Service bands one leg with an individual number, “like a Social Security number for birds.” On the other leg, officials place a colored tag with an alphanumeric code, which observers should be able to see from a distance.

“If someone sees [a peregrine falcon], they can identify that individual bird and find out where it came from, how old it is, and where it might have migrated,” Smith said. “Because these birds are [an] endangered species, it’s important to track and monitor them and see how they’re migrating.”

A female peregrine falcon sat in the nest.
A female peregrine falcon sat in the nest.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
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The species remains endangered, but with about 40 mating pairs of adults in the state, Smith said there are more peregrine falcons in Massachusetts than ever before.

“Ultimately, whatever affects these birds long term is going to affect us,” Smith said. “We’re at the top of the food chain, too. By monitoring these birds, they’re [an] indicator species of what’s going on in the environment.”

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And for anyone interested in watching the birds grow, they can do so online via a webcam set up in the tower at www.massaudubon.org.

“To see the fastest animal in the world and see it in action, to see these little chicks grow — it’s just amazing how quick the nesting process is,” he said.

A closeup of a band on a female peregrine falcon.
A closeup of a band on a female peregrine falcon.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Thomas W. French held a female peregrine falcon.
Thomas W. French held a female peregrine falcon.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff