A Peregrine Falcon pair have been nesting and raising their young on the 33rd floor of the PG&E building in downtown San Francisco. I’ve written in my other blog for Golden Gate Audubon about the nest cam that let viewers watch the chicks on the Web, and the “fledge watch” volunteers who are monitoring and helping the young falcons as they master their flying.
Here I wanted to write about their first flight.
Think about it. Their nest is 33 floors up, over concrete streets and sidewalks. For the first month or so of their lives, the falcon chicks hang out on the building ledge while the parents fly to and fro bringing them food. They walk back and forth a bit, stretch their wings, flap a bit.
Then one day they push off the ledge. Just like that, an unforgiving 33 floors up.
We talk about our kids “leaving the nest” all the time in a figurative sense, but I’d never really thought about what this means literally for birds like those falcons.
Human development seems so incremental and safe in comparison. Our infants start to move by crawling, pushing one arm up at a time. If it doesn’t work, so what? They collapse five inches onto the floor.
When it’s time to stand, they pull themselves up on a coffee table or chair. They have something to hold on to. And if it doesn’t work, they plop right down on their fleshy bottoms.
Even other birds have an easier first flight than those falcon fledgelings. Sam and I went to view Great Egret nests today at Audubon Canyon Ranch near our Stinson Beach house. There is a colony of dozens of egret nests high in a single tree, a kind of apartment complex of egrets. But the nests are resting above a thick canopy of branches and other trees, so if a fledge (first flight) goes wrong, the young bird only falls as far as the next set of branches. Not so for the falcons.
The human activity that feels most comparable, at least right now, is teaching my daughter to drive. She’s had her learner’s permit for about three months and has had two professional driving lessons plus a lot of time in the car with me or Sam. She is a very cautious and thoughtful driver. She doesn’t speed or take risks. And I know that almost every adult behind a wheel today was once a beginning driver, and they all learned and turned out fine. (Well, most of them!)
But every time I drive with her I am terrified. Any single mis-step could bring disaster. Is she too close to the wall as we drive through a long tunnel? Is she going to pay attention and turn the wheel as we approach a curve on the freeway?
There is this potential for disaster with any driver — cab drivers, bus drivers, friends of mine, even Sam. Once you get going fast enough, any mistake becomes the equivalent of a 33-floor drop. But I take safe outcomes for granted with most adult drivers and don’t picture imminent death in each freeway curve. With my daughter, though, I get terrified. I try not to show it. But I feel it.
But even learning to drive is less all-or-nothing than a falcon fledge from a 33-floor skyscraper.
Does the young bird realize what it is undertaking and what is at stake when it spreads its wings and pushes off from the ledge?
Do its parents?