SAN JOSE -- One of San Jose City Hall's three recently born falcon fledglings slammed into a wall and died Sunday, apparently while trying to land while carrying a pigeon for lunch.
The 7-week-old fledgling succumbed to one of the many hazards of avian adolescence. He was one of three falcon chicks that had been born in a nest atop City Hall, and learned to fly about a week ago.
On Sunday morning, a passerby noticed the falcon carcass on a walkway near the north tower of City Hall, on East Santa Clara Street. San Jose Police and wildlife officials rushed to the scene and took the bird's body to the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley.
"This is just the natural order of things," said Glenn Stewart, director of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group at UC Santa Cruz, which has been monitoring falcons' progress and welfare for four decades. "People watch these birds and expect it to be the Disney Channel and to have a happy ending. We're watching nature unfold."
Falcon chicks undergo a compressed spring training that leaves them vulnerable to even small error.
Mom and Dad -- Clara and her mate Fernando El Cohete -- still hunt meals for their offspring. But it's not breakfast in bed. An alert fledgling can spy a parent from half a mile away returning home with food. The baby will race out, meet Mom and flip upside down with an open mouth -- awaiting an airdrop from Mom. In this case Clara was carrying a pigeon she'd killed by decapitation -- and successfully dropped it into the fledgling's mouth.
"This is a pretty good trick," Stewart said, but this time something went wrong. "Here's the youngster, still pretty clumsy and now carrying a large bird. In the process of aiming for a perch (where he can enjoy his meal) he slams into a building. It was pure bad luck."
Or maybe a miscalculation of velocity, distance or the force of forward motion while carrying the equivalent of half one's own body weight.
Stewart identified the dead bird only as 95/S. The bird scientist declined to say whether it was Comet, Orion or Striker -- out of concern for the feelings of the San Jose schoolchildren who chose the birds' names. It's hard to tell if Clara and Fernando are distressed over the death of one of their brood, Stewart said. They are still feeding the other two.
Peregrine falcons, which can fly at speeds in excess of 200 mph and one of the fastest creatures on Earth, catch prey midair. Unlike other birds of prey, they don't eat gophers or snakes. Parents will hunt for their offspring for about two months, Stewart said, so the two surviving fledglings have three more weeks of free meals, if they successfully maneuver midair snags from their parents.
"We all want to be like them," Stewart said. "They're fast, they see better than we do and they do these superhero stunts in the air."
Sadly, tragedy is part of a bird's life, Stewart said: "Bad things happen to peregrine falcons."
About Sunday's incident, Stewart said he can't get emotionally involved with each of the birds. Instead, he thinks of the bigger picture. Previous City Hall babies, he notes, are now nesting on the Bay Bridge, near San Francisco Airport, on an Interstate 280 bridge in San Mateo County and a Fruitvale Avenue bridge in Alameda County.
And whereas California's peregrines were near extinction in 1970, when only two known pairs remained¿, the banning of DDT and the breeding and nurturing of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group have helped the iconic bird made a comeback, with 250 to 300 pairs in the state.
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.