In Melbourne we’re lucky to have birds of prey breeding in our city. But things can go wrong. On Christmas night a peregrine falcon was in trouble and needed to be saved. The job fell to me.
This bird wasn’t just any bird. It was one of three female peregrines that hatched in a nestbox on a ledge 150 metres off the ground, atop a Collins Street office block. Right through our second lockdown, from late August to mid-November, viewers of a livestreamed camera trained on the nest were captivated, as the parents raised them.
Interest was huge. There were 2.3m views of the “nestcam”, and tens of thousands of social media views.
From damp, piping chicks, to fluffy, begging nestlings, we watched them turn into bolshie young birds, squawking and galumphing up and down the ledge like feathered elephants. They grew before our eyes, being fed pigeons, lorikeets and honeyeaters, including some – distressingly – still alive.
The week before they fledged (left the nest), activity ramped up. The young birds had grown to adult size, with streaky brown-and-buff feathers and just a few strands of down. They flapped like crazy, building up muscle. The parents flew back and forth, screeching, luring the young ones into the air.
Less kindly, Mum and Dad withheld food, too, so their offspring would lose weight and be better able to take their maiden flight.
Then, about 7am on 13 November, it happened. The sisters fledged within a few hours, flying for the first time at just 42 days old.
We drank a toast, we laughed and cried. Our nestcam addiction was over; we could go back to the workplaces, classrooms and home offices we’d neglected.
For the next month, Melbourne’s central business district was the birds’ home, the parents still providing food until the young learned to hunt. There were sightings of all five; things seemed to be going well.
And that’s where this story really starts.
On 18 November, five days after fledging, one of the birds was found outside a Collins Street shoe shop. It was thought she was concussed but, abruptly, she took to the air and landed in a tree. The next day, I was asked to check her.
Easily done. The tree she’d been roosting in, on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth streets, had great gobs of bird poo on the pavement below. But she was gone.
Then, on Christmas night, news emerged of another drama: a stranded falcon on a Flinders Street apartment balcony. The falcon had come to grief, landed and couldn’t take off.
Incredibly, a family of falcon watchers had recognised the young bird. Their message reached a wildlife carer who rang me about 9.30pm.
“Would you rescue it? You’re a falcon person,” she said. (I am; I’ve been watching them for years, and this year moderated the live stream chat.)
But there are plenty of people more qualified to rescue falcons than me. It just so happened, that night, they were busy – or a little “Christmassy”.
I thought for two seconds. If I said no, I’d regret it. If I said yes, how would I do it? What if it slashed me, with its flesh-tearing beak and razor-sharp talons? The clock was ticking; if the falcon struggled long enough, it could die of exhaustion.
No pressure, then.
As it happens, I’ve rescued a few injured animals. It’s a matter of ambushing, subduing and getting them into a container. You have to catch the critter before any sharp or bitey bits of it catch you.
“I’ll be there in 30 minutes,” I said.
By 10.15 pm, I was crossing Princes Bridge, packed with crowds viewing the Christmas lights. In the lift to the 28th floor, I’d brought a cardboard box, a torch and a polar-fleece blanket. And a large measure of excitement and fear.
The family showed me into a darkened living room that opened on to the balcony. I could see the silhouette of a raven-sized bird facing the clear glass of the balcony corner, overlooking the bright, night-time vista of lit buildings and moving traffic. How small it seemed, for such a legendary bird.
The wonderful view was how a bird would see the world from on high. But she couldn’t comprehend the glass that was stopping her.
As soon as she sensed us, the falcon struggled against the glass, panicked and flapping. We turned on our torches and opened the door. I crept up, threw the blanket and grasped her with both hands.
She fought as I pinned her wings to her body. She worked her head free. Somehow, I got her into the box and closed the flaps but her thrashing made it judder. I stuffed in a towel, hoping it wouldn’t cut off her air. Adrenalin was boiling through me; my hands shook, I was breathless, I was woozy from vertigo and my legs were jelly.
But I got the bird to safety.
Later, at an animal emergency centre, a vet gave the all-clear. The bird had probably hit the building then exhausted herself trying to escape – although she wasn’t too exhausted to fight my efforts at capture.
The wildlife carer took her for observation overnight and the next day all was well. We released her at Treasury Gardens.
On social media, the tale of the rescued falcon has been extensively viewed. An outpouring of gratitude continues – because these falcons were not just birds of prey growing up on a ledge.
In an extraordinarily stressful year, falcon watchers from dozens of countries wrote about viewing the live stream. The falcons had given them hope, joy, inspiration and entertainment. They helped pass the long lockdown days and brought people together. “I loved every minute,” wrote a fan.
Hitting buildings is a major hazard for city peregrines and we must consider measures that deter them from flying into glass. They’re up against the very fabric of the cities we construct.
We can make their lives better.
As for me, every day, I’m bewitched by the mysterious charm of birds. Peregrine falcons are particularly beguiling. They’re the fastest animal on Earth, diving for prey at 300km/h.
Yet, for a moment, I held one in my hands. It was my privilege to enfold her beauty and power; her life force itself, her determination to fly free.
• Debbie Lustig is a Melbourne writer, birdwatcher and occasional wildlife rescuer