Fuller: Vulnerable chick gets a helping hand in York

The fastest animal in the world, the peregrine falcon, is a regular sight around York Minster.
The fastest animal in the world, the peregrine falcon, is a regular sight around York Minster.
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For the first time ever, a pair of peregrines has successfully raised two youngsters on York Minster.

There has been a pair of peregrines circling the parapets of York Minster for some years now.

Robert with the chick that had crash-landed.

Robert with the chick that had crash-landed.

I don’t go into the city very regularly, but now that the fastest animal in the world is there, I enjoy trying to spot one perched on top of one of the many gargoyles, or hunting the pigeons close by.

Last year, the pair laid eggs, but the chicks didn’t survive which was such a shame. So I was pleased to hear that they had hatched out two youngsters and they were thriving.

One afternoon, I was sorting through some ideas for a commission, when I received an urgent message to ring Jean Thorpe at Ryedale Rehabilitation Centre.

One of the York Minster peregrine chicks had fledged from the nest and crash landed. It needed putting back on to its nest high up on the towers without delay.

The vertical walls of buildings are trickier for a youngster to get back to the safety of the nest.

Peregrine chicks are vulnerable at the fledging stage in urban environments. The vertical walls of buildings are trickier for a youngster to get back to the safety of the nest, and to even gain height.

It’s not a simple operation. I have learnt, to return a fledged bird back into the nest; so I offered to help.

We drove into the official car park and were met by Jess, a Minster police officer. She took us round to Deans Garden where the bird had, fortunately, landed on the soft grass.

Here, I met up with Doug, who follows the movements of the peregrines and posts the action on to the twitter feed @yorkperegrines. He had been keeping an eye on the whereabouts of the chick until our arrival.

Taking flight in search for food.

Taking flight in search for food.

The chick was perched on steps leading to a recessed doorway, looking quite content. It was quite easy for us to catch here, as it didn’t have an escape route. Jean went in first with her gloves, I was close behind as back up, and she soon had it in the hand.

After a quick check it was clear that it was uninjured. Jean put a British Trust for Ornithology identification ring onto its leg, which would enable it to be tracked in the future. We carefully lowered the juvenile bird into a large wooden carrying box that I had brought with me.

I have carefully designed this box with two doors on opposite sides, a mesh one and a solid one. If I’m letting a bird go I can open the mesh door and let it gradually hop out, with some encouragement from behind if needs be.

Now to the tricky bit: getting it back to the nesting ledge halfway up the Minster without inadvertently frightening off his sibling that we had spotted slightly lower down on some scaffolding.

I was about to see the Minster from a very different angle from everyone visiting that day. The police officer led me to a tight spiral staircase and radioed Steve Agar. Steve has worked as a joiner at the Minster for 35 years and knows the place like the back of his hand.

I followed him up the tightly winding steps. I arrived at an ancient oak door which led outside onto a narrow walkway. The first thing that struck me was the spectacular views over the city of York. I felt that I had entered the realm of the peregrine.

But we weren’t here to admire the view, so we hastened on to a passageway around the back of the bell tower. I realised my special carrying box was too large to carry through this narrow space.

I took the bird out of the box and carried the bird instead. He was quite tricky to handle and needed me to use both hands to secure his talons and hold his wings to his body. The bird was safely held, but his sharp beak was embedded in my wrist.

I sensed the young bird knew where he was and he struggled to get free. Steve pointed out the balcony where the nesting ledge was situated. I shuffled along an 11-inch wide gap and round a tight corner, keen to get this bird back there. Halfway along there was a metal bar less than three feet off the ground, which strapped the balcony to the main tower.

I crouched down to crawl under the metal bar, but realised I couldn’t go any further. I could see peregrine droppings and the uneaten remains of dead prey.

I lowered my hands to the floor and faced him in the direction of his nest ledge. I cautiously released my grip and he was off like a greyhound out of traps, running along the balcony and round the corner to the nest. What a relief!

The adult female was perched high up on a gargoyle. I spotted pigeon feathers floating down beneath her as she finished off a kill. The male went on several hunting missions, returning three times with sparrows to feed to the rescued chick.

The second chick was exploring everything, but was starting to cause some concern, as it was hopping lower and lower down on to different parts of scaffolding beneath the nesting ledge.

His antics took a comical turn when this hungry youngster recognised its favourite prey – a wood pigeon. He thought he would have a go at it. The hungry youngster walked towards the pigeon calling with its wings open wide. The pigeon braced itself by turning slightly away. But when the bird of prey got too close the pigeon saw him off by hitting him with its wing.

It was half past seven by now, so I headed off home. I knew that I would probably be back in the morning to retrieve this youngster who seemed bent on hopping lower and lower down the scaffolding.

The phone rang at 7.15am, there was a peregrine chick in the gardener’s yard. By the time I arrived with Jean Thorpe, it had managed to get itself on to the top of a chimney pot of a nearby house. It was getting hungry. The adult male flew low over him with prey in his talons. After 20 minutes of trying without success, the male gave the prey to the chick we had rescued the day before.

When this rung bird was fed again by the adult at lunchtime, its sibling finally took flight back to the Minster. It was great to see him on the wing. He flew right over my head

The chicks still have a lot to learn. But I’m confident that they will go far.