Four peregrine falcon chicks roosting high above the Hudson River on the George Washington Bridge were pronounced healthy Tuesday and fitted with tracking bands to help biologists keep tabs on them.
Their mother's squawks competed with the din of morning-rush bridge traffic as Chris Nadareski, a wildlife biologist with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, gently lifted the fluffy chicks out of their nesting box and used pliers to fasten metal bands around their legs.
Nadareski peered into the birds' ears, then spread their wings to check for lice.
"You can see how the fight feathers are just starting to emerge," he said.
When fully fledged, the babies will be fierce hunters that can dive at speeds of 200 mph or more to snatch other birds in mid-flight.
The chicks' parents are among some 20 peregrine falcon pairs that live in New York City, favoring bridges and tall buildings where they can easily spot their prey. And because scores of migratory bird species pass through New York, there is plenty.
"I've documented over 140 of birds that they feed on," Nadareski said.
Peregrine falcons became endangered decades ago because of pesticides. Populations have recovered since the ban on DDT in the 1970s but scientists band them to keep track of them.
"If it gets into trouble we know exactly which nest to bring it back to," Nadareski said as he banded one of the squirmy youngsters.
Because peregrine falcons don't build nests but lay their eggs on a flat surface, officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey started protecting the eggs several years ago by building nesting boxes on the George Washington and the other bridges the authority operates.
On Tuesday, several Port Authority workers joined Nadareski on the lower level of the George Washington Bridge near the New York side, 189 feet above the Hudson.
The wooden nesting box was attached to a girder about six feet below the road bed. Nadareski and two Port Authority bridge workers wore harnesses tethered to the bridge as they descended a ladder to the birds' level.
The mother falcon, sleek and gray with a banded gray and white belly, squawked furiously as Nadareski crawled toward the box. All the humans wore hardhats for protection from her talons. The babies squawked at a higher pitch, then bleated as Nadareski grabbed them each by the legs.
There were three males and a female, all healthy though one male was on the runty side, Nadareski said. At about three weeks old the chicks were mature enough to band, because their legs won't grow any more, but too young to fly away.
"We don't need the lice spray today," Nadareski said. "They're clean."