PAWTUCKET — With R.I. Environmental Police Officer Mark Saunders giving careful watch on the fifth-floor roof of City Hall, wildlife intern Ashley Hopkins slowly opened the lid to the special cardboard box.
Perhaps four seconds later, one female falcon appeared, began flapping her wings and coasted west towards The Pawtucket Times building.
A split second later, her kid brother followed suit, but headed east, eventually landing on top of an Armory tower.
“It's a great feeling to watch them fly away, considering they couldn't do it before,” grinned Pawtucket firefighter Lance Dumont on Friday afternoon. “The only thing that bummed me out, I didn't see them reunite with their parents, who are right up there.”
Dumont pointed toward the east ledge of the City Hall tower, perhaps 20 feet below the pinnacle, indicating the location of these falcons' nest, 170 feet or so above Roosevelt Avenue. It's a home where, just three-plus weeks ago, they were too scared to return.
Fire Lt. Mike Callahan and his wife Pattie began looking out for the two baby birds. Callahan claimed he's known for four years that falcons had built a nest up there; he could tell, as he often saw feathers flutter downward onto the station's driveway.
“They love pigeons, squirrels, you-name-it,” he laughed.
Back in mid-June, Callahan claimed he was just doing his job when he noticed a baby falcon had flown off the roof and onto the ground.
“She hopped onto the bench and walked across the apparatus floor,” Callahan revealed. “We tried to catch her, but she was too fast; we chased her over to the amphitheater. The falcon was maybe three or four weeks old. The next day, after I had worked all night, she was still out there.
“What I was worried about was high school was still in session, and there are people out here who walk their dogs, so I didn't want to see it getting hurt,” he added. “Every day at 8 a.m., our guys pull the ladder truck out and hoist the ladder to make sure everything is in working order, so I said, 'Hey, leave it up. I want to put this falcon back on the roof so it's at least closer to where it belongs.'”
The next day, Callahan said, the same bird again flew off the roof, and his colleagues decided to use the same gloves and sheet Callahan used to capture it. They then called the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. Saunders traveled to the station to pick it up, and drove the female to “Born To Be Wild” Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation, Inc., a volunteer, non-profit organization in Westerly.
“Three days later, I saw another falcon fly right off the front of the building, and it just sat on our fire truck,” Callahan said. “I called my wife (Pattie, a registered nurse in the medical intensive care unit at Rhode Island Hospital), and she said, 'You've got to rescue it, just like you did the other one!'
“He was tougher to catch, much more elusive,” he continued. “I called DEM again, and Mark came back with a big bird net, caught it and brought it to Westerly to be with his sister. I actually talked to a woman named Vivian (Maxson, a wildlife rehabilitation officer at 'Born To Be Wild'), and she told me they were too young to make their first flight.
“She said they were capable of gliding down, but they didn't know exactly how to fly; she explained they didn't have the confidence, had no idea skill-wise how to fly back to their nest.”
When asked if they were putting the birds in jeopardy by catching them – most people believe if they touch a bird, their parents will shun or kill them because of the human scent – Pattie Callahan smiled, “There's no truth to that myth. Birds have no sense of smell, and – if you think about it – owls' main prey are skunks. What does that tell you?”
The baby falcons spent approximately three weeks in a massive, net-covered cage, one Saunders described as 40 feet long, 20 feet high and 20 feet wide, and Maxson “coaxed” them to fly around, therefore gaining confidence.
When Maxson told Callahan they were ready to return to their home, he called Fire Chief William Sisson and asked if he and his fellow firefighters could use the ladder to place them back on the roof; naturally, Sisson said “Sure” – after getting permission from Mayor Donald Grebien.
At about 4 p.m., Friday, Saunders and Hopkins drove into the fire station driveway, the latter holding the box containing the falcons. Callahan asked if Saunders would like to use the ladder to free them or take the elevator to the fourth floor, the environmental police officer opted for “Plan B.”
The Callahans, Saunders, Hopkins, Dumont and a few media members trekked up two steep series of stairs to the fifth-floor roof, about 65-75 feet straight up, and Saunders told the entourage to expect the birds to either shoot out of the box “like cannonballs” or just walk around.
Hopkins – a Burrillville resident, senior-to-be at University of Rhode Island and intern at “Born To Be Wild” – carefully opened the lid and walked away. The rest, as they say, was history.
There was no one singing “Born Free” during the process, though Pattie Callahan did mention, “They flew away better than I thought they would. That was awesome. Falcons are beautiful birds, and I'm glad this had such a happy ending.”
Stated Saunders, like the Callahans a resident of Riverside: “It was all Vivian. She got the falcons' confidence up. They were at an age where they were just learning how to fly. She fed them and instilled in them the desire to fly. The female had more of an advantage because she was bigger and a little older, so she had more confidence. She had to coax her kid brother to do what she was doing.
“I'm not surprised that they wanted to get out and find a safe place to land,” he added. “I mean, they were in the box for an hour as we drove up here.”
Callahan the lieutenant, who with his wife are ardent and enthusiastic animal lovers, called the experience “cool.
“I didn't think they'd fly off as quickly as they did,” he noted. “I was concerned they weren't going to fly off like they were supposed to, but that wasn't the case. It feels good, to see something get back to where it belongs. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”