Judy Yerkey is watching over us. She does so by keeping an eye on the Peregrine falcons in downtown Detroit.
From the Book Building’s 32nd floor, she peers through binoculars on a gray January day. The 62-year-old amateur ornithologist spots a pigeon carcass on a window ledge of the Ameritech building.
“Ah, yummies,” she says. The remains tell her that falcons are near. She relies on such signs — and gut instinct — to track the birds.
“You get a feel for them,” says Yerkey. “They’re here. I know it.”
It’s a skill she has developed over 15 years. In 1987, five Peregrines were released in Detroit as part of a national program to restore them to the Midwest and East Coast. Tall buildings allow birds to nest as they naturally do on cliffs. Such buildings also enable Yerkey and others to observe them.
Before the restoration project, falcons were extinct east of the Rocky Mountains, says Yerkey. The insecticide DDT, which was banned in 1973, was blamed for destroying falcons by poisoning their prey: mourning doves, starlings, finches, blue jays and other birds that consume many of the same plants that we eat.
“Birds are barometers of what’s going on,” says Yerkey. “The falcons in particular because they feed on birds that ingest what we eat. So what’s happening to them, we’re next.”
The Harper Woods resident didn’t set out to join the restoration project. Yerkey headed downtown to see the falcons just for one day and was handed a clipboard and told to take notes.
She was a natural. She had been observing birds for years, and took notes so she could accurately describe them in stories she planned to write for her grandchildren. Michigan Department of Natural Resources biologists liked Yerkey’s detailed notes so much that they asked her to come back as a “flight attendant” the next year, when more falcons were released.
Since then, Yerkey has been made responsible for observing falcons at three downtown sites, including the Book Building, Fisher Building and the Whittier complex on East Jefferson.
She also watches falcons at the Detroit Edison Building and the DTE plant in Monroe. A small Natural Heritage program grant pays for gasoline and other expenses.
“It’s not boring by any means,” says Yerkey, who observes for nine hours some days. “You never know what’s going to happen next.”
A falcon that has provided her with endless entertainment is Sunrise, which nests on the 12th floor of the Whittier complex. The bird is from Cincinnati, Ohio, which also has a restoration program. Most falcons that show up in Detroit have bands that indicate where they’ve come from. Some have come from as far as New York City.
Falcons like Sunrise — with 17 mates to date — dispel the myth that the species is monogamous. Residents of the Whittier complex call Sunrise “Liz Taylor.”
Beyond the bond they share with mates and offspring, falcons are anti-social; the Detroit nesting sites are three to four miles apart.
“They’d nail their own grandmother if she showed up,” says Yerkey. “They’ll fight to the death.”
But they won’t attack unless they feel threatened.
Pop, a Book Building falcon, once struck Yerkey in the head while she was on the fire escape near his mate and nest.
“My head rang for an hour,” says Yerkey, who was wearing a hard hat. She knew Pop was headed for her, but didn’t move, fearing he would smack into the building. This is how most falcons die downtown, says Yerkey.
“They can fly up to 65 miles an hour,” she says.
When she finds a dead falcon and can’t determine how it died, Yerkey takes it to a lab to check for West Nile virus and other diseases. So far, viruses have not been detected. Most birds die of old age; the average life span is 12 to 13 years.
Lab results also show that DDT and other insecticides in falcons have diminished each year.
“You can tell that from the shell,” she says, explaining that she sends the lab eggshells collected from ledges. Dense shells indicate healthy eggs and birds that are healthy, she says.
Her notes go to Dr. Pat Redig, a veterinarian who directs the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota and heads the Midwest Peregrine Restoration Project.
“Dr. Redig said that I provided the most details on falcons in the Midwest,” says Yerkey.
This is not surprising, considering her affinity for the birds.
On this windy morning, she arrives at the Book Building at 11 a.m. and sets up a telescope in a massive art studio on the 32nd floor. (The artist who rents the space lets Yerkey come and go as she pleases.)
Within an hour, an unnamed migrant from Toledo soars toward the window. Yerkey recognizes it immediately.
“Oh, here she is,” she says. “Hello, hello, hello, sweetie.”
When it heads to the east and disappears, Yerkey opens the window and sticks her head out into the windy cold.
“OK, it’s noon,” she says, heading to her electronic note pad to record the sighting.
She has observed 134 falcons in the past 15 years.
Does she miss them when they leave or die?
“No,” she says. “There’s always another one to keep me occupied. This is the way it’s supposed to be.”Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]