The two fluffy raptor chicks gazed up at the gaggle of journalists surrounding them Wednesday morning.
At four weeks, they were already the size of bantam chickens but with large claws and sharp beaks.
Moments earlier, the 4-week-old red-tailed hawks had been removed from their nest, high up in a cottonwood tree.
It’s usually a mistake to assume what animals feel and think, but it’s safe to say these two were not pleased.
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Neither were their parents. They shrieked in displeasure as they circled above.
In the background, an Alaska Airlines jet climbed above the horizon, its engines roaring. The south end of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s 34 Left runway was just a few hundred feet away.
It’s that mix of planes and birds that can have disastrous consequences.
“It’s bad for them and bad for the jets,” said raptor biologist Bud Anderson.
The Port of Seattle has an active raptor strike avoidance program. Along with scare tactics and adult captures, Sea-Tac annually removes raptor chicks. The chicks are sent to a wildlife center for rearing and then released into the wild.
That was the plan for the two chicks brought to earth Wednesday.
Anderson used a Fijian machete to hack a trail from an access road to the cottonwood.
Tree climber and arborist John Mailhiot followed.
Mailhiot used a giant sling shot to propel a thin rope around a high branch.
He then tied that line to a climbing rope and pulled it up around the limb.
Using climbing ascenders, Mailhiot made his way to the branch. From there he climbed the rest of the way to the nest, careful to avoid a honey bee colony along the way.
Mailhiot didn’t spend much time at the nest while collecting the hawk chicks.
“One nearly backed out the nest as I was trying to grab it,” he said.
Placing the chicks in what amounted to a reuseable grocery tote bag he quickly descended.
“The parents will be unhappy that we’re taking the nestlings today,” said Port of Seattle wildlife biologist Mikki Viehoever.
Timing of chick removal is key, Viehoever said.
The chicks must be removed before they fledge (have the ability to fly) but only after they no longer need round-the-clock care by their parents, she said.
Still, the chicks will be reared for another 10 weeks in captivity in Skagit County.
The birds will be taught how to hunt while still in their large flight cages.
“Once they are able to fly and hunt they are able to go out into the wild where they’re able to hunt and take care of themselves,” Viehoever said.
They’ll be able to do that among the forests, fields and rivers of Skagit County, already home to a large group of bald eagles.
It’s when the hawks stay in their Sea-Tac territory that they become a problem.
The area around the airport is divided into about five red hawk territories — the hawks decide the borders, not humans.
This year three of the resident pairs built nests. One failed and the other yielded three chicks which have already been removed.
If the chicks aren’t removed they leave their nests and gravitate to the open fields between Sea-Tac’s runways. The fields are full of small rodents — their favorite snack.
“It’s extraordinarily dangerous for them because they’re not sophisticated enough to recognize the threat (of planes) and not strong fliers at that age and so they’re very vulnerable to strike,” Anderson said.
A bird is unlikely to survive striking a plane, but the damage to planes can be serious, even catastrophic.
The world was enthralled when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his passenger jet on the Hudson River in New York in 2009 after geese were sucked into its engines, disabling it.
While nothing as dramatic as that has occurred at Sea-Tac, several planes have been damaged in the last three years.
The number of bird strikes have stayed stable over the past three years.
Small birds such as swallows, gulls and pigeons don’t damage aircraft, Viehoever said. It’s only larger birds, like raptors, that can cause problems.
Leg bands are attached to the birds relocated from Sea-Tac when they are released.
“None of them have come back to the airport to our knowledge,” Viehoever said.
While the red-tailed hawks are the primary species managed at the airport, biologists there also capture and relocate owls, Cooper’s hawks, kestrels, peregrine falcons and, recently, bald eagles.
Recovery of the bald eagle population has been good for the birds but bad for Sea-Tac.
The birds weren’t even seen at the airport prior to 2008, Viehoever said. Now, they are frequent fliers.
Bird strike statistics at Sea-Tac Airport
63 total strikes (20 raptors).
Two (non-raptors) caused damage.
63 total strikes (30 raptors).
Three, all red-tailed hawks, caused damage.
63 total strikes (19 raptors).
One, a bald eagle, caused damage.