As the Toronto Blue Jays' R.A. Dickey was throwing his first pitch against the New York Mets at Rogers Centre on June 18, Mark Nash was gingerly making his way along a narrow concrete corridor tucked just beneath the retractable roof, out of sight from field level.
The conservationist carried a cage holding three fledging peregrine falcons he was trying to return to their nest, on the outside of the massive dome, which he could access through a door in the roof. It was one reason, on a night when the game-time temperature outside was a hospitable 20 C, officials at Rogers Centre agreed to leave the roof shut to help ensure a safe operation.
Time was of the essence, and opening the roof would not have been prudent, said Mr. Nash, co-founder of the Canadian Peregrine Foundation. "There could have been a huge liability issue that the birds could have dropped into the game at play," he said. "And even worse, the parents could have followed them and caused a huge disruption."
Behind the Rogers Centre caper is the fact that peregrine falcons are listed as a "special concern" by Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources under the Endangered Species Act. The dome nest houses one of 86 known families in the province – only three in Toronto – making its survival crucial.
"It's cool in the sense that you are able to save some pretty neat birds, that's for sure," Mr. Dickey said when he learned of what transpired.
The adult male and female peregrine falcons first established the nest at Rogers Centre about three years ago, on a ledge on the southeast corner. This spring, four hatchings were born there. Now about two to three months old, three ventured from the nest for the first time in an attempt to fly. And, typical for peregrines making their maiden voyage, all the trips ended with a crash landing.
The first fledgling fell outside one of the entrances into the Rogers Centre. The second was discovered in a mechanical room off the roof of the Renaissance Hotel, which is attached to the stadium at the north end. The third startled mid-afternoon patrons enjoying a meal on the patio of the Baton Rouge restaurant on Front Street, a short flight from the dome.
All three miraculously survived their falls. Although still very young, the birds are quite large, as much as three pounds or so, still full of baby fat and downy feathers that help protect them from crashes. In honour of their baseball surroundings, the dome fledgings – two females and a male – were christened Striker, Chopper and Pop-fly respectively. Mr. Nash, who admits to knowing little about baseball, said he googled the game to come up with the names.
Jawad Sheikhzada, a manager at Baton Rouge, said the fledging that dropped in at his restaurant was first detected on a glass panel that overhangs the patio. Sensing the bird just needed a bit of a kick-start to get going again, Mr. Sheikhzada said he got up on a ladder and gave it a little shove.
Instead of flying away, the falcon instead "just kind of dove into the patio, glancing off one of the awnings," he said. The bird then started wandering around the patio, much to the amusement of patrons. "It was kind of entertainment," Mr. Sheikhzada said. "Everyone was kind of having a day with it, taking pictures."
Fearing for the bird's safety as the crowd grew, Mr. Sheikhzada said he gathered it in a box and put it in a storage room for safe keeping. He found Mr. Nash's organization on the Internet and arranged for the bird to be picked up.
Mr. Nash, after getting all three birds banded – each with a distinctive colour that makes it easier for future identification from afar – then moved to return them to the Rogers Centre just as the Jays were about to play ball.
With the cage covered by a towel so as not to agitate the birds, Mr. Nash was escorted to the top of the stadium and then to a door that leads to the outside ledge near the nest. He carefully opened the cage door while it was still draped by the towel, which had a length of rope tied to it.
"The rope allowed me to remain as close to the door as possible," he said. "I didn't want the birds to see me in case they panicked and would jump off the side of the building again. I literally pulled the towel off as fast as I could and quickly ducked back inside and shut the door."
On the ground, Mr. Nash had several assistants with binoculars looking on to see what happened next.
"I think it was Pop-fly, he was the first to appear out of the cage," Mr. Nash said. "He literally flew up to the top of the retaining wall and then took a flight over to a crane just to the south of the building. He was immediately attended to by the fourth sibling, who presumably was still in the nest."
For the next several hours, Mr. Nash said all the birds were spotted doing aerials near the stadium, a good sign that their survival, at least for now, was enhanced by human intervention.
As for baseball's birds, the Blue Jays soared past the Mets that night, unaware of the drama overhead. Mr. Dickey had a unique take on the event: A knuckleball pitcher, he has been criticized in the past when the Rogers Centre roof has remained closed during his starts, as if he has any say in the matter (he insists he doesn't) – some people believe the controlled environment helps make his pitches more effective.
"It's a really neat story about the falcons," Mr. Dickey said. "And I'm glad it's kind of shifted the blame for the roof not being opened from me for once."