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ESPN’s Tony Reali Tells Us About Helping Rescue A Downed Peregrine Falcon

Tony Reali with the bird.
Image: Tony Reali/Twitter

Yesterday afternoon, Around the Horn host Tony Reali was walking through lower Manhattan when he came upon something rare and heartbreaking: an injured peregrine falcon lying on the sidewalk. The fastest birds in the world are increasingly moving into Manhattan, a relocation replete with hazards, chief of which is the presence of big glass skyscrapers. Reali helped keep the bird safe until the Wild Bird Fund, which admits and rehabilitates injured birds in New York, could take over its care.

Defector, a site that aims to be a "friend to the birds," followed Reali's odyssey closely. Over email, the ESPN host told us all about this peregrine specifically and birds generally. "This happened at about 4 o’clock on my walk home from work," Reali said. "I had just taped Around the Horn episode 3973, a big win for Jackie MacMullan."

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Defector: What was it like to see the king of the raptors lying on the sidewalk?  

Tony Reali: I’d say the sight of a injured falcon on the sidewalk of a New York City street Is like when you see a Ferrari in bumper to bumper traffic: You can’t believe what you’re seeing and you want it to be somewhere else. Such a beautiful creature and needs to be where it can fly.  She must’ve been so confused with all those buildings and cars honking.  I really, really hope she pulls through. 

DF: Can you walk me through the process of seeing it, caring for it, then getting it to the Wild Bird Fund? 

TR: Anybody who knows me knows I’m a complete scaredy cat around animals. A bird once flew in our apartment and I was useless, yelling nonsensical directions from behind a door. It was basically "Irish Family vs. The Bat" but with a lot more Italian cursing. If you haven’t seen "Irish Family vs The Bat" stop everything now and watch!

I wish I were [an animal person]. I got bit by a dog when I was a kid and that was it.   My family went to a shelter and got a SCHNOODLE mutt for me and my siblings after that but not even that could win me over entirely.  When I did a doggie hit for Good Morning America a few years ago I was visibly, comically, uncomfortable.

So I’m pretty firmly on the people-person side, not the animal-person side. That being said, I could definitely feel that whatever animal was on the sidewalk ahead of me was NOT WELL. So that got me caring. As I got closer I could tell it wasn’t what I thought it was—I thought it was a pigeon—but some other type of bird and that it was badly hurt, so now I’m ALL IN. (ASIDE: a question for birders: would any of you have done this if it were a pigeon? Not sure I can say I would, and that makes me feel kind of weird.) [Ed. Note: Not me.] It was in the shadow of the Freedom Tower and the bird could barely move. But it would get spooked by the traffic and try to move and this was painful to watch. It couldn’t fly more than a few feet and it looked like its left wing was badly damaged. A couple of us gathered to see if there was anything anyone could do and that’s when one woman said she was sure it was a peregrine falcon.

I told you I’m not one for animals but I love the idea of the peregrine falcon! I go to parties all the time and ask people “What’s the fastest animal in the world?” They always say the cheetah and I always say, "AHA! NO!! THE PEREGRINE FALCON!!!! 220 miles per hour!" I guess I should say these parties are birthday parties for 6-year-olds and 6-year-olds love cheetahs, but they need to respect the peregrine falcon. And now I hear they’re the King of the Raptors?! Awesome. So now I’m geeked but also scared for her because it doesn’t look good.

She’s moved from the sidewalk to the street and now she’s NEARLY UNDER A CAR that was momentarily stopped at a light, so I go into traffic and stop the car. I tried to persuade her to move—honestly, no idea what I’m doing at this point—and that’s when she attempted to fly away but was clearly having a problem with that left wing and flew into the concrete wall of the Post Office across the street. Hit the ground hard. We didn’t think she was still alive but then she got up again and flew further down Barclay street. It was all getting sadder.

It’s a group of about five of us now. One woman called 311 and I went Defcon 1: Twitter thread. The photos got the attention of the Wild Bird Fund and then we were able to get the falcon in a box through some ingenuity from Post Office Police Officer Ho. He brought the box out and we kind of approached from multiple angles, (like the RAPTORS IN JURASSIC PARK now that I think of it! ). The box went over her head and then Officer Ho flipped it gently but quickly, like a trick a magician would do at 6-year-olds' birthday parties to cheer up kids who just found out their precious cheetahs aren’t the fastest after all. I could feel her barely moving in the box as I carried it. I stayed with her for 15 minutes checking to make sure she was still breathing and then handed her over to NYPD Precinct 1 for the ride up to Wild Bird Fund and hoped for the best.

Wild Bird Fund’s post an hour later said she had a serious head injury and their plan was to keep her stable overnight. They said she was “unbanded” so she must have been new to our airspace and they think she may have gotten a rough welcome to the neighborhood by the local birds. Kind of hard to imagine, this regal queen of the skies in the unfamiliar territory of Lower Manhattan. I mean, I guess I’ve always known there were different types of birds in Central Park but I never thought there would be a falcon on a New York City sidewalk. Must be pretty tough out there, dodging the pigeons and skyscrapers. I hope she’s ok, I really got attached to her.

DF: Was that the first time you've seen a peregrine falcon? 

TR: I initially thought, of course, but as I was going through the pictures from this afternoon the strangest thing happened. I remember I took a photo of a bird when was in a park uptown with the family three days ago. It was way up in a tree and I couldn’t see what was going on but I knew it was different type of bird so I zoomed, snapped and forgot about it. I looked at it again after you asked and it looks like it’s a PEREGRINE FALCON. It was 30 FEET OFF THE GROUND IN A TREE EATING A SQUIRREL! Majestically gross! Totally forgot about that—and that I took a picture of it—until after all this was over. Below is that photo. 

DF: What is your interest level in birds, generally? I basically didn't care about them until lockdown, when I had more time to appreciate them. 

TR: I hear ya, seems like everybody became a birder this pandemic. It makes sense: it’s socially distanced and it’s zen. And #BirdTwitter and #AnimalTwitter are thriving, I was happy to come across it all because they sent out good vibes. But I think I’ll continue my life viewing animals my favorite way, on Planet Earth with David Attenborough narrating.  

DF: Have you seen any injured birds down there in lower Manhattan before? I was shocked to learn that hundreds of thousands of birds die hitting windows in NYC every year.

TR: I never really have, nor have I ever really  considered it. But think of it this way: there are millions of millions of pigeons in New York. Where did they go when they get injured? Or die?

I asked the Wild Bird Fund for an update on the falcon's condition this morning, and unfortunately, things have taken a turn for the worse. "The peregrine is still alive today but very unstable," they said via Twitter direct message. "She can't stand and is suffering from severe head trauma. It doesn't look good. We will have to wait and see." They added that while they did not know for sure what caused her injuries, they think it was likely a window strike.

October is one of the most dangerous months for birds in Manhattan, as the migration south is in full force, and the reflections and interior lighting inherent to big office and residential buildings make it difficult for birds to avoid slamming into glass windows at high speeds. An estimated 240,000 birds die every year in the city, and the Wild Bird Fund says they took in 220 injured birds on one day last weekend, most of which were migratory songbirds.

WBF executive director Rita McMahon spoke to National Geographic and offered some good news: Their numbers mean not that conditions are necessarily getting more deadly for birds; people are just helping more. So if you see a bird downed in New York, do what Tony Reali did, and you might save its life.

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