Falcon feathers

Peregrine feathers. Maybe.

I’m getting into road biking, seeing that soccer, even over-30 coed, is not a long-term fitness solution for 43-year-olds. On July 4, I went for a morning ride with my friend Greg Laugero.

Greg was a late arrival to cycling, I think roughly my age when he started a couple of years back. But he made up for lost time – carbon fiber (regular racing plus time-trial), Italian spandex, the whole bit. Greg, a consultant, can afford these things.

When he rides, he makes these interesting hand motions. With arm lowered, he seems to press an imaginary button somewhere in my direction (I ride behind Greg) when he slows down. He seems to wave at rough patches in the road as he passes them, as if saying, “Hi, rough patches!” When passing people or cycles, he says words that sometimes confuse me.

“Rider up,” he’ll say, for example. And I’ll look up in the sky and there’s no rider there, Greg. Maybe he means a cloud-rider. But he really should be keeping his eyes on the road, as our leader.

Sometimes when he passes someone, he’ll say “Rider left!” and I spend the next few minutes wondering which rider left, and where he or she went. I’m certainly still there, or I wouldn’t have heard him say it.

So Greg and I were headed down the Highline Canal/Cherry Creek bike path, Greg pacing us at a merciful 15-odd-mph average, when at the side of Fairmount Drive I noted a bit of roadkill – a bird – striped wings, not big… a peregrine falcon, I figured. Though not being an ornithologist of any repute, I could have been wrong, going by at 15 mph. My younger daughter Maya, 6, has a collection of a few bird feathers and the assorted billions of microbes inhabiting them. Her piece de resistance is a hawk’s feather she picked up at her maternal grandparents’ ancestral home in Ohio, a gorgeous quill of a thing.

I said to Greg, I should go back and grab that peregrine falcon (though I wasn’t sure it really was a peregrine falcon) and put it in one my shirt pockets (road biking shirts have these pockets in the back, perhaps for cyclists to rest their hands between strange gestures) and bring it back to Maya.

“But I’m afraid if I did, I’d mistake it for a PowerBar and take a bite out of during our ride,” I  told him.

Greg laughed because he thought I was kidding.

But today I finished up a call on a “big data” story I’m working on for a publication behind a pay wall and decided to go for a ride, and lo, on the shoulder of the road was the peregrine falcon carcass (if it indeed was a peregrine falcon). It had somehow moved from the middle of the road where it had been two days before, despite being dead. Peregrine falcons are amazing.

I was going more like 20 mph and pedaled a few more pedals and decided to check it out. So I unclipped  re-clipped and unclipped and there I was with the poor former peregrine falcon (if). And next to it lay a McDonald’s hamburger wax-paper wrapper with only a few ants on it, which are easy to shake off. What I couldn’t shake was this thought: Had this hamburger killed the alleged peregrine falcon?

I grabbed a baseball-size river rock with my left hand and pressed it into the dried carcass. With the other hand, shielded by the double-folded wax paper, I grabbed a clutch of tailfeathers and tugged. They tore loose with a crunch. Six, I counted, as I folded them in the soiled hamburger wrapper and placed it in my shirt pocket, making a mental note of its location and, more importantly, that it wasn’t an actual hamburger.

And I rode 19.3 miles at an average pace of 18.3 mph, according to the Polar device on my used Scott CR-1, purchased via an actual racer whose pre-owned cycling shoes I had also bought. If you ask me what it’s like to be in an actual bike racer’s shoes, I can tell you.

I got home and carefully uncrinkled the hamburger wrapper, put the feathers in a bowl, and washed them gently in dish soap. Then I put them outside in the sun, in the fanciful belief that the ultraviolet light would sterilize them.

Maya came home and I said, with some excitement, “Maya, I got you peregrine feathers, maybe!”

She looked in the bowl of feathers without much expression. They were really much less impressive than they’d seemed on the road. Like sparrow feathers with stripes.

“Cool,” she said. And she walked back to the living room to her Littlest Petshop kingdom, continuing her business of being a god.


  • Lauren Posted November 5, 2012 1:04 pm

    I just happened upon this; it’s a lovely piece of writing and, while it has no real bearing on your story and likely won’t elevate the feathers in your daughter’s esteem, I thought you might want to check and see if they were not in fact those of a female American kestrel, another falcon species, rather than a Peregrine. They are nifty little birds in their own right.

    • Todd Neff Posted November 5, 2012 2:15 pm

      Lauren, thanks for this. Yes, I think I got my feathers crossed. A friend who’s a former forest ranger thought maybe a Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk. Could well be kestrel, too… Thanks for the nice note either way.

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