Dark days are afoot at Boeing’s Renton assembly plant.
The 737 MAX remains grounded, some workers have shuffled off to other job sites and headlines about engineering problems linger after crashes killed hundreds.
But with production of the troubled jet on hold, the company hopes for one last flight — from the creatures who invented the concept.
For about four years, a pair of peregrine falcons has been nesting inside the massive factory where the 737 MAX is assembled, making their home on metal girders several stories above workers. The raptors feed on pigeons and starlings unfortunate enough to flutter through hangar doors.
Wild peregrine falcons rarely live indoors and have not been documented to breed inside, said Bud Anderson, a local raptor expert who has studied the birds for decades.
“I’m not aware of this happening ever before,” he said.
Three of the pair’s offspring have fallen from the nest and walked the factory floors.
Now, it’s time for the adult pair to go.
When it comes to the birds, the plant’s shutdown represents both burden and opportunity for the hobbling aerospace giant. In a turbulent stretch of Boeing’s history, the birds offer a rare reprieve from bludgeoning headlines.
“It’s quite an interesting story,” said CJ Nothum, a Boeing spokeswoman.
The plant’s closure — which will keep the hangar doors shuttered more often than usual — could represent the best opportunity to flush the birds out to a better home.
But evictions are rarely simple, even when they might be in a creatures’ best interest. And peregrine falcons, who can fly half as fast as a commercial jet, are no ordinary creature.
“Little indoor ecosystem”
Last June, a young peregrine falcon leaped from the rafters above the assembly line. State wildlife officials call them “early jumpers,” more brave and less coordinated than flying requires.
It’s a common problem for young, urban peregrines.
“They can’t fly for beans,” said Ed Deal, who bands and tracks the birds in Seattle and is the president of the Urban Raptor Conservancy.
The fledgling fractured his sternum and was taken to PAWS Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation facility in Lynnwood, according to a PAWS spokeswoman.
Three days later, a second young falcon, a female, arrived at PAWS. A third bird showed up a week later.
Boeing hosted a nest, the staff realized, and it had become a problem.
In fact, adult peregrine falcons have been nesting in the assembly plant for four years, according to Nothum, the Boeing spokeswoman. The company had to hire a vendor to “clean up all those droppings and sanitize the factory areas so they wouldn’t pose any health concerns.”
Two of the injured fledglings had been found “walking around on the assembly-line floor in between planes,” said Deal, who last fall visited twice with Boeing, trying to help the company solve the peregrine predicament.
The third was discovered in a break area for workers, according to Deal.
The factory had become “this little indoor ecosystem,” Deal said. “I saw a peregrine chasing a crow in the rafters.”
The birds, he believes, also learned to listen for a bell that signals the opening of the hangar doors. Then, they’d jet out of the building to hunt in fresh air.
Peregrine falcons propel themselves faster than any other animal. The fearsome hunters’ spectacular dives for prey, called stoops, have been clocked as high as 242 mph.
In the wild, peregrine falcons are often found on the edge of cliffs.
“They like high spots, protected, so predators can’t get up to them,” Deal said.
The birds become attached to nest sites. In the Northwest, birds typically don’t migrate, but do sometimes wander, only to return to familiar areas to breed in spring and nest, often with the same partners. Some never leave nest sites.
The peregrine falcons’ history is a tale of comeback.
Decades ago, use of the toxic insecticide DDT sent the species spiraling toward extinction in North America and Europe.
“DDT wiped out peregrines in the late ’40s and early ’50s,” Anderson said.
In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated only 324 nesting pairs could be found in North America.
A ban on DDT and captive breeding programs willed the creatures off the endangered-species list in 1999. The birds have continued to spread. Now, Washington state hosts at least 125 peregrine falcon nesting pairs, Deal said.
Peregrines came to Seattle in the 1990s, Anderson said.
They’ve taken to Seattle’s million-dollar views — the ledges of skyscrapers or bridges that offer protection and nest space.
Beginning in 1994, nesting pairs of peregrines famously raised offspring atop a perch at the 1201 Third Avenue building in downtown Seattle, formerly called Washington Mutual Tower. Anderson installed a nest box for the birds there. The building manager, Wright Runstad, and volunteers installed a “Falcon Cam” for public viewing.
When wild animals are injured, rehabilitation centers typically patch them up and return them home.
For the three fledglings, that was not an option.
“You can’t release the birds back into the hangar,” Anderson said.
In the end, the three birds were taken to falconers, who train and hunt with raptors. Without this training, the birds would be unlikely to survive.
The males went to Mount Vernon and Addy, Stevens County. Allen Gardner, a falconer in Spokane, took possession of the female fledgling.
“Her name is Lena,” Gardner said. “But her nickname is Bo, for Boeing.”
Gardner said Lena arrived with six broken primary feathers, which would have made it impossible for her to fly.
Gardner took feathers that had previously molted from another falcon and cut them to size. Then, a veterinarian put Lena under so Gardner could insert a tiny sliver of bamboo to join the shafts of both feathers. Now that she can fly, Gardner has been training Lena to hunt, which could take up to a year.
“She happens to be a very easy to handle — a very amenable bird. She’ll cluck at me and kind of talk,” Gardner said.
He describes his birds as athletes and said he gets a thrill from being around them.
“It’s hard to describe the experience of a peregrine falcon flying at 250 mph by your head,” Gardner said. “I get a rush.”
A tricky relocation
The adult falcons’ future remains unclear.
With the 737 MAX out of production, Nothum said Boeing won’t be opening the assembly doors as frequently.
The falcons risk going hungry, Deal said.
“It depends on how many other birds are in the hangar. Otherwise, they’ll starve,” he said.
Boeing, wildlife officials and falcon experts all agree that it’s time for the pair to go.
The company contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program about removing the birds. The federal agency often resolves wildlife conflicts and sometimes kills animals, which raised concern for some. The agency in 2018 killed nearly 1.5 million native animals, including two peregrine falcons, according to its own data.
When reached by phone, Brook Zscheile, a wildlife biologist for the agency, said USDA had been brought in to “trap and relocate” the birds, and would explain in more detail after speaking with the agency’s legal counsel. Zscheile did not return several follow-up calls and emails seeking more information.
It’s unclear whether Zscheile and USDA plan to release the peregrines nearby, or transport them across the state for release.
Instead of trapping, Deal favors installing nest boxes on the assembly plant’s roof, before harassing the birds out of the hangar, closing the doors for several months and hoping the peregrines take to the man-made nests.
“The real solution is closing the doors at the right time,” Anderson said, adding that if the doors remain closed through March, the falcons will go through courtship and settle down elsewhere.
When it comes to the birds, “the shutdown is almost a blessing in disguise,” Deal said. “The urge to nest is strong.”
Deal is concerned trapping and relocating the birds far from Renton could cause them harm.
Peregrine falcons are notoriously difficult to trap, he said.
No matter how far they’re moved, experts say the birds will likely fly back to their nest.
Jeff Kidd, a California raptor biologist, said he relocated six peregrine falcons from San Diego to Northern California during the years 2013 to 2016. Four returned, navigating some 660 miles back to their nests. The other two died, Kidd said.
And getting permits to move the birds out of state “would be a nightmare,” Anderson said.
With the plant closing, “this would be the ideal time to relocate them,” Nothum said.
Just how that will happen remains up in the air.