With the sharp talons of a peregrine falcon digging into his shoulder, Interior Secretary Cecil B. Andrus announced yesterday a department program to bring birds of prey back to Washington.
While a battery of television cameras whirred, he told a crowded news conference that four fledgling falcons bred in captivity would be raised to maturity from a man-made nest atop the department's nine-story office building at 18th and C streets NW as part of a nationwide effort to repopulate the endangered species.
Within a month, a department spokesman said earlier, the falcons could be rocketing out of the sky at 200 miles an hour, plucking pigeons from the presence of gray-haired park sitters scattering bread crumbs.
But that, he said, is not the department's intention. "Four little birds like this aren't going to put a dent in the pigeon population of Washington," said Phil Million, a public affairs officer. "The idea is to bring back the peregrine falcon as a viable bird on the East Coast of the United States."
Nonetheless, the falcons will be fed diced baby pigeons along with their quail and chicken until they venture forth from their penthouse perch after the Fourth of July.
The falcons in question, peregrines, are unquestionably the Ferraris of flight: high-speed predators against which the average pigeon stands about as much chance as a Piper Cub against a Stuka.
But they will need federal help getting started.
Two bird sitters from Calumet, Mich., Tom Allen, 27, and his wife, Sharon, 27, both biologists, have been hired at $750 each to live in the department building, feed the falcons on the roof, monitor them round-the-clock by closed circuit television and keep them out of trouble once they take to the friendly skies of Washington.
Allen will leave his second-floor quarters when necessary to follow the birds around the city.
"They could fly into windows, telephone lines or . . . an air conditioning vent," he explained. "They're naive to the world."
But local pigeon fanciers are not too sure.
"I've shot at more than one falcon in my day," said Stanley Mehr, 61, a McLean nurseryman who raises homing pigeons. "Still, it's hysterical to get panicky over a few peregrine falcons. They'll pick off park pigeons and we don't like them, anyway. They're mongrels."
The peregrine project was pioneered by Tom Cade, 51, a baldish ornithology professor at Cornell University who started the breeding program in 1973 and brought the squawking birds to town in a cardboard box. By year's end, Cornell will have produced 400 peregrine falcons to replace those wiped out in recent years by pesticides like DDT.
The Interior Department spent $500 to build the 12-foot tower atop its nine-story building, affording the falcons a magnificent view of the monuments, the Potomac and any pigeons that happen to be wandering by.
"They like tall towers that command a lot of air space so they can watch for birds," Cade said, scanning the horizon. He predicted the falcons might eventually choose to live in the Smithsonian tower or the National Cathedral.
One female peregrine falcon named Fancy, also bred by Cornell, was placed on an island off the Maryland coast two years ago, but picked up and flew to Baltimore. There, she set up housekeeping on the 32nd floor of the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Insurance Company Building.
Pigeon bones have been spotted on a window ledge nearby. CAPTION: Picture, Cecil Andrus holds baby falcon; adult holds Andrus. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post