Ambling up the Grape Street sidewalk Friday, I nearly stepped onto evidence that one of the city's most storied efficient killers may have returned to downtown Medford.
At first it appeared like a clod of debris on the otherwise clean concrete. Turned out it was the perfectly severed head of a pigeon.
Present on every continent except Antarctica, Falco peregrinus is one of the most widely dispersed birds in the world — and the fastest animal, with dives that some scientists believe exceed 150 mph.
Peregrines are about 15 to 19 inches long with wingspans of 3 to 4 feet. Females are larger than males. They have a blueish-gray back, a broad tail, a distinctive "helmet" coloring on their heads and a black beak. Their preferred food includes ducks, pigeons and doves, which they strike in mid-air with their talons. Peregrines then either pluck the dead prey out of the air or feed on the ground.
Peregrines breed in the spring, with the eggs hatching in May. The young — called eyases — fledge in June.
After their near disappearance blamed on the effects of certain pesticides, peregrines have rebounded locally and nationally. They were removed from the federal Endangered Species List in 1999 and the state list in 2007.
Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
That was his calling card three years ago when the assassin, with dark hood and felonious eyes, and I surprisingly stood face-to-face during a similar stroll barely 20 feet from where Friday's fresh mayhem laid.
Instantly I scanned the rooftops of the Holly Theatre, the Mail Tribune and the Main Street's Brophy Building — all locations where he launched his crimes against pigeonry during that bloody summer of 2010.
Is downtown Medford's resident peregrine falcon really back?
When we first crossed paths in 2010, he stood on the asphalt of Sixth Street, his paralyzing stare fixed on me with a mix of menace and surprise as if to say, "Yeah, I'm here, you got a problem with that?"
His markings and tell-tale hood revealed him to be the world's swiftest assassin, even before his lethal weapons began clicking quietly upon the asphalt as if we were in some bizarre Wild West showdown.
Was he about to draw? Would he ever blink?
He didn't. I did.
It was the first of many interesting interludes I had with that young peregrine that summer along the streets and skies around Alba Park as he turned the downtown's pigeon population into his own private Hometown Buffet.
I often spied him on his perches atop various downtown facades, the pigeons nervously laying low while their apex predator lurked.
Other times the bird seemed to shed its uber-killer persona for that of a jokester.
I once saw him make false dive attacks over the head of a bald man walking on Sixth Street. Each time the peregrine pulled up 10 feet shy of his shiny target before returning skyward without the bald man realizing he was part of these aerial antics.
But the falcon abruptly disappeared later that year.
And now, a fresh pigeon head lay on the Grape Street sidewalk while the rest of Medford remained oblivious to the significance of this discovery.
"Cool," says Dave Clayton, a forest biologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "Just one head? Did you see a bird?"
More and more Oregonians are seeing peregrines now that they are off state and federal endangered species rolls, joining bald eagles as the Endangered Species Act's two greatest bird successes.
When last surveyed in 2010, Oregon had 113 known nesting pairs last year, ranging from the wildlands between the Table Rocks near Sams Valley to beneath the Fremont Bridge in Portland.
But state and federal biologists are no longer studying each known nest and monitoring the fate of every peregrine chick like they did during recovery efforts, says Martin Nugent, the threatened, endangered and sensitive species coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"As species recover, we sort of have to let things go," Nugent says.
There was a lot of recovering during the summer of 2010 — mostly of pigeon heads and entrails found around Alba Park and the Medford Hotel, which were two of the bird's favorite haunts.
The Medford peregrine seemed to be a young bird, about 15 inches long. It could have been a male or a younger female, which is larger than the male. But to verify might have meant losing an eye.
Local Audubon Society members and professional biologists like Clayton took great interest in the peregrine of three years ago, even searching regularly but failing to find its nest while picking up after its feathery feasts.
Then, just like that, the beheadings ended in early 2011 and that was that. Until Friday's find.
On Tuesday, a reconnaissance walk through downtown was as telling for what was seen as what was not.
One finely severed wing rested next to the Fuhrer's Building across from Alba Park. But the skies and grounds around the park were conspicuously devoid of pigeons.
Pigeons sat on rooftops and facades, with virtually nothing flying.
Peregrines can only kill in the sky, hitting their prey at 100-plus mph. They don't generally hunt at anything flying less than 10 feet off the ground because, at that height, the follow-through could kill the peregrine.
But no hooded assassin was to be seen.
Downtown Medford's peregrine might be back.
So scanning sidewalks for severed heads will be part of the downtown experience. And whenever I see a bald guy walking down Sixth Street, I'll be sure to look up.