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Coming eye to eye with an aerial assassin

I stumbled upon him as he stood alone in the middle 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?"

The hood and coloring revealed it as the world's swiftest assassin, even before its lethal weapons began clicking quietly upon the asphalt.

Was he about to draw? Will he ever blink?

No. But I did. And even when my eyes reset, this young peregrine falcon still stood barely 15 feet away. It was the first of what became a series of interludes with the globe's fastest bird here on the streets and in the skies of downtown Medford.

Like a pair of adults did four years ago, this young falcon apparently had set up shop downtown in hopes of turning the resident urban pigeon population into its own private HomeTown Buffet.

What more could a bird with a taste for dove entrails want? Concrete buildings for perching, the towering oaks of Alba Park for cover and enough aerial rats to pick off nearly at will in the air.

This bird laid claim to his new urban niche virtually undisturbed as Medfordites busied themselves, unaware that this killing creature again buzzed its skies.

"Alba Park is a great hangout for a peregrine," says Dave Clayton, a biologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. "There's all sorts of things for them to eat.

"It's been quite some time since we've seen one down there, so that's cool," Clayton says.

Cool is a word that comes naturally in conversations about peregrines.

Once ravaged to near extinction from the effects of the chemical DDT, peregrines have roared back throughout the United States and Oregon, particularly in Western Oregon.

They have been harnessed and trained as hunters for more than 1,000 years, with their aerial artistry something out of an R-rated slasher movie.

They typically hover 1,000 feet or so above the ground, then dive at more than 150 mph onto their unsuspecting prey. Just before impact, they spin and place their balled feet forward. The back talons stick out like spikes that rake their prey upon impact, which normally knocks them dead to the ground.

The last time peregrines hunted downtown Medford was 2008, when pigeon heads and entrails were common calling cards around Alba Park and the Medford Hotel.

But that pair's nest was never discovered, and sightings waned. No reports of peregrines in Medford have come to state wildlife biologists until this year.

But peregrines are seemingly everywhere.

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.

"From a numbers point of view, there are definitely more peregrines throughout the landscape than in the urban areas," says Martin Nugent, the threatened, endangered and sensitive species coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At 15 to 17 inches tall with wingspans of 3 feet, males are smaller than females.

The new Medford peregrine seems to be a young bird, about 15 inches tall. Male, maybe, but to verify might mean losing an eye.

Standing that day near the corner of Sixth and Grape streets, we stared at each other for a solid minute. He then flew briefly to perch on a nearby parking sign while traffic dribbled by, with no drivers recognizing their rare privilege.

Over the next few days, the bird regularly perched on power poles, its head on a swivel as he monitored the ever-freaking pigeon population. Crows buzzed him at times, trying to send this apex predator packing for other environs.

Out of the blue last week, the bird soared downward at an unsuspecting bald guy walking up Grape Street toward the U.S. Courthouse. He pulled up 10 feet from impact, then perched on a nearby building as if to snicker at his handiwork.

"Ha. That's interesting," Clayton says. "Sounds like a juvie."

As in juvenile, and perhaps the recent offspring of a peregrine pair known to be nesting in some unidentified site in the Medford area, Clayton says.

"At this time of year, you never know," Clayton says. "It could be passing through. It might be a resident. If so, it's a great spot to spend your first winter."

But just like the Roosevelt elk herd in northeast Medford, this peregrine was never there when I needed him. I had no camera when we stood eye-to-eye in Sixth Street, nor when the bald guy almost got a new part in his scalp.

In the past week, when I had a camera in tow, the peregrine was nowhere to be found.

The aerial assassin may have taken his homicidal stare to new urban digs for the winter.

And, no, I don't have a problem with that.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.