Column: The fall and rise of the falconPeregrine falcons, the swiftest species on the planet, once ruled the skies of North America. Ambushing their quarry with speed and stealth, peregrines hunt at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. These pinnacle predators seem invulnerable.
By: Julie O'Connor, For the Budgeteer News
Peregrine falcons, the swiftest species on the planet, once ruled the skies of North America. Ambushing their quarry with speed and stealth, peregrines hunt at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. These pinnacle predators seem invulnerable.
So how did it come to pass that by 1967, nesting peregrines had all but disappeared from the eastern two-thirds of North America?
In the early 1900s, the military developed DDT, a pesticide to protect American troops from insect-borne diseases such as malaria. DDT was highly effective and seemed safe for all but insects. It was soon in widespread use throughout the United States.
DDT’s devastating effects upon birds of prey were not initially evident.
Fat-soluble substances such as DDT, when released into the environment, concentrate in ever-larger quantities as they ascend the food chain. Predators at the top of the food chain, such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles, accumulate enormous doses. Poisoned birds lay eggs with thin shells, which crack, dry out, or are crushed by the weight of an incubating adult. Within one human generation of DDT’s widespread use, it had all but destroyed the peregrine population by halting successful reproduction.
The disappearance of peregrines and other large raptors caught the attention of birders, scientists, and environmentalists. They exposed DDT as a dangerous toxin, then successfully lobbied to have it banned in the U.S. Next, falcon enthusiasts formed organizations whose goal was to reintroduce peregrine falcons into the mid- and eastern U.S. For years, these organizations bred, reared, released, and banded young peregrines, and their efforts have paid off.
In the 1980s, birders noted three pairs of peregrines in the Duluth area. In 1991, the Raptor Resource Project placed a nest box atop Grey-solon Plaza. From 2004 to 2009, a pair of peregrines, Amy and an unnamed male, raised six broods totaling 24 chicks at the Greysolon nest box.
In 2007, Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory launched Peregrine Watch. Every summer day, naturalists set up telescopes in downtown Duluth, allowing the public to observe the nest, and share updates on the chicks’ growth. Nearly 4,000 people peer through these telescopes at the falcon family each summer and, like royalty, the family has developed a devoted following.
Fledging — leaving the nest and learning to fly — is a perilous rite of passage for any bird, but especially for a peregrine. These novice pilots of the fastest avian flight equipment in the world are loosed, with no prior experience, into an unforgiving arena of natural or man-made cliffs — downtown buildings.
Mistakes are common and mortality is high, with about only one in four peregrines surviving their first year.
In 2009, a young peregrine named Mariah crashed shortly after leaving the nest, injuring a wing. Though the wildlife rehabilitators at Wildwoods in Duluth found no fracture, they sent her to Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota for a second opinion. The avian veterinarians there determined that her wing injury was only a bruise.
A week later, Mariah returned to Duluth for release. As one of only two survivors from that year’s brood of four chicks, Mariah’s return was cause for celebration.
Mariah’s release was a festive yet suspenseful event. Peregrines are unmatched aerial combatants who defend their territories fiercely against other raptors, driving away and even killing intruders. No one knew how Mariah’s parents would react to her reappearance. She might be welcomed, driven off, or even killed.
Mariah’s first flight was uneventful. During her second flight, her mother Amy intercepted her — chasing her, diving at her, and eventually driving her down onto a rooftop before speeding away. Mariah’s fans watched and waited, nervous and worried.
After a few hours, Amy streaked in again and landed beside Mariah, lingering for a moment before flying off. When Mariah reappeared, she was holding a small bird — her mother had fed her! Mariah’s welcome home was official, and her fans were limp with relief.
Falcons such as Mariah are living tales of triumph — testament to their own natural perfection as well as to the efforts of all who work to save them. Thanks to the efforts of their admirers and to their own strength and resilience, these pinnacle predators once again patrol our skies.
Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For more information on wildlife and how you can help, including becoming a volunteer, please visit www.wildwoodsrehab.org
Julie O’Connor is a raptor enthusiast, and has been a naturalist with Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory as well as one of the local managers of Peregrine Watch in Duluth for several years.