Who Needs Cliffs?

By James Wilson | January 2, 1999
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 1999

Champions of the air! That's what they could be called.

Anyone who has witnessed the flight of a peregrine falcon would agree. It seems peregrines are capable of anything when borne on their long, pointed wings.

One moment they may be buoyed aloft like a floating leaf. Keep watching, because in the next instance they may drop almost vertically with wings tucked-at speeds of nearly 200 mph. Even at this velocity, the wings and tail may suddenly flare out as the bird negotiates what seems like a right angle to home in on fleeing prey.

In recent years, more and more Missourians are having the chance to witness this bird's thrilling flight. Throughout most of this century, breeding falcons were not found in Missouri. But now, the birds are staying around, and some lucky residents of our state's three largest cities can see them daily. The reason? One of the most successful wildlife restoration efforts ever conducted.

Peregrine falcons were once much rarer, and some populations were near the brink of extinction. Only a few peregrines passed through Missouri in spring and fall as they traveled between Canadian and South American summer and winter ranges. Fear of extinction-plus the fascination that many people have for this bird-led to a laborious recovery effort that has brought this species back.

People who work to save endangered species are often troubled when some species don't get the attention they deserve because they lack appeal. The peregrine falcon is certainly on the opposite end of that spectrum. Most people avidly took to the peregrine falcon and rallied for it.

Falconers have always been on the side of the peregrine falcon. Even in ancient times, this species was prized by kings and noblemen for its aerial agility and its ability to take down game as large as pheasants. In the mid-20th century, when the number of peregrine falcons dropped as a result of pesticide poisoning, an organization of falconers were the first to come to their rescue. Using the falconers' technique of "hacking," which usually is used to make captive-reared birds more skilled at hunting by giving them a few days or weeks in the wild, peregrine falcons were bred in captivity and hacked to remain permanently in the wild.

After some early failures with birds released into natural habitats, biologists discovered that cities seemed optimum environments for newly flying, inexperienced youngsters. Concrete jungles harbor few great horned owls-predators of young peregrines-and urban pigeons and starlings make suitable prey. Skyscrapers offer perching and nesting sites resembling cliffs. If peregrine falcons ever are to become reestablished as breeders in natural habitat, it will probably be the result of birds pioneering outward from their newly established, urban populations.

Biologists "hack" peregrine falcons by placing three- to four week old birds that have been produced by captive pairs into enclosed boxes on buildings in suitable cities. By about six weeks of age, the young birds have grown their flight feathers and are set free. Because this is where they first flew, the birds imprint on the locale and will tend to use it for nesting when they mature.

The World Bird Sanctuary began restoring peregrine falcons to Missouri in St. Louis in 1985. The released birds established three successful nests. Following that organization's efforts, the Conservation Department began restoration work in 1991 in Kansas City. A total of 24 were hacked there and, in 1997, a resulting nest successfully fledged young from Commerce Bank Towers. The Conservation Department release prompted a similar effort at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield in 1997.

Peregrine falcons currently are nesting in major cities throughout the Midwest. Over 100 territorial pairs are fledging about 175 young every year. Biologists believe that about one third more falcons exist that are never reported, suggesting that there are possibly as many as 600 falcons in the Midwest.

Peregrines were removed from the endangered species list throughout the Arctic in 1994. There is currently a movement in the U.S. to delist falcons from their endangered status. The Midwest has exceeded recovery goals, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a formal proposal to remove them from the endangered list. We might see falcons reclassified by the turn of the century-a major accomplishment in our efforts to reverse the tide of past environmental abuses.

The Conservation Department is banking on a more complete return of peregrine falcons to our state. Because the falcons experience greater nesting success when they use man-made nest boxes, biologists are placing boxes on elevated sites, such as highrise buildings and smoke stacks. There are now more than 20 nest boxes throughout the state, including one on the Capitol dome in Jefferson City. We feel that peregrine falcons are certain to discover and occupy some of these sites and, as a result, more Missourians will have the opportunity to see this magnificent, thrilling bird.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer