December 11, 2021
My Cornell Lab of Ornithology feed sent a post yesterday about the return of the Peregrine Falcon to the Finger Lakes region of New York. The last peregrine nest was seen in 1946 and by the mid-1960’s the species no longer bred in the US east of the Mississippi. In 1970 the species was listed as Endangered. By 1975 only 324 nesting pairs remained in North America. A nationwide recovery effort, centered at the Cornell Lab, ensued to deliver the peregrine back to the wild. The falcon had a remarkable rebound in North America and the peregrines were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 1999 after more than 6000 captive-raised young falcons were released in all. However, they were still missing from Taughannock. That changed in March 2020, when the Peregrine Falcons were again seen at the falls.
When I looked online, I found the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), also known historically as the duck hawk in North America, is a cosmopolitan bird of prey (raptor) in the family Falconidae. A large, crow-sized falcon, it has a blue-grey back, barred white underparts, and a black head. The peregrine is renowned for its speed, reaching over 200 mph (320 km/h) during its high-speed dive while hunting. This makes it the fastest bird in the world and the fastest member of the animal kingdom. Typical for bird-eating raptors, peregrine falcons are sexually dimorphic, with females being considerably larger than males. The peregrine’s breeding range includes land regions from the Arctic tundra to the tropics, making it the world’s most widespread raptor. The only bird species with a wider range is the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia), which is the peregrine’s favorite prey.
In the late 1940’s, postwar America and agriculture was booming, and dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) fueled that boom. DDT was used to protect troops from mosquito-borne illness during World War II and flourished commercially in the United States as a pesticide. The insect killer was canonized as a technological marvel and earned its discoverer the 1948 Nobel Prize in medicine. The side effect was the poison entered the soil, leached into waterways, and climbed up the food chain. When the DDT reached the tissues of apex birds of prey (mostly Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles) it thinned the shells of their eggs. Nests consistently failed and populations fell precipitously. Rachel Carson spoke out about the dangers of DDT in her book, Silent Spring. In an interview Carson said, “We have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” Senate hearings on pesticides began within a year of the book’s publication. The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969 set the stage for listing the Falcon endangered in 1970, and the Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972.
Thoughts: The peregrine reaches sexual maturity at one year and mates for life, nesting in a scrape on cliff edges. Now this includes tall human-made structures. Since the ban on DDT, populations have recovered, supported by large-scale protection of nesting places and releases to the wild. In 1999, a US Fish and Wildlife Service press release heralded landmark news: “Today, the world’s fastest bird soars off of the Endangered Species list.” As one of the list’s inaugural members, the Falcon’s removal was an acknowledgment of an unprecedented recovery, and a culmination of the act’s grand experiment. Conservationists rang in the new millennium on a high note. We can use as many high notes as we can get. Follow the science. Change is coming and it starts with you.