BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
In the history of the world, there have been few more widely revered and respected birds than the peregrine falcon. Living up to its “wandering” name, peregrines live on all the world’s continents except Antarctica. They thrive in just about every type of habitat -from tropics to deserts, tidal flats to tundra, and sea level to twelve thousand feet.
A Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) surveys the sky-scape for smaller birds that it can power dive on and take on the wing. (Photo Copyright: Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock.com)
Regularly reaching speeds of more than two hundred miles per hour in their hunting stoops, peregrines are renowned as not only the fastest bird but the fastest animal on earth. For eons, the peregrine’s speed and hunting prowess made among the most valuable birds in the world, especially to the privileged families that practiced the royal sport of falconry.
All of this made it difficult to understand how the North American population of peregrine falcons could be allowed to decline so precipitously that they were declared an endangered species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1970. The problem started after the end of World War II with the widespread use of the cruelly poisonous pesticide DDT on agricultural lands throughout the United States.
Here’s what happened: Peregrine falcons feed primarily by soaring high above other medium-sized birds, then plunge-diving down and plucking their targets right out of mid-air. Many of the birds that served as primary peregrine prey species were eating mostly insects that were contaminated with DDT. This meant that the falcons were constantly increasing the buildup of DDT in their own bodies every time they decided to take to the air for a meal. Then when the peregrines nested and laid eggs, the DDT buildup caused their eggshells to thin and break, greatly reducing overall chick survivability. As a result, peregrine falcon populations in the United States declined precipitously during the 1960s to the point that they were no longer found in the wild in the eastern United States.
Thanks in large part to the public outcry generated by Rachel Carson’s landmark environmental publication, Silent Spring, in 1962, DDT was finally banned from the US in 1972. At about the same time, Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLOO) Professor Tom Cade started a remarkable program to restore peregrine falcons throughout North America. Working through an organization called the Peregrine Fund, Cade hatched, raised, and bred captive peregrine falcons in what was known as the Hawk Barn at the edge of CLOO’s Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary.
The accomplishments of Cade and his army of falcon enthusiasts were incredible. They designed an effective reintroduction strategy called “hacking” in which captive-bred young peregrines were released to cliff sites where they historically nested. The group also created artificial nesting towers for the fledgling falcons and even released them into urban areas where the predation threat was greatly reduced. In total, The Peregrine Fund and other collaborating groups released more than six thousand peregrine falcons in thirty-seven states and most Canadian provinces.
Today, worldwide recovery of the peregrine falcon population has been nothing short of phenomenal. More than 1,600 peregrines now nest across North America, from east to west and north to south. The peregrine recovery was so complete that the bird was removed from the US endangered species list on August 25, 1999. This handsome and fearsome raptor is now often seen wreaking havoc on pigeon populations in many of our major East Coast, cities where they have established nesting sites on ledges of skyscrapers.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.