Iowa Peregrine Recovery Reaches New Milestone

May 27, 2009 by  

By Lowell Washburn
Peregrine falcons have recently staked claim to 23 Mississippi River cliffs in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, while dozens more occupy nest ledges of downtown office buildings, bridges, and power company smokestacks.  At its regular May meeting, the DNR's Natural Resource Commission officially removed peregrine falcons from the state's endangered species list.  Photo by: Lowell Washburn

At its monthly May meeting, members of the DNR’s Natural Resource Commission unanimously approved a measure to remove the peregrine falcon from Iowa’s endangered species list. The state’s fastest bird is now officially listed as a species of special concern. The much anticipated upgrade is a significant milestone in the decades long recovery of what many consider to be the planet’s most spectacular bird species.

The rugged limestone cliffs of the upper Mississippi River in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were once home to mid-America’s greatest densities of nesting peregrine falcons. Exceedingly swift and profoundly courageous, the raptors were highly revered by native Americans who build huge earthen effigies — some with wingspans exceeding 150 feet — that accurately depicted the birds in flight. Although the arrival of European settlers had a devastating impact on many Iowa wildlife species, peregrine falcons held their own until the conclusion of World War II. That’s when “better living through chemistry” ushered in the environmentally devastating era of DDT and the dark vision of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Pesticide induced egg shell thinning had soon decimated peregrine populations nationwide. By the late 1960s, only one peregrine falcon nest — located on a cliff near Lansing, Iowa — remained along the entire length of the Mississippi. When even those birds disappeared, not one single peregrine of any age or sex, could be documented anywhere from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. For modern day, twentieth century falcon admirers, the spring had indeed become silent.

And then a couple of good things happened. In 1972, the use of DDT was forever banned. That same year, a falconer [Falconers are hunters who use trained raptors to capture wild game.] named Tom Cade successfully hatched a captive produced peregrine egg at Cornell University. That event quickly sparked the vision of returning vanished populations through the release of captively produced young falcons. The idea struck a cord and falconers from across the nation were soon donating their precious feathered hunting partners to the conservation cause.

Partnering with DNR, falconers also assumed a leadership role in the Iowa peregrine recovery, securing and preparing release sites as well as raising the $100,000 needed to purchase, care for, and release more than 100 baby peregrines into suitable habitats. Survivors of those initial Iowa release efforts, along with their totally wild descendants, have now returned to reoccupy historic Mississippi River nest sites [eyries] in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Additional pairs claim territories on the synthetic ledges of nearby office buildings, bridges, and power company smokestacks.

Iowa’s now successful peregrine recovery has included scores of volunteers and is the result of more than 20 years of planning, hard core fund raising, and plain hard work. The efforts paid off and contemporary hawk watchers can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Peregrine falcons have successfully returned to the cliff ledge nest sites of their ancestors —- including to a cliff near Lansing where that last 1960s pair existed.

But while the celebration continues we also need to be reminded that renewed peregrine populations are not something to be taken for granted nor is the falcon necessarily home free. Securing the species’ future will require a constant and increased level of stewardship as well as continued environmental vigilance.


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