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Feature

A young falcon being banded.

A peregrine falcon chick about to be banded.

Long live the peregrine falcons

By Pauline Oo

June 15, 2007

The former Multifoods Tower, now the City Center shopping center, is where you'll find the heart of Minneapolis' 69-block, 8-mile-long skyway system. It's also the place where you'll locate a peregrine falcon nest.

Yesterday, June 14, almost three dozen people gathered at the City Center atrium for the chance to come face to face with three peregrine chicks and celebrate 20 years of the species' conservation in Minneapolis. Volunteers from the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center were there to band the chicks, which had been carefully brought down from their perch high above the tower. (This was the last site on the center's 2007 Peregrine Falcon banding calendar; other banding cum nesting sites included the lock and dam south of the Ford Parkway Bridge, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and the Bank of the West in Fargo, North Dakota.)

The peregrine falcon, or Falco peregrinus, is a medium-sized hawk about as big as a crow. Adults have a distinctive dark hood and moustache, cream-colored throat, blue barring and yellow soft parts. In the mid 1900s, peregrine populations started to decline the world over, primarily because pesticide contamination affected its nesting. In 1972 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the peregrine falcons endangered in North America.

A peregrine falcon
One of the parents of the three peregrine falcon chicks perches on its nesting box.

Restoration programs began taking root. Patrick Redig, cofounder and director of the Raptor Center, and Bud Tordoff, professor emeritus of ecology, evolution, and behavior and former University of Minnesota Bell Museum director, led the efforts in the Midwest. They founded the Midwest Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project in 1982, and, together with the Nature Conservancy and the falconry community, obtained peregrine chicks that had been bred in captivity and released them into appropriate nesting sites on buildings, smokestacks, bridges, and cliffs.

Historically, peregrines, whose name comes from a Latin word for "wanderer," nested along cliffs and river bluffs, but skyscrapers are also attractive. This raptor needs a high enough perch to launch into its 200 mph dive to strike prey. It also needs relative solitude, especially as protection for its young from the predatory great horned owl.

Banding a bird

People have been banding (or ringing, as it is called in Europe) birds for centuries. It's an indispensable way to study the movement, survival, and behavior of birds. Researchers can reconstruct the movements of individual birds when banded birds are captured, released alive, and reported from somewhere else. There are 23 standard-sized bands and 5 specially sized bands made to accommodate the smallest hummingbird to the large trumpeter swan.

The first records of banding in North America are those of John James Audubon, the famous American naturalist and painter. In 1803 he tied silver cords to the legs of a brood of phoebes near Philadelphia and was able to identify two of the nestlings when they returned to the neighborhood the following year.

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

In 1981 there were two known nesting pairs of peregrine falcons on the mid North American continent: southeastern Manitoba and the Lake Superior basin of Ontario. The first peregrine chicks successfully fledged from the City Center site in 1987; peregrine falcons generally reused nest sites every year. Today, there are more than 200 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in nine Midwestern states and adjoining Canadian provinces. The peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list in 1999.

The Raptor Center on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul has three peregrine falcons among its education birds: Annie, a 12-year-old female that was hit by a car (she has a fractured left wing and is blind in left eye); Chup, a seven-year-old male that fledged early and was found by banders with a broken bone in the wing; and Juneau, an 11-year-old female found shot (she has a fractured right wing).

To learn more about the peregrine falcon, including hearing their vocalizations, visit the Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus.

For a personal account of banding and caring for these raptors, read Jackie Fallon's field notes. Fallon, a zookeeper at the Minnesota Zoo, is a longtime volunteer at the Raptor Center; she coordinates the monitoring of peregrine falcons in Minnesota for more than 40 nesting sites.