Saving the Birds of Prey
A tourist attraction and serious science.
Photography: Courtesy of The Peregrine Fund
The California Condor is the largest land bird in North America and one of the most highly endangered. After falling to a population low of 22 in 1982, the number of birds has grown to about 300, thanks to an intensive recovery program. The Peregrine Fund maintains a captive population of 20 pairs at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise and releases young condors to the wild in northern Arizona.
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Perched at the top of a hill overlooking sweeping views of southwest Boise is the World Center for Birds of Prey, a 580-acre tourist destination that gives visitors an up-close-and-personal experience with some of the world’s most magnificent birds. Here, children, out-of-town visitors and the bird-curious can view video presentations, see eagles and vultures, and learn more about the raptors of the world.
But, beyond the videos and viewing areas and displays, there is serious science taking place. This is the home of the Peregrine Fund, a worldwide conservation organization that works daily on the captive breeding and release of endangered birds of prey.
This interest in the survival of the birds of prey is both ecological and in service of mankind. “One reason we care about these wild birds of prey is because they’re bellwethers, like the canary in the coal mine,” says Peregrine Fund President, Peter Jenny.
“These birds are very sensitive to changes in the environment and they tend to be sensitive to compounds that they encounter in their diets,” he notes.
“The peregrine taught us that with DDT, the Asian vultures taught us with some pharmaceutical contaminants. Our work with the California condor is teaching us about lead.”
The work of the Peregrine Fund began well before the organization officially moved to its Boise location in 1984. Founded in 1970 at Cornell University by ornithology professor Tom Cade, the organization came about in direct response to the near extinction of the peregrine falcon population in the U.S.
“The peregrine was completely gone east of the Mississippi and only a handful were left in the West,” says Jenny. “Even when I was a kid, you never saw the peregrine. You read about them, but they were gone.”
The culprit that killed them was DDT, a pesticide that had been in widespread use since the 1940s. Researchers found that the toxin was accumulating in the peregrines’ tissues due to feeding on birds that had eaten DDT-contaminated insects or seeds. In turn, the chemical interfered with egg production and caused the falcons to lay thin-shelled eggs that often cracked. As too few chicks were hatched, peregrine populations took a catastrophic nosedive.
By the mid 1960s, there were no peregrines left in the eastern United States, and by the middle of the 1970s the decline had spread westward, reducing western populations by up to 90 percent.
What followed has often been called the largest effort in history to prevent the extinction of a species and restore its population.
At the time, most experts thought it was impossible to breed captive birds of prey on a large scale. Up until then, it had been accomplished by only a few people on a limited scale. But, a “Dream Team” of falcon appreciators came together and began figuring out how to change the course of extinction. The team included falconers who had experience in raising and hunting with the raptors, biologists who studied them, and volunteers, students and others who understood the implications of losing a species.
To start, falconers donated what birds they had, and researchers collected others out of the wild. Jenny himself accompanied Peregrine Fund founding Director Bob Berry to the eastern Canadian arctic in the 1970s to collect some of the first peregrine falcons to be used for captive breeding.
But breeding falcons was just the beginning. There still was the challenge of incubating and hatching the eggs, and figuring out how to successfully release the fledglings into the wild.
From 1974 to 1997, the Peregrine Fund bred and released into the wild more than 4,000 falcons and, in 1999, the peregrine officially was taken off the endangered list.
“We produce birds of prey in such a way that they are suitable for release back in an appropriate environment, and they’re not just another bird,” Jenny says. “They’re as close to their wild counterpart as possible in the way they’re raised. They need to be physically fit and psychologically adaptable. That’s not easy.
“The recovery of the peregrine was the first instance where people rolled up their sleeves and undertook a hands-on proactive approach,” Jenny notes.
“One of our strengths, then and today, is the cadre of falcon zealots that are passionate about birds of prey. Sometimes it’s like trying to conduct an orchestra of virtuosos,” he laughs.
So, once you bring a wild species back from the brink of extinction, what do you do for an encore?
You move on to the next species that’s in trouble.
The Peregrine Fund has worked on six continents and in more than 55 countries, leading and coordinating numerous successful conservation efforts for species such as the California condor (Arizona), northern aplomado falcon (Texas and New Mexico), harpy eagle and orange-breasted falcon (Panama and Belize), and the Mauritius kestrel (Mauritius). >>>