Saving the Birds of Prey
A tourist attraction and serious science.
Photography: Courtesy of The Peregrine Fund
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Saving the world’s birds
The aplomado falcon population began to decline in the U.S. in the 1800s as a result of cattle grazing excesses that decimated the bird’s habitat. The last known U.S. pairs were near Brownsville, Texas, in 1946, and Deming, New Mexico, in 1952.
To help in the restoration project, the Peregrine Fund has enlisted the cooperation of private landowners. “All the releasing of the aplomado was done on private property in west Texas,” says Jenny. “We went to the big ranches and asked, ‘What would it take to release some endangered species on your ranch?’
“Well, you could just hear the tumblers on the gates clicking,” he laughs. “They were very concerned about what would happen if an endangered species became established and how this would affect future land management practices on their property. For instance, would the government make them get rid of their cattle?”
“So, we worked out a Safe Harbor Agreement between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, ourselves, and the landowner. In essence, it says that in turn for having access to your private property to try to encourage the recovery of this species, a permit is issued that says if and when they become established, you can’t be persecuted under the Endangered Species Act for having them on your property. So it’s a win-win,” Jenny says.
The Peregrine Fund collected about 25 birds from Mexico, bred them in captivity and began releasing them into the wild. “To date, we’ve released 1,300 captive-raised youngsters so successfully that we know of a minimum of 50 breeding pairs in south Texas,” Jenny says.
Instead, they were all dying
The Peregrine Fund is currently working to save the California condor, which began to spiral toward extinction in the 1980s as a result of lead poisoning from bullet fragments.
As scavengers, condors feed on hunter-killed game animals and gut piles that often contain hundreds of tiny fragments of lead that the birds ingest. Condors are social scavengers and it takes only one lead-contaminated carcass to affect many birds.
When the Peregrine Fund began its recovery efforts, there were only 22 birds remaining in existence. All these birds were captured and brought into captivity for breeding, resulting in several of the mated pairs producing new chicks that were released into the vast, rugged landscape of the Grand Canyon in Arizona where they continue to slowly struggle to increase their population.
As part of the condor restoration effort, the Peregrine Fund and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have worked together the past three years to educate hunters about the danger of lead poisoning, and have urged them to switch to copper bullets while hunting in condor territory.
“It’s a voluntary approach,” Jenny says. “We believe that hunters want to do the right thing and if you give them the facts, they’ll do the right thing. So far we’ve had a pretty good response.”
This has also raised a concern about the effects of lead contamination of wild game consumed by humans. Lead is particularly dangerous in children, whose intellectual and behavioral development is impaired by exposure to even tiny amounts of lead.
“This is a much bigger issue than the California condor,” Jenny explains. “It affects children, adults, anything that eats this meat.
“Whatever we do for California condors helps people because we’re learning how not to poison ourselves,” he says.
Jenny says he hopes to see both the aplomado and the California condor come off the endangered species list in another ten years.
“Now, why would an endangered species group want to see a species they’re working on come off the endangered species list?” Jenny asks. “You’d think it would be putting yourself out of business, but I think the public really needs to see that things can turn out right. Most of the things the public hears about the environment is all bad news, and if people just give up, we’re in trouble.”
Back at the World Center for Birds of Prey, education is the name of the game. Inside the Herrick Collections Building is the Peregrine Fund Research Library, which houses collections of books and reports, reprints, magazines, newsletters, videos, CDs, photographic slides, and maps on birds, animals and plants. There are specimen collections that include more than 12,000 eggshells and 300 avian study skins. The library is probably the largest of its kind in the Intermountain Region and is now of global importance.
In a separate area is the Archives of Falconry in which falconry equipment and memorabilia, original and reproduced artwork, diaries, field notes, manuscripts, and a substantial collection of photographs are conserved. More than 1,500 volumes of falconry literature, with originals dating back to 1575, are housed in the Archives.
In 2006, following a donation from Arab Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Archives of Falconry was expanded and a new wing was added in honor of the ancient tradition of falconry in the Middle East, where the sport has continued uninterrupted for more than 3,000 years.
In this room, the visitor experience is multi-sensory. Audio, video, graphics, and Arabic artifacts and artwork combine to create a sense of what it was like to hunt in the Arabian desert. A large photographic mural of the geographic area and powerful images of hunters and falcons give visitors a strong visual glimpse of falconry as it has existed for so many centuries.
In explaining how it all fits together, Jenny says, “We were focused on propagating falcons, raising food, and coordinating with multiple agencies to release the young birds into the wild. People would come up here and we couldn’t accommodate them. We just didn’t have the staff time or the capability to show them what we do. Recognizing the importance of public education to achieve long-term success, we established the interpretive center which has grown layer upon layer.”
One of the goals, notes Jenny, is to create an area on the hill for people to watch the birds fly. “It would be wonderful for people to see how beautiful these birds are. A peregrine is the fastest of all living creatures.
“All of the species we work with have a direct relation to humans,” Jenny says. “We humans are pretty clever at doing mergers. We came out onto the savannahs from the forests and we weren’t very fast so we domesticated horses to become more mobile. We weren’t very good at finding game so we domesticated dogs to hunt with. We then enlisted the bird of prey to help us catch game. So, now there’s a four-way partnership, and that made us a pretty significant hunter,” he says.
“Chapter two is when a better way of putting food on the table was invented—gunpowder—and overnight birds of prey, or anything that could potentially compete with us for food, became vermin, so we started persecuting them.
“The final chapter was when the birds of prey were having a tough time. We were able to draw on what we learned about them from past partnerships, and to use the same techniques first developed for falconry to breed them in captivity and put them back into nature.
“So it’s come full circle. We recognized a way for them to help us and, in the end, we recognized a way for us to give back to them.”