Longwings return to Midwest skies – Long may the peregrine fly!
Adapted by Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation, and Linette Bernard, Feathers & Ink, from original material from Pat Schlarbaum, Iowa DNR Wildlife Diversity Program. Pat has been a key player in Iowa's Peregrine Falcon Restoration Program. (Pat retired from the IDNR June 2017.)
Peregrine falcons exude power and mystique and have long been worshipped. Falcons were revered as “Lofty Ones” appearing in sculptures, writings and paintings some 3,000 years ago of the early Egyptians and Persians. The references of the falcon’s power and grace can be found from as far back as the times of Aristotle and Marco Polo.
The scientific name of Falco peregrinus means wandering falcon. During migration, peregrines will travel great distances. Gyrfalcons nesting in the Arctic tundra are known to migrate to Central and South America during winter. Most falcons head much further south than Iowa for the winter. In fact, many falcons would be considered neotropical migrants.
The 58 different species of falcons collectively inhabit all parts of the world except for Antarctica and a few oceanic islands. These falcons range in size from the smallest pygmy falcon of South America (6.5 inches) to the gyrfalcon of the Arctic (24-25 inches). In North America, our smallest falcon is the kestrel (9-12 inches). All falcons have a notched bill, used to break the vertebrae of the prey. Peregrines (and kestrels) have a dark mustache stripe under each eye. After one year of age, peregrine feathers are slate blue on the back, white under the chin with black speckling and salmon color on the breast. During their first year, peregrines will have a chocolate-brown feathers with streaks on the belly. Peregrines are crow-sized raptors with the females being larger. A peregrine’s eyesight is absolutely amazing – experiments in Germany documented that peregrines can recognize prey (sitting doves) at a distance of 3,000 feet.
The peregrine’s speed and grace make it one of the most interesting falcons to watch or study. As a speck in the sky at two thousand feet, the falcon rolls over, folding its long wings. The speck becomes a bionic missile with anatomical attributes to do what it does, and how it does it - very well. See-through nictitating membranes arise from lower eyelids to protect its eyes from dust or windblown seeds. Cartilaginous baffles in its nasal cavities ensure the back of its skull is not blown out from its velocity. A peregrine falcons decent exceeds 270 mph during the dive or “stoop.”
When diving at prey straight-ahead, from great distance, at great speed, a peregrine has a conflict between vision and aerodynamics. With eyes on each side, it must turn its head approximately 40 degrees to see the prey. Doing this, maximum visual acuity at the deep fovea of one eye is achieved – the bird’s vision is locked onto the prey. Every feather contributes to its flight and hunting mission.
Raptor Force This Nature episode from PBS is no longer available online, this link shows a peregrine falcon stoop! Also see this site for the history of falconry, thermal versus dynamic soaring, falcon cam, and links.
As the diving falcon approaches its prey, its talons are clenched into a fist. The prey is dispatched into a poof of feathers with a knuckle to its noggin. In the case of larger birds, like a duck, the prey is stunned; then grabbed in mid-air and ridden to the shore. The falcon’s beak is specifically notched to separate the vertebrae of its quarry in a most efficient manner.
Whether referred to as a longwing, great-footed hawk, duck hawk, rock hawk, or blue meanie, the peregrine falcon occupies a unique position in our psyche of bird lore. The art of falconry had its inception in Mongolia and the Middle East over four thousand years ago. The craft was introduced to Europeans during the medieval times of the Sixteenth Century. The feudal system created sprawling castles that dominated higher elevations of the landscape. These structures and associated forest tracts attracted falcons including kestrels, Merlin’s, and peregrines. A person’s status in the hierarchy determined what falcon could be mastered; the higher the status, the more powerful falcon could be possessed. Peregrines were the highest order that falconers could accompany on hunting forays.
The species was extirpated or lost as a breeding bird from the eastern United States by 1965. It is widely believed the last nesting pair was at Capoli Bluff downstream from Lansing, Iowa. Early 20th century newspaper accounts tell of town-folks walking down the railroad tracks by the river for spring equinox to celebrate the return of their falcons to the cliffs each March.
In 1962 scientist and author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, sounded an alarm foretelling bird extinctions from ravaging biocides of the post-World War II era. Although the chemical industry sullied, demeaned, and criticized Carson’s research, a basic law of nature was becoming obvious - whatever affects wildlife ultimately affects humans. Realization of a “silent spring” was resonating and legislation was needed to ban DDT and related culprits. The Endangered Species Act was implemented and DDT was banned in the United States in 1973. However, it was too late for peregrines that no longer nested east of the Missouri River. These top-of-the-food-chain raptors and biological indicator species were wiped out in the wild.
Partly because they are so fascinating, peregrine falcons have become one of the best known symbols in humankind’s efforts to save endangered species. Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, peregrines have been the subject of intense activity to keep them from extinction. An important step in recovery efforts was successful propagation of falcons in captivity and reintroduction back to the wild.
Tom Cade, the founder of The Peregrine Fund, initiated a plan to breed captive peregrines in 1977. A facility located at Cornell University in New York began rearing falcons. Falconers from around the world donated their birds with their coveted genetics to the project. Their intent was to breed adult falcons in captivity, then release their young into suitable habitat, returning these birds to their previous range as a nesting species.
According to Bruce Ehresman, biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the upper Mississippi River was the major historic nesting area for peregrines in the Midwest, with an estimated historic population of 30 to 35 pairs. Most of Iowa’s peregrine nesting occurred on the bluffs of northeastern Iowa in Allamakee, Clayton, Dubuque, and Clinton counties. Other historic nesting sites also included palisades along the Cedar River in Linn, Johnson, and Black Hawk counties, plus a nest was reported at the mouth of Beaver Creek in Polk County. Peregrines were listed as a federal and state endangered species in 1973. (The peregrine was federally de-listed in 1999 and in 2009 Iowa status changed from endangered to species of special concern.)
In an effort to guide recovery of peregrine falcons in the eastern United States, an Eastern Peregrine Recovery Plan was developed in 1979. The overall goal of this plan was to establish a viable peregrine population consisting of 175 breeding pairs in the US, which was half of the pre-pesticide population. For each region of the eastern United States, the plan set a goal of 20 to 25 breeding pairs. Iowa is part of the Midwestern and Great Lakes Regional Plan. Other states and territories are North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Manitoba, and Ontario.
In 1982 the first young falcons from Cornell’s Peregrine Fund were released at Weaver Dunes in SE Minnesota. The terrain was in old-field grass habitat set back from the river valley. When all released birds were killed by great horned owls, the strategy was abandoned. It was determined that urban areas provided a viable alternative to the historic cliffs. Cities had a stable prey base of birds. Tall buildings would contribute to early morning thermals that assimilate natural cliffs. Ledges can be utilized like natural cliffs for perch and nest sites. Most importantly urban areas were nearly devoid of great horned owls. As urban falcon populations grew, it was hoped that falcons would spill-over from urban areas to wild cliffs eventually.
In 1989, Iowa set a goal of establishing five breeding pairs by the year 2000, with an ultimate goal of ten breeding pairs for a sustaining population. To achieve this effort, the Wildlife Diversity Program planned to release 50 peregrines in the first five years. Three sites were chosen, Cedar Rapids in 1989-90, Des Moines 1991, and Muscatine in 1992. Release sites would be prepared to utilize falconry expertise. Dr. Pat Redig, Co-chair with the Midwest Falcon Recovery Team told us in 1989, “Your falcon fun is about to begin.”
Release or “hacking” structures were 4’ x 5’ x 4’ tall to hold up to six eyases or young falcons. The entire structure had to be portable. Hack boxes needed to be dismantled, placed into an elevator, negotiated through narrow stairways, and reconstructed on a building rooftop. The structure needed to be sturdy enough to withstand 70 mph sustained winds. Every measure was made to make the box extremely durable to ensure safety for the precious young falcons.
Urban releases went well around the Midwest and by 1993 there were two nesting pairs in Iowa at Cedar Rapids and Des Moines and 25 nesting pairs in other urban centers of the Midwest. However, the goal of achieving five nesting pairs in Iowa by 2000 seemed remote. At most urban nest sites, prime buildings were fought over to the death of one of the combatants. Peregrine enthusiasts were beginning to wonder when the urban population would cross-over or return to the cliffs. Bob Anderson with Raptor Resource Project believed strongly that falcons needed to be released from cliffs to instill or imprint that habitat upon the birds. If we wanted falcons back on the cliffs, we needed to release falcons from the cliffs.
At a Midwest Falcon Mini-Symposium in 1994, Bob Anderson (pictured left), Director of Raptor Resource Project, introduced himself by saying, “I want to be a part of anything that happens on the River.” As a falcon breeder, Bob had provided 195 falcon young for releases into urban areas around the nation. Bob was adamant in his belief that we needed to release falcons on cliffs for them to imprint on the cliff habitat.
He requested permission to do this work at Mississippi cliffs near his home in Hugo, Minnesota. He was told: no, permission denied. There were numerous justifications from raptor and agency professionals including predation by great horned owls and these owls adapting to hunt peregrine in the city. Biologists felt that eventually urban falcons would spill-over back to the cliffs.
Bob felt differently. He proposed releasing falcons into less aggressive barred owl terrain right on the River. Great-horned owls reside on the edges of the big timbers of the riparian corridor of the Mississippi. This terrain described the Weaver Dunes experiment from 1982. Bob seemed anxious to work with the Iowa DNR to release falcons in Iowa. He was providing young eyases that his mated pairs created for release into a natural environment. Our question to Iowans was, “What is the advantage to saying ‘no’ to Bob Anderson?” The Iowa DNR felt his plan had merit and his plan was approved.
Bob moved his entire peregrine falcon project with six nesting pairs to Ridgeway, Iowa in 1996. Key members of Raptor Resource Project (then AND now) included Amy Ries, Dave Kester, and John Dingley. These individuals were dedicated to making a difference in their environmental work. They began looking for rock outcroppings that were right on the river in barred owl habitat. The Project began producing young falcons for release on cliffs of NE Iowa. When eyases or young falcons could feed themselves at 30 days of age, the young were placed into a mew, a falconry term for a room or enclosure where raptors are kept. The mew was installed on the outside of Bob’s farmhouse dining room. The young would only see rocks and great outdoors, nothing man-made for one week. At 37 days of age the young were transferred to hack or release sites on the river. Their maturity would continue as their flight feathers gained length. A pilot effort to release four 42-day-old youngsters at Bluffton on the Upper Iowa River occurred in summer of 1997. Everything went well. Important details were noted in this marvelously maverick attempt to return falcons to the cliffs. Each evening the juvenile “brown birds” would seemingly melt into the crevasses of the rock cliffs. It was a key innate behavior of the newly minted population. There was no mortality.
With no pairs nesting on their historic cliffs of the Mississippi River, Bob Anderson’s Raptor Resource Project ramped up efforts to release additional birds on the cliffs. Hanging Rock at Effigy Mounds National Monument on the Mississippi River was selected for the release site in 1998. Surveys indicated only barred owls were calling at this stretch of the Mississippi River. No great horned owls were heard. Hanging Rock was the successful hack site for 19 peregrines. Thanks to Rodney Rovang and Effigy Mounds National Monument staff for support and assistance. Visitors near the site marveled at the splendor of these magnificent birds adjusting and maturing into their natural role of raptor extraordinaire of the flyway. There was zero mortality in 1998 and zero mortality in 1999.
Peregrine Falcons in the Mississippi River Valley (Program originally aired April 21, 2002 as part of the Living in Iowa television series on Iowa Public Television documenting Bob Anderson’s work from 1998-2002)
Meanwhile at the Dubuque Quarry adjoining Eagle Point Park, Lowell Washburn, Tom Deckert, and Rob Kirkman of Iowa Falconer’s Association joined efforts with Dr. Larkin Powell of University of Dubuque to release additional peregrines. Their work complemented the work of the Raptor Resource Project. They formed the Iowa Falcon Recovery Team. It should be noted these individuals exhibited their environmental interests with action as true citizens of the natural world. They volunteered their own grant writing, construction of the release site, procuring falcons, and monitoring released birds. Their research assisted academic growth of university students.
In a two-year span beginning in 1999, 39 peregrines tested their wings and successfully fledged from a 200-foot limestone bluff near Dubuque. It was at this site that resident great horned owls nested in the same quarry. The owls stole fresh falcon food (Coturnix quail), however there were no falcon mortalities attributed to owls.
In 1999 the federal government removed peregrine falcons from the Endangered Species list. Urban areas had 99 nesting pairs which produced 205 young that year.
In 2000, for the first time in over three decades, wild peregrines were produced on Mississippi River cliffs. Pioneering on the cliffs was not gradual. It went from zero to five nesting pairs in one year. These peregrine pairs were all in the Upper Mississippi of Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. At the Alliant Energy plant in Lansing, Bob Anderson had installed a nest box at a nearby cliff, a historic peregrine nest site. The box was placed to deter raccoon predation. Four young fledged; one female and three males. Bud Tordoff, Chair of the Midwest Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team, said, “These were the first young peregrines known to fledge from a cliff nest in the Mississippi River valley since the extirpation of the original population by DDT in the 1950s and 1960s.” Since that time there are as many as a dozen pairs on the cliffs each year. Bob Anderson’s falcon work led the way for this to happen. Bob is the “Father of Falcons” to Iowans.
Peregrine Falcons return to river cliffs (a segment from Iowa Outdoors, Iowa Public Television, published June 5, 2014)
Another notable site was Queen’s Bluff in SE Minnesota, one young fledged successfully from Iowa-released parents - a male from Bob’s 1998 Hanging Rock release and female from Lowell Washburn’s 1998 Mason City release. From 1989 to 2002, 164 peregrines were hacked from Iowa release. Eighty-four birds were released along the Mississippi River, 62 from limestone bluffs. There was no mortality attributed to great horned owl predation. In 2015 we know of 21 nesting pairs in Iowa - 17 on the River.
Raptor Resource Project Annual Report 2014 (opens as PDF)
All along the Mississippi flyway, peregrine courtship calls offer testimony to untold thousands of hours and dollars invested in bringing back the great-footed hawks. Falcons were upgraded from endangered status federally in 1998 and in Iowa in 2009. As a standard-bearer of the Endangered Species Act, the longwings return is a testament to the necessity and effectiveness of the ESA. Most endangered species unfortunately lack the high profile efforts and funding that have returned peregrines from the brink of extinction.
Provisions of the Endangered Species Act, as a tool for wildlife conservation, are unequivocal as a commitment to future generations. The Act must be preserved and strengthened at any cost. A choice was made for the environment in 1973. DDT was banned and the Endangered Species Act was implemented. This is a profound precedent that is relevant for today’s environmental challenges. Bob Anderson would say, “Nothing was more foreboding than banning DDT in the ‘60s….If we could do it then, we can do anything for the planet, now.”
Now that peregrine falcons have resurrected from near extinction, maintaining the recovered population for future generations becomes our top priority. In many regards, the real work is just beginning. Complacency or taking the falcons for granted is our greatest enemy. The outreach to all citizens needs to be incorporated into the official upgrade from ‘endangered species’ status in Iowa. It now becomes our collective responsibility to ensure that peregrine falcons will never be placed in jeopardy of extinction again.
Check out this peregrine falcon photo album in Google Photos.
Today, falcons have successfully returned to the Mississippi River cliffs where they prospered for centuries. It occurred in our lifetime. The falcons’ role as a positive biological indicator species on the health of our environment has returned. Thanks go out to all volunteer conservationists and non-governmental organizations like Raptor Resource Project founded by Bob Anderson, Midwest Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team co-chaired by Dr. Bud Tordoff and Dr. Pat Redig with The Raptor Center, Iowa Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team chaired by Lowell Washburn; environmental groups like Macbride Raptor Project, Iowa Audubon, National Audubon, Iowa Wildlife Federation, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation; and natural resource agencies including US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa Departments of Natural Resources.
A special shout-out to area raptor rehabilitators who have provided care and rehabilitation for peregrines needing assistance. As a falconer and wildlife rehabilitator, Kay Neumann’s Saving Our Avian Resources non-profit has provided the best care to injured falcons there is anywhere. Her raptor knowledge and facilities are exemplary in assisting every facet of raptor biology. SOAR - Saving Our Avian Resources, has long worked with RRP and the Iowa DNR Wildlife Diversity Program to assist in peregrine rehabilitation of Iowa's nesting populations.
Sometimes folks believe that reintroduction work of native species, once on the brink of extinction, can be left alone for an indefinite amount of time once a population goal has been met. Contrary to this thought, volunteers and professionals must continue to work together to ensure the survival and continued education of recovering our heritage.
Ultimately the cooperation of individuals, organizations, states, and countries will determine the fate of wildlife in the future. While Bob Anderson made a huge impact in the peregrine population in the Upper Midwest over his lifetime, not just on a single day every year. Each of us can do our “little something” to make a difference in our own corners of the world. ‘National Make A Difference Day’ is an annual community service event held the fourth Saturday in October. Together we can make a difference.
Peregrine falcons have become a success story and literal standard-bearer of the working Endangered Species Act. Falcons are back on the rocks providing glimmers of hope for the planet - long may they fly!
As we've tried to emphasize... peregrine falcon population recovery was not done in a vacuum. Many, many folks have been involved and will continue to be involved. Thanks to Pat Schlarbaum, Iowa DNR Wildlife Diversity Program, for letting us adapt his article and for Amy Ries, Raptor Resource Project, for support and assistance.