How Private Conservation Saved the Peregrine Falcon

Published October 1, 1999

On August 20 and 21, The Peregrine Fund, a private conservation organization, hosted a gala event in Boise, Idaho, to celebrate the recovery and restoration of the once-endangered Peregrine Falcon throughout its range in North America.

As Jeff Cilek, the P-Fund’s vice president noted, “After nearly 30 years of work by literally thousands of people, the largest conservation effort ever undertaken for a species, anywhere and anytime, is now coming to a successful end. People from all over the United States and several foreign countries are joining us to celebrate this happy ending for the Peregrine Falcon.”

The Peregrine Falcon’s recovery is a singularly noteworthy achievement, one of the proudest accomplishments in conservation history. In this era of government regulation of everything, the moment is especially deserving of attention because it was reached through the great, although often overlooked, American tradition of voluntary association and private action.

The Peregrine Falcon is one of the most magnificent and awe-inspiring birds of prey. Nesting on rugged sea cliffs, ledges on sheer canyon walls, and river-cut banks of arctic streams, the Peregrine has long been admired for its wild ways. This fierce predator of smaller birds, especially sandpipers, plovers, and ducks, is renowned for its 200 mph dives, or stoops, when it attacks, hits, and knocks its prey out of the sky. This hunting style has given the Peregrine a special cachet, making it the delight of falconers.

Endangered by Reproductive Failure

In the early 1960s, birders, biologists, and raptor experts noted that Peregrine populations worldwide were experiencing massive reproductive failure. While the adult birds continued to return to their aeries, they were producing no offspring. Investigation around the industrialized world found Peregrine eggs to be cracked and fragile. Indeed some eggs had no shell at all, simply membranes.

Failed eggs were gathered and compared to the vast collection of eggs in museum collections and in the private collections of oologists. It was learned that Peregrine eggs had a uniform thickness for hundreds of years, but sometime after World War II a sharp and progressive thinning of the shells set in. Determined to discover the cause, medical researchers, chemists, and biologists examined a wide range of environmental contaminants. Suspicions centered on organochlorine pesticides which had come into widespread agricultural and urban use shortly before eggshell thinning began.

Scientists determined that DDT was the culprit; one of its metabolites prevented the female Peregrines from depositing calcium, hence the thin-shelled eggs. The Peregrines were picking up DDT from the shorebirds and waterfowl they fed on. Amid considerable controversy, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in 1972.

Private Rescue Efforts Take Hold

Meanwhile, a loose-knit network of falconers, raptor biologists, professional ornithologists, birders, and conservationists had come together under the leadership of Dr. Tom Cade of Cornell University. Together they formed the nonprofit Peregrine Fund in 1970 to try to find ways to save the falcon. Once the source of the Peregrine’s endangerment was discovered, and then eliminated, actions to restore the species began in earnest.

By the time recovery activities were started, the Peregrine had largely disappeared from the lower 48 states and southern Canada.

Cade called on falconers and others with captive Peregrines to bring them to Cornell so attempts to get them to breed in captivity could be started. From all across the country, volunteers brought birds as well as their experience in overcoming the difficulties of achieving captive breeding. The P-Fund was soon producing captive-bred and artificially inseminated birds, expanding their breeding stock.

The next step was to release the young Peregrines into the wild, to replace their vanished ancestors. Again, the P-Fund relied on techniques developed by the falconry profession: a method called hacking, whereby juvenile birds are released into the wild without any care or feeding by parent birds. A pole or tower is erected, with a platform atop it. A hack box– essentially a large wooden crate with a barred front–sits on the platform. Once the juvenile Peregrines are large enough to tear apart their own food, they are placed in the box.

Teams of volunteers watched over the birds, surreptitiously dropping freshly killed quail down a chute in the back of the box so the young birds would not see the humans or imprint upon them. As the birds reached full size, became fully feathered, and began to flap their wings, the cage door would be opened during the day so they could move around the platform, watch the surrounding environment, and exercise their wings.

Eventually, the young Peregrines would make their first flights and begin to chase potential prey, although food and shelter were still provided for a time at the hack box. As summer ebbed, those successful at catching prey would begin their peregrinations, leaving volunteers hopeful that the following year at least a few would return to the vicinity and eventually begin to nest in the wild.

The program was a resounding success. The P-Fund kept breeding more falcons and hacking more into the wild–nearly 4,500 birds overall. Two other organizations also took up the task, so that a total of some 6,000 Peregrines were hacked out.

A great many of those young birds failed to survive. Nature is a harsh master; immature and sub-adult birds of prey have an especially difficult education ahead of them, learning how to capture rapidly moving and evasive prey. Migration is hazardous, especially in an increasingly human-dominated world.

Because efforts to hack Peregrines on their traditional wild cliff sites were stymied by heavy nocturnal predation by Great Horned Owls (in the absence of the highly protective parent falcons), hacking initially moved into open areas in wetlands, islands, and estuaries along coasts and bays where owl predation would be minimal. Mid-Atlantic state birds soon adapted to such artificial cliff sites as bridges, window ledges on city skyscrapers, and nooks and crannies of cathedrals and churches, where they had a relatively large prey base of starlings and pigeons uncontaminated by DDT residues. As Peregrine populations increased and hacked birds reached maturity and successfully began to breed, the birds began to re-take their traditional cliff aeries.

Victory for a Proud Species

By the early 1990s, the Peregrine Falcon had largely been restored throughout most of its original range. In a number of states, Peregrine populations were already higher than had ever been recorded. In 1997, the Peregrine Fund announced it had achieved its goal: the Peregrine Falcon was restored to the wild, and the Fund would wrap up its captive breeding and release program.

The Peregrine Fund succeeded because its goal was precisely and simply to restore the Peregrine Falcon. No more, no less. There were no ulterior motives. They had no axes to grind. They weren’t trying to stop economic development, or to shut down the timber industry, the mining industry, or the electric utility industry–even though raptors sometimes hit transmission lines or were electrocuted when perched atop towers. The Peregrine’s rescuers didn’t use the falcon as a surrogate or a symbol or a tool to achieve any such ends. They single-mindedly pursued their dream of once again seeing Peregrines racing through the air and hearing their wild cries.

The Peregrine Fund enlisted the support of thousands upon thousands of volunteers, who helped in breeding, hacking, monitoring, and record-keeping. Everyone from giant corporations like Disney, through oil, timber, and mining companies, to bird watchers, conservationists, and small landowners contributed tens of millions of dollars to the effort.

By Stark Contrast: Consider the ESA

The Peregrine Fund succeeded in achieving a remarkable recovery, while the Endangered Species Act has failed to recover nearly anything. This is because their means and goals are diametrically opposed.

Rather than aiming at restoring an endangered species, the goal of the ESA has primarily been to stop all human activity that might be considered a threat to any species considered to be in trouble.

Ruling in the first court case brought under the ESA, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a three-inch-long, previously unknown fish–the snaildarter–took precedence over the nearly completed $100 million TVA Tellico Dam. It was clear, the Court ruled, that the intent of Congress was to save any listed species, “whatever the cost.” The environmental community had in the ESA the ultimate tool to stop anything, anywhere, simply by placing a species on the Endangered Species List. That is largely how the Act has been used ever since.

And that is why the Act has been such an abysmal failure. Even such prominent leaders of the environmental movement as Douglas Wheeler, former executive director of the Sierra Club, and Michael Bean, chairman of the wildlife program of the Environmental Defense Fund, have pointed out that the Act needs to be fixed. Both have supported reforms that would eliminate the perverse incentives that make private landowners and citizens afraid to take steps to protect endangered species or their habitats.

For much of the 1990s, but especially since the beginning of the 104th Congress in January 1995, efforts have been underway to reform, rewrite, and improve the Endangered Species Act. To derail those efforts, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and his deputies in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Office of Endangered Species have repeatedly made unjustified and erroneous claims for the successes of the ESA.

Babbitt Boards the Victory Train

Babbitt had little choice but to board the P-Fund’s victory train, since it had left the station without him. The P-Fund knew the Peregrine Falcon had recovered–they did it, and they announced it two years ago. Last year, Babbitt announced his intentions to delist the Peregrine “in the future.”

As recently as August 18, Babbitt was still being coy, releasing a departmental news advisory suggesting a “possible final delisting of Peregrine Falcon” and saying “this Friday [August 20], Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt plans to announce whether the peregrine falcon is no longer endangered. . . .”

In a last-second moment of clarity, Babbitt came racing after the departing train, grabbed hold of the caboose, and pulled himself aboard, huffing and puffing.

And then he tried to pull off one of the greatest examples of political flim-flammery in the nation’s history, attempting to claim for himself and the Endangered Species Act the role of engineer of the Peregrine’s recovery.