Celebrate Earth Day with the Peregrine Falcon

April 22nd, 2016

Skydiver: Saving the Fastest Bird in the World  by Celia GodkinEarth Day is celebrated worldwide every year to give global citizens the chance to demonstrate their support for and dedication to environmental protection. This year Canada is participating in an ambitious campaign to assist in planting 7.8 billion trees—one for every person on the planet—by 2020.

With so much work to do, it’s easy to feel daunted at the prospect of saving the earth. That’s why, while continuing work to protect the environment, it’s important that we also celebrate what we’ve already achieved. A great example of a feel-good environmental success story is the rehabilitation of the Peregrine Falcon.

After the Second World War DDT was developed as one of the first modern synthetic pesticides. Within a decade it was being used extensively all over the world to control insect pests. However, by the end of the 1950’s scientists and researchers noticed insect populations had built up an immunity to it, while species that weren’t its intended target—like the Peregrine Falcon—were exhibiting signs of DDT poisoning. Because the Peregrine Falcon is at the top of its food chain, the birds accumulated large amounts of DDT from the song birds and fish that they fed on, who had absorbed the chemical in smaller amounts from the insects they preyed on.

A DDT build-up in a Peregrine Falcon’s body is not lethal to the bird itself, but it makes their eggshells thin and prone to cracking, causing chicks to die in their eggs. Many breeding pairs of Peregrine Falcons were unsuccessful during this time and their population saw a dramatic decrease. By the mid-1970’s Peregrine Falcon populations had declined by 90% and were at risk of becoming locally extinct, or extirpated, in North America.

Fortunately bird experts and volunteers recognized the need to intervene and save the bird. In 1974 the Peregrine Fund, and other agencies in Canada and the U.S., had initiated a reintroduction program for the Peregrine Falcon. Rescue teams moved clutches of eggs out of the wild to incubate in research labs, giving them a better chance of survival. They were also able to secure mature falcons through bird hobbyists—the Peregrine Falcon has been a prized hunting bird for hundreds of years—to successfully breed in captivity. When chicks were three weeks old they were placed in artificial nesting sites where they were fed and cared for until they were mature enough to develop their own hunting skills.

Initially these nesting sites were located in the wild to duplicate the falcon’s natural habitat, but researchers soon found that chicks were being taken as prey by great horned owls before they could reach maturity. The project was re-homed into cities, where sky scrapers approximated the cliffs where Peregrine Falcons usually nest. The benefit to this change is that, aside from humans, Peregrines have no natural predators in urban environments, but there is still an abundance of small birds and rodents for them to hunt. Because these birds are a migratory species, it was only a matter of time before mature birds began to move back to the wilderness, though there are still many thriving populations of peregrine falcons in large cities across North America.

Since 1974 over 6000 Peregrine Falcons have been released back into the wild; enough that officials were able to remove the Peregrine Falcon from the endangered species list in 1999. The birds are still protected under the Migratory Bird Act, but to this day the return of Peregrine Falcons to the wild is the biggest success to come from the Endangered Species Act.

So any time an environmental initiative—like planting 7.8 billion trees—seems too big to accomplish, it’s good to remember that human intervention has already saved the fastest bird in the world, and with concerted effort and dedication, we can do so much more to help the earth and its creatures.

To learn more about the Peregrine Falcon and what it took to save these incredible birds, Celia Godkin’s non-fiction picture book, Skydiver: Saving the Fastest Bird in the World is a great resource for classrooms, libraries or curious children. Click here to check out Skydiver‘s book trailer.

Learn even more:
From Death’s Door to Life in the City: The Urban Peregrine Falcon
History of Peregrine Falcon Efforts in Indiana
Journey with Nature: Peregrine Falcons
National Post: From the brink of extinction, Prairie falcons make a comeback
National Wildlife Federation: Peregrine Falcon
Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky
The Amoeba Sisters: Biomagnification and the Infamous DDT

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