The party's over: what's next for the peregrine falcon?
Last fall, environmentalists and lawmakers congratulated themselves on one of the greatest success stories in endangered species recovery. The American peregrine falcon was removed from the federal Endangered Species Act's list of endangered and threatened species, its population deemed high enough to sustain itself, no longer in need of the toughest protection available. But while numbers in the west are high, peregrine falcon recovery in New England is by no means a sure thing. Biologists and policy makers look to the future with an optimism fringed with apprehension, and say that a grassroots effort is the key to the long-term well being of this elegant raptor. This spring, they will be relying more than ever on volunteers to help them identify nesting sites and count breeding pairs.
"The next step is critical," said Michael Amaral, Endangered Species Specialist at the New England Field Office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Concord, NH. "Peregrine falcons have gone home from the hospital," he said, "but they still require long-term care." As states begin to see fewer and fewer federal dollars for peregrine monitoring, more and more emphasis will be placed on volunteers to monitor nesting sites, band and count birds and educate the public so that peregrine nesting sites aren't disturbed during key weeks in April and May.
If the success of American peregrine falcons lies in the hands of the public once again, it will complete a cycle that many biologists say can serve as a model for all endangered species recovery. It was a grassroots effort, led by small environmental advocacy groups, independent biologists and falconers, that first brought the plight of American peregrine falcons to the attention of the federal government in the middle of this century. Though peregrines had never been common they space themselves out over remote areas, nesting historically in ledges high on cliffs there were an estimated 500 breeding pairs in the eastern United States in the 1940s. Over the next 20 years, peregrines began to disappear and die out, until there were only 39 breeding pairs in all of the lower 48 states.
The culprit: the pesticide DDT and its breakdown product DDE. Farmers sprayed the pesticide on crops; small birds ate seeds or insects infested with DDT; and peregrines, a predator high on the food chain, ate the small birds. The toxic pesticide caused peregrines to lay either thin-shelled or infertile eggs, and their reproductive success dwindled.
"The peregrine falcon was a natural predator of birds when colonists first arrived here," said Amaral, "and it was an accidental act of humans that led to its extirpation. In our zeal to grow perfect crops, to rid wetlands of mosquitoes and to rid our forests of pests on commercial lumber products, we used chemicals indiscriminately and it had an effect, that we were unaware of, on a whole food chain."
In 1970, both the American and Arctic peregrine falcon were listed as endangered under the act that would, in 1973, become the Endangered Species Act. Most uses of DDT were banned in the United States in 1972. A recovery program pooled the resources and knowledge of falconers, who had bred and raised birds in captivity, academia (primarily researchers at Cornell University), non-governmental groups like The Peregrine Fund and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Birds were "hacked" raised in captivity, gradually taught to hunt on their own and released in the wild successfully for more than 20 years. Reintroduction was coupled with habitat protection and numbers began to rise.
"It was slow at first," said Paul Nickerson, Chief of the Division of Endangered Species for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast Region, "but by 1981 we had a pair that nested naturally at Franconia Notch." The two peregrines that nested there were the first wild birds to make a nest in New Hampshire in about 40 years, he said. "When we discovered the nest in Franconia," he recalled, "I was accompanying the field crew. Seeing the adult [falcons], knowing this was the first natural nesting, that was quite a thrill."
During this time, a strong cooperative bond was forged between people at the federal, state, non-governmental and grassroots levels, and it is this bond, according to Nickerson, that can make peregrine recovery a model for all endangered species. States received federal funds and contracted with agencies like the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) and the National Wildlife Federation's New England office to carry out monitoring and research projects. Those agencies in turn worked with professional climbing guides, volunteer rock climbers and volunteer birders to count and band falcons and to monitor nesting and breeding behavior. "It's a great cooperative working relationship," said Steve Faccio, Conservation Biologist at VINS. "Everyone's been working together," he said.
That cooperative work won't stop just because the peregrine falcon has been taken off the federal Endangered Species list. The de-listing process includes a nationwide monitoring program that involves surveying peregrine populations, checking reproductive success and assessing habitat and threats from development once every three years over a 13-year period starting in 2001. "Region to region, area to area," said Amaral, "many of us are going to track each and every falcon pair as we've done annually."
Each state in the northeast region still lists the peregrine falcon on its state endangered species list, so the bird is afforded some protection. Falcons are also protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), which makes it illegal to take, own, import, export or otherwise trade and sell migratory birds, eggs and nests except with a special permit. Some permits. for example, allow for taking and use by falconers.
There are two main differences between protection under the MBTA and state endangered species acts versus protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, explains Paul Nickerson. One is the stiffness of the penalties. Criminal charges under the federal act could bring fines of up to $50,000 or a year in prison. State laws have nowhere near as much teeth to them. The other difference lies in habitat protection. Under the federal law, habitats of endangered species are protected. For example, said Nickerson, "in the wintertime, if you wanted to build a ski lodge at a nesting site, under the Endangered Species Act that wouldn't happen. Now, a state law may or may not prohibit that." Also, other federal agencies whose actions may impact nesting sites are no longer required to consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
De-listing won't bring too much change to federal level people like Nickerson. "All I have to do," he said, "is monitor the monitors." The biggest change may come at the local and non-governmental level for organizations like VINS. "We'll put more emphasis on recruiting and training volunteer observers," said Faccio. "When federal funds start to dwindle," he said, "then VINS will be phasing out our involvement. Hopefully by then, there will be a core of volunteers to carry on."
What Faccio would like to see is for people who live and recreate near peregrine falcon nesting sites to develop a sense of ownership over those sites, to "realize they have an important resource and to take the initiative and protect it." If people view falcons as part of their community, then one day it will be natural not to hike or rock climb near a nest in spring. "Volunteers are the ideal way to continue monitoring," he said, "and they do a better job at policing human disturbances too."
Michael Amaral agrees that volunteers are a great asset, particularly those that are interested enough to get some training. "I'm still a little nervous about public attitude," he said. "Will people continue to support peregrine recovery?" He is concerned about federal funding drying up as well. "There's tremendous competition for funding and new species can come on to the list any time." He thinks it's unavoidable that people will start to think of peregrines as a lower priority, and sees volunteers as a great way to help biologists continue to identify nest sites. "If we don't know where birds are nesting," he said, "then we can't manage human use around the sites."
This spring, as they have been doing for several past springs, biologists across the New England region will train dozens of volunteers. Senior Biologist Chris Martin of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire coordinates a huge volunteer effort to do a one-week cliff check in April, so that 50 or 60 potential nesting sites can be searched and confirmed or identified. In Vermont, Steve Faccio of VINS and Margaret Fowle with the National Wildlife Federation's New England office organize training sessions in late March and early April. Volunteers head out to a cliff where falcons are obviously preparing to nest. As Faccio described, "the birds are very active and pretty easily observed. They are actively defending off ravens or chasing away other birds. We go through identification features, how to tell a peregrine from a hawk or raven and other behavioral changes that tell you when falcon eggs are about to hatch."
For example, he said, during incubation the nesting sites are quiet. Females incubate the eggs while males are off hunting. When the male returns, the female will fly out and a food exchange is made. While the female feeds, the male goes to the nest ledge and incubates the eggs. However, once the eggs hatch, the male won't go in to the nest ledge. He'll still bring food to the female but the female takes it and returns to the nest.
Volunteers need to learn these clues as well as ways to observe without provoking a peregrine attack. The territorial birds will kick up a fuss, shrieking and swooping and, in some cases, attacking. They kill their prey, mostly smaller birds, by diving and striking in mid-air, killing with a single blow. Scientists have estimated the peregrine falcon's hunting speed to reach 200 miles per hour.
This aggressive behavior has raised concerns for a contemporary type of peregrine falcon: those that have adapted to new environments. Now, skyscrapers, tall towers, bridges and hotel balconies have become nesting ledges. In New York, researchers believe that there are falcon pairs on every bridge across the Hudson River from Manhattan to Albany.
"Peregrine falcons in urban environments can pose a hazard to maintenance crews," said Amaral. "There are certain times of the year when maintenance should be avoided if possible. The crews disturb the birds, but more importantly, the birds will disturb the workers. Window washers or people working on roofs will get bombed." There are eight critical weeks in spring, he said, when non-emergency work should be rescheduled if possible. His office works with these situations on a site by site basis. For example, peregrines have been nesting at a hotel in Boston. Amaral has been working with the management there to work out a way to keep balconies open. Netting may be required in May and June to keep guests safe from attacks.
But most people find the attacks spectacular rather than annoying, said Amaral. "When people see peregrines, their eyes light up." That makes them terrific ambassadors, he said, "perfect to represent an example of a species that we lost that we have now gotten back."
Paul Nickerson agrees. Remembering one difficult climb up a steep cliff as part of some field work, he said "We climbed and climbed and it kept getting steeper and steeper. I stood on a rock no bigger than a computer monitor and thought, 'The headline's gonna read Biologist Falls to Death in Noble Pursuit.' We heard the adult female peregrine screaming at our presence. It was quite ... inspirational. We were taking risks for her, and I thought, 'I guess that's worth it.' I'll take the risk if they can become part of the natural world again."
No one seems to ask why it's important to save the peregrine. "No one ever asks that," claimed Amaral. "People get it. Kids certainly get it," he said. "It was a mistake that humans made and it's good that humans are stepping in to correct their mistake." "The Endangered Species Act did what is was supposed to do," said Nickerson, "and that's a great source of pride for me. There have been many many wildlife restorations in the northeast, but most have involved species that we hunt, trap or fish. The peregrine falcon is a little different. It has been replaced under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act to correct our past sins." This spring, he and his colleagues are hoping that many people will volunteer as observers, continuing to right those past wrongs.