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Back From the Brink

Peregrine falcons have adapted to city life, but species without the star power are still languishing.

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On a Wednesday morning over spring break, George Richter walked through the busy halls of the Field Museum. Around him tour groups toured, mothers chased toddlers, and grandfathers read Sue the Dinosaur's placard to their grandchildren. None of them seemed to notice that he had a hooded bird the size of a large crow perched on his heavily-gloved left hand.

Richter is a master falconer with Save Our American Raptors, a nonprofit based in downstate Earlville. The bird, named Damsel, is a female peregrine falcon. Richter and Damsel were on their way to a press conference where they would help explain to TV, radio, and print reporters how her species had been brought back from the brink of extinction. They were also there to promote the Field Museum's new webcam, which is poised over an active peregrine falcon nest on the roof of Midwest Generation's lakefront power plant in Waukegan.

Currently the parents are incubating three eggs in the Waukegan nest. "I've always longed for

a window to look in on an aerie," says Mary Hennen, a collections assistant in the museum's zoology department, though she admits that right now "the view is like watching paint dry." The action will pick up once the eggs hatch. Hennen recommends checking the webcam site (www.earthcam.com/usa/illi

nois/midwestgen/) during the first week of May. It will take another seven weeks for the hatchlings to grow into fledglings capable of taking their first flights.

The federal government took the peregrine falcon off its endangered species list in 1999. In the Chicago area ten breeding pairs have fledged 16 or more chicks without assistance for each of the last three years, meeting the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board's threshold for an upgrade from "endangered" to "threatened" on the state's list. (The board's recommendation for the change of status is proceeding through legally required hearings but has not been challenged; if it's approved Illinois will be the first midwestern state to take such action.) In the board's opinion, there's now less than a 5 percent chance that peregrines will vanish from Illinois. When that probability drops to 1 percent, the board will consider recommending that the bird be delisted entirely.

What's good news for peregrines and raptor lovers is bad news for the birds they eat--and that's not just pigeons. Rapacious predators that not even Disney could sentimentalize, peregrines dive or "stoop" on their prey at speeds of over 200 miles per hour, killing it in midair. "My first sight of a peregrine ever, it was stooping on a yellow-bellied sapsucker," says Hennen, who took charge of local peregrine reintroduction and monitoring while at the Chicago Academy of Sciences in 1990 and brought the program with her to the Field in 2001.

In the wilderness peregrines are cliff dwellers and scrape their nests out of gravel. They've adapted to the cityscape by nesting on bridges, fire escapes, and the ledges of tall buildings. Hennen can rattle off the sites of local aeries from memory, north to south: "Waukegan, Evanston, Broadway, Uptown, Lakeview, Wacker, Metropolitan Correctional Center, UIC, Pilsen, Hyde Park, and Calumet."

In the 1930s between 400 and 500 breeding pairs of peregrines lived east of the Rocky Mountains. Soon after World War II their numbers crashed--the last known breeders in Illinois fledged their young in southern Jackson County in 1951. Elsewhere bird-watchers saw adult pairs, nests, and eggshell fragments inside the nests but no young peregrines.

In the 50s and 60s scientists looked at eggshells preserved in museum collections and observed that eggs currently being laid were strangely fragile, their shells too thin to support the weight of brooding parents. The thinning was linked to DDT, an insecticide widely used since the war and considered harmless. A residue of the chemical, it was discovered, accumulated in the fatty tissues of birds' bodies and interfered with the females' secretion of calcium into their eggshells. Raptors like peregrines were exposed to the highest concentrations of the residue because they sat at the top of the food chain, feeding on the flesh of birds that fed on DDT-laden insects.

In 1970 the federal government placed peregrines on the endangered list, and in '72 it banned most uses of DDT. Though essential, these measures alone probably wouldn't have brought the peregrines back. What tipped the scales in the birds' favor were the cooperative efforts of falconers like Richter, scientific institutions like the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Field Museum, and government bodies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state departments of natural resources. Falconers provided breeding stock and hatchery know-how, naturalists developed methods of raising young peregrines so they would grow up fit for release into the wild, and government protected habitat and coordinated or, in some states, directly implemented reintroduction programs.

By 1974 peregrines were being hatched in incubators and reared in artificial aeries. To prevent the hatchlings from imprinting on their human caretakers, they were fed through chutes. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 6,000 such fledglings have been released--or "hacked out"--into the wild. The first such releases in Illinois took place on the UIC campus in 1986. Very little hacking is done these days, now that the peregrine population has become self-sustaining.

All that ingenuity, regulation, and private activism might still have come to nothing if peregrines hadn't adapted so readily to urban life. The midwest has a few riverside cliffs, if you know where to look, but it has a lot more smokestacks, skyscrapers, and bridges. "It's a wonderful accident that this bird can live in an urban setting," says Dan Gooch, chair of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. The birds actually do more than live here: they thrive. Last year the oldest peregrine in the midwest, a 17-year-old named Jingles, returned to a nest on South Wacker, where he and his mate Dory fledged five female young. "For a peregrine, 17 is getting up there," says Hennen.

At the February meeting where the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board recommended changing the peregrine's status from endangered to threatened, four other species were also nominated for an upgrade: the eastern ribbon snake, the Henslow's sparrow, the spectaclecase mussel, and a fish called the Iowa darter. Five other species were proposed as candidates for removal from the threatened list, including the pied-billed grebe, which is benefiting from wetlands restoration, and the river otter, which was the subject of its own reintroduction program. "The good news is that there is some good news," says Gooch. "For a long time we just didn't see things leaving the list for good reasons."

The bad news is that these species and the board that looks out for them seem to be headed in opposite directions. The research that determined the peregrines were ready for an upgrade was conducted by staffers who no longer work for the board because it has received no state funding since 2002. Some of the work has been taken up by employees of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and some by volunteers, says Gooch. But some of it simply goes undone.

It's not that there's nothing left to do: the upgrades that the board recommended in February were offset by the designation of seven new threatened species, the downgrade of one species from threatened to endangered, and the removal of five species from the list because they've become extinct in Illinois since the last time the list was revised, five years ago. The vanished species are two fish (the flathead chub and the bluehead shiner) and three mussels (the round hickorynut, the pyramid pigtoe, and the rayed bean).

The peregrine's success story demonstrates that both government funding and private initiatives can be crucial to the survival of a species. Aside from that, it doesn't yield many lessons applicable to the plight of other struggling species. The Henslow's sparrow, for example, doesn't enjoy the support of a private lobby like the one that falconers provide for the peregrine and other raptors. Nor is the sparrow's preferred habitat--"a mixture of dense grass and herbaceous vegetation," according to Joel Greenberg's A Natural History of the Chicago Region--as secure as the peregrine's supply of urban high-rises (although some gains have been made recently thanks to the federally funded Conservation Reserve Program, which encourages farmers to return cultivated land to wild grass).

Finally, there's the problem that hardly anybody knows or cares about the humbler endangered species. If a glamorous bird like the peregrine falcon can't draw a crowd in a busy museum, what hope is there for the pyramid pigtoe mussel?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kanae Hirabayashi.

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