By BRIAN BIENKOWSKI
Capital News Service
LANSING — Thirty years after vanishing from the Midwest, peregrine falcons are thriving in smokestacks, skyscrapers and cliffs.
The numbers not only rebounded, but quadrupled from the 1950s and 1960s when pesticides, mostly DDT, destroyed peregrine falcon populations. DDT caused thin, easily broken eggs.
“Historically, we didn’t have that much habitat or birds in Michigan,” said Ray Rustem, assistant to the chief of marketing outreach at the Department of Natural Resources. “They were pretty much only in the Upper Peninsula.”
And while the U.P. population has bounced back, there are also peregrine falcons in the Lower Peninsula, Rustem said.
The Detroit area alone has about 17 breeding pairs, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
What’s happening in Michigan reflects developments elsewhere in the region, said Patrick Redig, a professor at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota and president of the Midwest Peregrine Restoration Project.
“Historically, the Midwest population was about 45 to 50 pairs. We now have over 200,” he said.
Not only have the birds rebounded but they live in places they never had before.
Prior to the population crash, neighboring Indiana had about three nests in the entire state, said John Castrale, a nongame bird biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“We had birds in about 17 nesting sites last year,” Castrale said. “The population keeps growing. They all live on power plants, steel mills, skyscrapers and bridges.”
Ohio is another Michigan neighbor where birds didn’t historically nest. It now has 43 nesting sites, all of them urban, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
1962 was the first year when no peregrine falcons were officially reported in the Midwest. They became a federally endangered species in 1970. DDT was banned in the United States in 1973.
In 1982, Redig and ecologist Bud Tordoff started releasing peregrine falcons in the Minnesota sand dunes. They continued the practice for about five years. Some breeding pairs returned to nest.
But there was a problem: “The birds nesting on the cliffs were just slaughtered by great horned owls.”
And then the two scientists an idea not typical of wildlife reintroduction – head to the city. Peregrine falcons historically lived on rock cliff ledges. With their height and concrete, bridges, buildings and smokestacks have similar features.
Redig and Tordoff started releasing birds at the City Center Building in downtown Minneapolis. And their plan worked.
“We could only use that building for two years,” Redig said. “One of the birds came back and nested there for eight years.”
By 1990, there were nesting pairs all over the Great Lakes region, Redig said, including Chicago, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. And non-urban birds became increasingly adept at better protecting young from killer owls.
Peregrine falcons were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999, but remain endangered under state laws in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York.
The Midwest Peregrine Restoration Project released about 100 breeding pairs a year until the mid-1990s. The population is so stable that the project now focuses mostly on monitoring, Redig said.
There is one remaining challenge – the birds have become city slickers.
“Over 50 percent of the region’s population is nesting on artificial structures, and they require a lot of work,” Redig said. “Nesting boxes, nesting trays, relationships with building owners, liability insurance — there’s a lot of management with those living on buildings.”
One goal is to “get the birds off welfare,” so the project discourages people from aiding new birds trying to nest on their buildings.
The thriving peregrine falcons are a testament to determined restoration efforts. For Redig, who has made a career out of it, the birds are well worth the effort. “They’re just such a highly evolved bird. When a peregrine dives down at over 200 miles an hour for prey, or a group brings an entire cliff to life, it’s just beautiful.
“There’s nothing more spectacular than watching a peregrine,” he said.
Brian Bienkowski writes for Great Lakes Echo.