Every spring, Minnesota volunteers rappel down cliff sides, climb under bridges and scale buildings, all hoping to learn more about “nature’s missile”: the peregrine falcon.
“What we’re finding is the rewriting of peregrine falcon textbooks,” said Jackie Fallon, vice president of field operations for the St. Paul-based Midwest Peregrine Society.
Thousands of peregrine falcons in the United States are monitored through bird banding efforts that have been going on for decades. Fallon, a Twin Cities resident, visited her first peregrine falcon nesting site in St. Paul in 1988.
“I’ve been hooked ever since,” she said.
In recent days, Fallon and groups of volunteers have been scouring the North Shore, banding chicks found on cliffs, islands and elsewhere — the season’s exhaustive banding efforts are expected to be completed before the end of the month.
Chicks are found south of Winona to Grand Portage, to Brainerd, through St. Cloud and beyond – Minnesota is prime peregrine falcon terrain.
“Most of the major cities in our region are close to water and that’s what provides them with their food source,” Fallon explained.
Peregrine falcons, capable of straight-line flight speeds of 70 mph and descent speeds of over 240 mph, are the fastest animal on the planet.
While there are more than 350 breeding pairs in the Upper Midwest today, there were none just over half a century ago.
Before reintroduction efforts took hold, Minnesota lost sight of the species in 1963 – that’s when the state’s last known peregrine falcon, documented at Whitewater State Park near Rochester , has disappeared. DDT, the insecticide widely used on agricultural crops in the 1950s and 1960s, had completely wiped out the population.
The Midwest Peregrine Society, now a non-profit organization supported by donations, was founded in 1970 by a group of falconers.
With an investment of $3 million, approximately 1,300 peregrine falcons were purchased from captive breeders and released into the Midwest region in the 1980s and 1990s.
Back in the wild, the raptors returned to the cliffs they had historically inhabited for thousands of years, Fallon said. Many others have found success in urban areas, nesting atop buildings and other tall structures. More than 100 chicks, for example, have hatched in the Colonnade building in Golden Valley over the past 30 years.
“Peregrines are more adaptable than we’ve ever granted them,” Fallon said, adding that an 18-year-old peregrine falcon nesting on a bridge in Mankato is Minnesota’s oldest.
Although the species’ recovery has exceeded all expectations, Fallon said the future of peregrine falcons and other raptors depends on the availability of clean air, fresh water and healthy food.
While birds no longer face the threat of DDT in the United States, they risk coming into contact with the chemical in other parts of the world during migration – something Fallon and other volunteers monitor by testing the birds’ feathers.
During this year’s banding efforts, volunteers feel relief as the state’s bird flu outbreak has spared peregrine falcons. Statewide, researchers know of only one nesting site in Bloomington where chicks failed to hatch after their mother succumbed to the virus.
That leaves about 120 to 150 young peregrine falcons fledging in Minnesota this year alone.