Adventure July 17, 2008

Saving the Birds of Prey

A tourist attraction and serious science.

Perched at the top of a hill overlooking sweeping views of southwest Boise is the World Center for Birds of Prey, a 580-acre tourist destination that gives visitors an up-close-and-personal experience with some of the world’s most magnificent birds. Here, children, out-of-town visitors and the bird-curious can view video presentations, see eagles and vultures, and learn more about the raptors of the world.

But, beyond the videos and viewing areas and displays, there is serious science taking place. This is the home of the Peregrine Fund, a worldwide conservation organization that works daily on the captive breeding and release of endangered birds of prey.

This interest in the survival of the birds of prey is both ecological and in service of mankind. “One reason we care about these wild birds of prey is because they’re bellwethers, like the canary in the coal mine,” says Peregrine Fund President, Peter Jenny.

“These birds are very sensitive to changes in the environment and they tend to be sensitive to compounds that they encounter in their diets,” he notes.
“The peregrine taught us that with DDT, the Asian vultures taught us with some pharmaceutical contaminants. Our work with the California condor is teaching us about lead.”

The work of the Peregrine Fund began well before the organization officially moved to its Boise location in 1984. Founded in 1970 at Cornell University by ornithology professor Tom Cade, the organization came about in direct response to the near extinction of the peregrine falcon population in the U.S.

“The peregrine was completely gone east of the Mississippi and only a handful were left in the West,” says Jenny. “Even when I was a kid, you never saw the peregrine. You read about them, but they were gone.”

The culprit that killed them was DDT, a pesticide that had been in widespread use since the 1940s. Researchers found that the toxin was accumulating in the peregrines’ tissues due to feeding on birds that had eaten DDT-contaminated insects or seeds. In turn, the chemical interfered with egg production and caused the falcons to lay thin-shelled eggs that often cracked. As too few chicks were hatched, peregrine populations took a catastrophic nosedive.

By the mid 1960s, there were no peregrines left in the eastern United States, and by the middle of the 1970s the decline had spread westward, reducing western populations by up to 90 percent.

What followed has often been called the largest effort in history to prevent the extinction of a species and restore its population.

At the time, most experts thought it was impossible to breed captive birds of prey on a large scale. Up until then, it had been accomplished by only a few people on a limited scale. But, a “Dream Team” of falcon appreciators came together and began figuring out how to change the course of extinction. The team included falconers who had experience in raising and hunting with the raptors, biologists who studied them, and volunteers, students and others who understood the implications of losing a species.

To start, falconers donated what birds they had, and researchers collected others out of the wild. Jenny himself accompanied Peregrine Fund founding Director Bob Berry to the eastern Canadian arctic in the 1970s to collect some of the first peregrine falcons to be used for captive breeding.

But breeding falcons was just the beginning. There still was the challenge of incubating and hatching the eggs, and figuring out how to successfully release the fledglings into the wild.

From 1974 to 1997, the Peregrine Fund bred and released into the wild more than 4,000 falcons and, in 1999, the peregrine officially was taken off the endangered list.

“We produce birds of prey in such a way that they are suitable for release back in an appropriate environment, and they’re not just another bird,” Jenny says. “They’re as close to their wild counterpart as possible in the way they’re raised. They need to be physically fit and psychologically adaptable. That’s not easy.

“The recovery of the peregrine was the first instance where people rolled up their sleeves and undertook a hands-on proactive approach,” Jenny notes.

“One of our strengths, then and today, is the cadre of falcon zealots that are passionate about birds of prey. Sometimes it’s like trying to conduct an orchestra of virtuosos,” he laughs.

What’s next?

So, once you bring a wild species back from the brink of extinction, what do you do for an encore?

You move on to the next species that’s in trouble.

The Peregrine Fund has worked on six continents and in more than 55 countries, leading and coordinating numerous successful conservation efforts for species such as the California condor (Arizona), northern aplomado falcon (Texas and New Mexico), harpy eagle and orange-breasted falcon (Panama and Belize), and the Mauritius kestrel (Mauritius). >>>


Saving the world’s birds

The aplomado falcon population began to decline in the U.S. in the 1800s as a result of cattle grazing excesses that decimated the bird’s habitat. The last known U.S. pairs were near Brownsville, Texas, in 1946, and Deming, New Mexico, in 1952.

To help in the restoration project, the Peregrine Fund has enlisted the cooperation of private landowners. “All the releasing of the aplomado was done on private property in west Texas,” says Jenny. “We went to the big ranches and asked, ‘What would it take to release some endangered species on your ranch?’

“Well, you could just hear the tumblers on the gates clicking,” he laughs. “They were very concerned about what would happen if an endangered species became established and how this would affect future land management practices on their property. For instance, would the government make them get rid of their cattle?”

“So, we worked out a Safe Harbor Agreement between the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, ourselves, and the landowner. In essence, it says that in turn for having access to your private property to try to encourage the recovery of this species, a permit is issued that says if and when they become established, you can’t be persecuted under the Endangered Species Act for having them on your property. So it’s a win-win,” Jenny says.
The Peregrine Fund collected about 25 birds from Mexico, bred them in captivity and began releasing them into the wild. “To date, we’ve released 1,300 captive-raised youngsters so successfully that we know of a minimum of 50 breeding pairs in south Texas,” Jenny says.

Instead, they were all dying

The Peregrine Fund is currently working to save the California condor, which began to spiral toward extinction in the 1980s as a result of lead poisoning from bullet fragments.

As scavengers, condors feed on hunter-killed game animals and gut piles that often contain hundreds of tiny fragments of lead that the birds ingest. Condors are social scavengers and it takes only one lead-contaminated carcass to affect many birds.

When the Peregrine Fund began its recovery efforts, there were only 22 birds remaining in existence. All these birds were captured and brought into captivity for breeding, resulting in several of the mated pairs producing new chicks that were released into the vast, rugged landscape of the Grand Canyon in Arizona where they continue to slowly struggle to increase their population.

As part of the condor restoration effort, the Peregrine Fund and the Arizona Game and Fish Department have worked together the past three years to educate hunters about the danger of lead poisoning, and have urged them to switch to copper bullets while hunting in condor territory.
“It’s a voluntary approach,” Jenny says. “We believe that hunters want to do the right thing and if you give them the facts, they’ll do the right thing. So far we’ve had a pretty good response.”

This has also raised a concern about the effects of lead contamination of wild game consumed by humans. Lead is particularly dangerous in children, whose intellectual and behavioral development is impaired by exposure to even tiny amounts of lead.

“This is a much bigger issue than the California condor,” Jenny explains. “It affects children, adults, anything that eats this meat.

“Whatever we do for California condors helps people because we’re learning how not to poison ourselves,” he says.

Jenny says he hopes to see both the aplomado and the California condor come off the endangered species list in another ten years.

“Now, why would an endangered species group want to see a species they’re working on come off the endangered species list?” Jenny asks. “You’d think it would be putting yourself out of business, but I think the public really needs to see that things can turn out right. Most of the things the public hears about the environment is all bad news, and if people just give up, we’re in trouble.”

Back at the World Center for Birds of Prey, education is the name of the game. Inside the Herrick Collections Building is the Peregrine Fund Research Library, which houses collections of books and reports, reprints, magazines, newsletters, videos, CDs, photographic slides, and maps on birds, animals and plants. There are specimen collections that include more than 12,000 eggshells and 300 avian study skins. The library is probably the largest of its kind in the Intermountain Region and is now of global importance.

In a separate area is the Archives of Falconry in which falconry equipment and memorabilia, original and reproduced artwork, diaries, field notes, manuscripts, and a substantial collection of photographs are conserved. More than 1,500 volumes of falconry literature, with originals dating back to 1575, are housed in the Archives.

In 2006, following a donation from Arab Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Archives of Falconry was expanded and a new wing was added in honor of the ancient tradition of falconry in the Middle East, where the sport has continued uninterrupted for more than 3,000 years.

In this room, the visitor experience is multi-sensory. Audio, video, graphics, and Arabic artifacts and artwork combine to create a sense of what it was like to hunt in the Arabian desert. A large photographic mural of the geographic area and powerful images of hunters and falcons give visitors a strong visual glimpse of falconry as it has existed for so many centuries.

In explaining how it all fits together, Jenny says, “We were focused on propagating falcons, raising food, and coordinating with multiple agencies to release the young birds into the wild. People would come up here and we couldn’t accommodate them. We just didn’t have the staff time or the capability to show them what we do. Recognizing the importance of public education to achieve long-term success, we established the interpretive center which has grown layer upon layer.”

One of the goals, notes Jenny, is to create an area on the hill for people to watch the birds fly. “It would be wonderful for people to see how beautiful these birds are. A peregrine is the fastest of all living creatures.

“All of the species we work with have a direct relation to humans,” Jenny says. “We humans are pretty clever at doing mergers. We came out onto the savannahs from the forests and we weren’t very fast so we domesticated horses to become more mobile. We weren’t very good at finding game so we domesticated dogs to hunt with. We then enlisted the bird of prey to help us catch game. So, now there’s a four-way partnership, and that made us a pretty significant hunter,” he says.

“Chapter two is when a better way of putting food on the table was invented—gunpowder—and overnight birds of prey, or anything that could potentially compete with us for food, became vermin, so we started persecuting them.

“The final chapter was when the birds of prey were having a tough time. We were able to draw on what we learned about them from past partnerships, and to use the same techniques first developed for falconry to breed them in captivity and put them back into nature.

“So it’s come full circle. We recognized a way for them to help us and, in the end, we recognized a way for us to give back to them.”

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.