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Peregrine falcons are returning to Iowa

Local wildlife expert, Pat Schlaurbaum, shared a story in the most recent edition of Wildlife Diversity News that’s worth passing along. It’s good news on the wildlife front at time when that’s hard to find. I was in high school in the mid 1960s and had already developed a strong interest in birds and wildlife. I had a growing life list of birds, but it appeared doubtful that I’d ever be able to add one of the most sought-after birds on anyone’s life list, the peregrine falcon. It appeared at the time that the noble peregrine, nature’s fastest creature, was in its final death spiral toward extinction. Our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, wasn’t far behind. Declines in both species had been tied to lethal build-ups of DDT in their tissues that prevented them from successfully reproducing.

A single pair of peregrine falcons had nested on Capoli, a historic cliff nest site above the Mississippi River in 1964, but they failed to return in 1965. DDT was finally banned in 1973. The Iowa Wildlife Diversity Program, a new division of the DNR charged with the management of non-game wildlife, started a captive breeding program. The DNR, with the help of many volunteers, began releasing falcons at urban sites in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and Muscatine in 1989. It was hoped that Iowa might host as many as ten nesting pairs of peregrine falcons again some day.

The choice of urban release sites may seem strange for such a wild creature as a peregrine falcon, but there was a good reason. Release of young falcons into the wild without the benefit of established parent birds to protect them proved to be problematic. Great horned owls, in particular, killed many of them before they could mature and defend themselves. Owls were less common in the urban core settings where the birds were released, but prey, in the form of pigeons and starlings, was very common. Tall buildings and smoke stacks became artificial cliff faces that the birds readily adapted to.

The successful nesting of two pairs of falcons in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines took place in 1993. Other cities around the Midwest began falcon releases, but recolonization of their historic nesting cliffs along the Mississippi took longer. Careful releases of young falcons began in the late 1990s at several historic cliff nest sites in northeast Iowa. One hundred and sixty-four young falcons were released in Iowa from 1989 – 2002. Five pairs of falcons were nesting on cliffs above the Mississippi again by 2000 - the first time those cliff sites had been used in 40 years!

I finally was able to add a peregrine falcon to my life list in the late 1980s. I was working near where the conservation center now stands at McFarland Park one fall morning. I happened to look up just in time to watch a lone adult peregrine falcon fly past, not 50 feet over my head. They were still very rare then and I was thrilled. Peregrine falcons were defending 15 nesting territories in Iowa in 2013. They produced 13 successful nests. Two of those nests were in Des Moines, and one was on the capitol building itself! Keep your eyes to the skies next time you’re in Des Moines and you might be able to add the magnificent peregrine falcon to your life list!

(Steve Lekwa is retired Story County Conservation director. He lives in Nevada.)

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