The world’s fastest bird has pulled out of a dive toward extinction and once again is soaring.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has proposed removing the peregrine falcon, which had once been wiped out in the Chesapeake region as well as most of the Eastern United States, from the Endangered Species list.
“Every American should be proud,” Babbitt said. “In 25 years, the people of the United States have rescued this awesome raptor from the brink of extinction. We have proved that a strong Endangered Species Act can make a difference. We don't have to stand idly by and watch our wildlife go extinct. We can bring species back. We have proved it with the peregrine falcon.”
The birds vanished from the Eastern United States because of the widespread use of DDT after World War II. The pesticide, which was banned by the EPA in 1972, caused peregrines to lay thin-shelled eggs that easily broke during incubation.
The peregrine once ranged throughout much of North America. It nested on tall cliffs and hunted other birds for food, reaching speeds of 200 miles an hour as it dives after its prey.
Efforts to reintroduce the birds to the Chesapeake region began in 1980.
Although the birds have historically been associated more with mountain cliffs than shorelines, the Bay and nearby coastal areas have proven important to the recovery of the peregrines, said Craig Koppie, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, who oversees peregrine restoration efforts in the mid-Atlantic. “Actually, for the mid-Atlantic region, the majority of the birds today are nesting in the coastal plain,” he said.
That’s because the lack of birds in the East led biologists to resort to building the population through “hacking” — releasing chicks that were raised in captivity into the wild. Birds hacked in cliffs and other remote sites proved vulnerable to predators without parents to protect them. While mountain reintroductions were successful in the Northeast, efforts in this region switched toward hacking birds at tall city buildings and on manmade towers in coastal areas where the chicks would learn to fly and hunt with little pressure from predators such as great horned owls and raccoons.
This year, Koppie said, 17 pairs of peregrines are nesting in Virginia, and 13 in Maryland. He said 11 pairs in each state had produced young this year. With the exception of one pair in Shenandoah National Park, all of those nests are on manmade objects — from buildings to bridges to towers — in the coastal plain. The hope is that as the population builds, the birds will gradually migrate inland toward mountainous areas.
Other release efforts throughout the United States and Canada, often in partnership with state wildlife agencies, universities, private ornithological groups and individuals, accelerated the pace of recovery for the peregrine.
There are at least 1,593 peregrine breeding pairs in the United States and Canada, well beyond the overall recovery goal of 631 pairs.