I step outside my office building, and it’s raining bird parts.
That’s not an unusual occurrence at this time of year. The sidewalk is often littered with severed avian legs, bloodied feathers, even the occasional starling head.
I look up and see one of the most dramatic predators on earth, right here in downtown Boise: the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). It’s the bird that reigns supreme over the city’s not-so-friendly skies.
And you too can enjoy the Boise peregrines, the focus of May’s nest cam of the month.
The fact that they’re here at all is one of the world’s most dramatic conservation successes stories. Ever.
The peregrine is one of the most widespread birds in the world, found on every continent except Antarctica. It is also a bird that has long captured the human imagination, celebrated for its hunting prowess and blazing speed (researchers have confirmed peregrines reaching speeds of 238 miles per hour).
The peregrine hunts high in the sky, dropping down on lower-flying birds – one of the most breathtaking sights in nature.
It’s not surprising that humans saw the potential of such an effective hunter. Falconers, those who hunt using birds of prey, have trained peregrines to take a variety of birds. This seemingly inconsequential fact would play a major role in peregrine conservation.
By the mid-1900s, it was clear peregrines were in trouble. The pesticide DDT caused a softening of egg shells, and new chicks were not surviving. By 1970, the birds were effectively gone from the eastern United States, and reduced by 90 percent in the West.
Complete eradication in the U.S. seemed a distinct possibility.Tweet this quote
The banning of DDT is well documented in environmental history, and it was indeed a crucial step in restoring peregrine falcons.
But even without the pesticides, could conservationists bring back a bird from the brink?
Enter the falconers.
Training a falcon requires fanatical devotion, so these were the people who knew birds. And while many conservationists expressed serious doubts, falconers believed that peregrines could be reared, raised and released.
Ornithologist and falconer Tom Cade founded The Peregrine Fund at Cornell University in 1970. The organization pioneered many techniques, including breeding the birds in captivity and releasing them in the wild.
From 1974 to 1997, they released nearly 4,000 falcons.
And they thrived. The recovery of the peregrine has to be on the short list for most dramatic conservation turnaround, with the species removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999.
Peregrines have historically nested in rocky cliffs. But a new habitat has formed that suits the birds perfectly: cities. Skyscrapers mimic their nesting needs perfectly.
And prey? Oh, there is no shortage of prey. Every city has plenty of city pigeons and starlings, used to – pardon the pun – ruling the roost. No more.
Enjoying the Nest Cam
It also has a great visitor facility, the World Center for Birds of Prey – well worth the visit if you’re in the area.
What better place to watch peregrines than the headquarters city of the organization that has achieved so much for the birds?
The peregrine nest cam offers plenty of action right now: the chicks hatched two weeks ago, and the adults are bringing them food. Lots of food.
You won’t be able to see the off-camera drama – the dramatic hunts that make my stroll to the office an adventure. But you will be able to see the results of those hunts, as the falcons bring back partially plucked birds to the nest, and daintily feed bits to the hungry chicks.
Apparently, humans aren’t the only ones to enjoy peregrine cam. My colleague Valerie Connor tells me her cat waits impatiently by the computer each morning for her to turn on the cam, then sits transfixed watching the falcon drama.
The cat is right: this is must-see wildlife TV.
And all the more so because of this: at one point, even many dedicated conservationists were resigned to a very bad fate for peregrine falcons. The future seemed to lack hope. It’s an important story to remember when so many wildlife species seem in such big trouble.
So raise a glass to the peregrine that’s overhead and on your screen. Just watch out for those falling bird parts.