In inner-city Chicago, a motley crew has been working tirelessly to put killers back on the streets—or rather, above the streets. I speak of peregrine falcons, a bird virtually wiped out of the Midwest a half-century ago by pesticide poisoning. The crew’s efforts are paying off big time. Today, the fierce, speedy predators dive in the canyons formed by the city’s skyscrapers, their screeches reverberating off the building’s walls.
Turning these traditionally cliff-dwelling raptors into urbanites has been key to the bird’s comeback—not only in Chicago but also in towns across the Midwest. The falcons have taken so well to city life that this past summer, Illinois removed the peregrine from the state endangered species list, 16 years after the feds took them off their Endangered Species List. Today, more peregrines exist in the region than ever before. In Illinois alone, 21 pairs comb the skies, the most ever seen.
Historically in the plains region, the predators raised their young along rivers like the Illinois and Mississippi. Then DDT came along in the late 1940s. After being exposed to the chemical, which accumulates up the food chain, many carnivorous birds began laying eggs with very thin shells. Populations began crashing all over the region, in the East, and in Canada, and by the 1960s, zero peregrines remained in Illinois. Federal officials put the peregrine on the Endangered Species List in 1972, and Illinois followed with a state listing the next year.
The best bet to bring the bird back was captive breeding programs, but there were barely any wild peregrines left to kick-start the process. There were, however, already some captive individuals: Those kept by falconers. These sportsmen usually take young peregrines from their nests and then train them as hunters. But concerned that their beloved raptors, and their sport, would die out, falconers like Lynn Oliphant decided back in the 1970s to try to breed peregrines that conservationists could then seed wild populations with—something no one had ever attempted before.
At first, Oliphant, who became a falconer when he was five years old, housed the birds in deer pens at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, where he worked as a professor. He and his team soon discovered that wild birds wouldn’t breed in captivity and that captive-bred birds would only reproduce successfully if they had stayed in their wild nests as chicks until just before they fledged. If the birds had been removed before then, they’d imprint on their human handlers and become reproductive duds.
With more funding from recovery programs, Oliphant’s team built larger enclosures with enough space for eight pairs. Soon, little white fluffballs began squawking from the nests. “During our peak years, we did quite well,” he says. From 1978 through the 1990s, Oliphant sent 119 of the roughly 500 birds he raised to Midwest partners (the rest went to other areas hit hard by declines in the East.)
The bird stock problem had been solved, but conservationists now faced a different challenge: how to release young birds into the wild without parents to protect them and show them the ropes of dive-bombing other birds.
The falconers suggested “hacking” the solution (a term used way before computers existed). The centuries-old technique involves placing nearly fledged young birds into boxes in the wild. There they can acclimate to their surroundings while being fed secretly by humans until they’re ready to hunt on their own.
At first, hack boxes were placed on cliffs where peregrines had historically nested, but that didn’t work out well: While the falcons had been away, other bad-ass birds had moved into the ‘hood to fill the peregrine’s ecological void. At many reintroduction sites, great horned owls gobbled up the first falcon fledglings. At a cost of about $1,500 per chick, the youngsters made an expensive meal for an owl, says Julia Ponder, director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.
And that’s when they decided to take the recovery effort to the city, far from the sharp eyes and deadly grip of owls. Cities are flush with food (like those most metropolitan of birds: pigeons) and places to nest. So one day in 1986, the Chicago Peregrine Program released its first chicks atop a 28-story building on the Chicago campus of University of Illinois. One male, Jingles, successfully fledged, flew a few miles east, and found a mate. He became the first breeding male in Illinois since 1951. City life does, of course, have its dangers. For example, concrete surfaces can be a deadly landing pad for a chick who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of flying yet. But overall, the Midwest’s metropolises offer prime habitat.
Releasing the birds in Chicago helps boost the regional population and exposes urbanites to raptors, says Mary Hennen, director of the Chicago Peregrine Program, who was one of hundreds (if not thousands) of conservationists who took part in the recovery efforts. Midwesterners can see the birds in the air and on one of the six webcams hosted by the program during breeding season. “It’s a great way for people to get involved with wildlife,” she says.
Through various programs, participants gained invaluable information about the speedy predators. They discovered the unique noises peregrines make before they breed, how often they copulate, and how much food it takes to raise a chick. They also found out how to encourage birds at hacking sites to start finding their own food (by feeding them more food, counterintuitively, not less). They’re still learning more about the species each year. The Chicago Peregrine Program, for instance, monitors nesting pairs, bands chicks, and draws blood for research like genetic testing to track the population’s genetic diversity.
The endeavor—and its success—is exceptional, says Oliphant. “You can’t do that for every species that’s endangered.”
There’s no question that the falcons have taken to the city. Mature adults now battle in midair over the Chicago’s most prime rooftops and balconies. Peregrines have laid eggs in Millennium Park and at the Field Museum, and on the very same gravely roof where Jingles fledged almost 30 years ago. A pair nested there successfully fledged their hatchlings last year, adding three new beak-wielding killers to the city’s skies.