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Falcon Soars From Ranks of Endangered

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The world’s fastest animal, the peregrine falcon, will be removed from the endangered species list today, reflecting the success of a three-decade effort to repopulate the bird, which had been almost wiped out by the pesticide DDT.

The number of nesting pairs of the mid-size raptor, which had shrunk to a low of 39 in 1975, has grown to 1,650, with 167 pairs in California.

The peregrine falcon joins a growing list of birds whose status has been upgraded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or that have been removed from the endangered species list.

“It’s a spectacular summer for America’s great birds: the bald eagle, the Aleutian Canada goose and today the peregrine falcon,” said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. “And beneath the wings of all their recovery stands America’s great law: the Endangered Species Act.”

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With eyes eight times more keen than a human’s and the ability to focus like a zoom lens, a peregrine can zero in on its prey and dive at a velocity of up to 200 miles per hour to knock it out of the sky with its broad-chested, scythe-winged body. As the prey--perhaps a blue jay or mockingbird--falls toward the ground, the falcon plucks it from the sky and carries it away.

Historically there were more than 3,000 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons throughout North America, ranging from the subarctic forests of Alaska and Canada to Mexico. The crow-sized birds weigh about 2 pounds and have backs and wings of dark brown or gray, with bright yellow feet and marks on their beaks. They mate for life.

The widespread use of DDT, which started during World War II, nearly made the majestic species extinct in the continental United States. When the birds ingested the pesticide from contaminated prey, it caused their eggshells to become so thin that they broke as the parents sat on them to brood.

Along with the bald eagle, which was also decimated by DDT, the peregrine’s status as an endangered species came to symbolize the disappearance of the great American wilderness.

By 1970, when the peregrine falcon was one of the first animals listed under the new Endangered Species Conservation Act, the predecessor of the current law, there were no peregrines east of the Mississippi River. The species bottomed out in 1975.

DDT was banned in 1972, and over the last 27 years, bird lovers and ornithologists, with help from federal and state wildlife agencies, undertook a determined nationwide effort to repopulate the species. Large numbers of peregrines were bred in captivity and then released. Soon the birds started nesting naturally again.

The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho; the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center; and the UC Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group played key roles in breeding and releasing the falcons and studying their progress.

As the birds gained in numbers, loggers agreed not to fell trees in areas where the peregrines nest from April to July, their breeding season. State and national parks and forests closed to visitors the cliffs where the birds nested.

Peregrines nest high on cliffs or, in urban settings, in church steeples, bridges or on high rises, so they can scout their prey comfortably from their lofty homes.

The birds remain a cause celebre in many communities. In California, about 10% of the state’s peregrine population lives on skyscraper ledges or rooftops. In downtown Los Angeles, they can sometimes be spotted diving for pigeons from the Bonaventure Hotel and a 40-story building on Figueroa Street.

In Rochester, N.Y., employees at the Kodak Tower stationed what they call a “birdcam” to document the April-to-July breeding cycle of a couple that returns annually to roost on their building.

The peregrine will continue to be protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits people from killing them, possessing them--for the ancient sport of falconry, for example--or transporting them or their nests. Some states are keeping the peregrine on their endangered species list.

Although recovery rates far exceeded goals in the western part of the country, in the East, where there are more challenges to their habitat, the birds remain scarce.

Conservationists in the East worried that the government was moving too quickly and recommended merely lowering the status of peregrines in the East from endangered to threatened. But the Fish and Wildlife Service opted to take them off the list. The agency will monitor their progress for 13 years and reinstate their endangered status if it detects a decline in numbers or health of the birds.

“The Endangered Species Act was incredibly important for bringing the birds back,” said Margaret Fowle, a falcon specialist for the National Wildlife Federation who monitors the peregrine population in Vermont. “But we are a little apprehensive about the delisting for the Eastern population.”

Without the restrictions imposed by the law, Fowle wondered if activists still would be able to prevail upon the owners of buildings where falcons nest not to wash windows from April to July.

“Recognizing that this has been an incredible success, we just want to be cautious and ensure that the recovery is sustained,” Fowle said.

Wildlife specialists note that the falcon’s restoration is one of many success stories.

“What we are seeing is a trend toward some real rebounds with some of the major species that have received the act’s protections for a considerable time,” said Ben McNitt, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, the nation’s largest member-supported conservation organization.

This progress is expected to continue, with as many as 20 other species being removed from the endangered list or upgraded to threatened over the next year or two. The gray wolf likely will be reclassified from endangered to threatened in several regions.

Animals that are less popular, such as the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America, have not had the same kind of strong public support.

“The lesser-charismatic species are having a rougher time of it,” McNitt said.

The greatest progress in restoring endangered species has come with animals that were threatened because of an identified enemy, such as pesticides or over-harvesting. The American alligator and gray whale are back because of successful efforts to control hunting.

“We’re seeing huge success stories with those animals that did not have big bunches of their habitat missing, but something else was contributing to their demise,” said Bob Ferris, director of the species conservation division of Defenders of Wildlife, another nonprofit wildlife conservation organization.

Species whose habitats have been overtaken by development or agriculture have not been as lucky. For instance, the snail kite, a small bird, is on the verge of extinction because the apple snails that are its sole food source have disappeared.


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