CLEVELAND — First it was the comeback of the bald eagles in Ohio. Now, it’s the peregrine falcon.
The peregrine falcon was once on the brink of total extinction from much of the United States, but, like the bald eagles, the recovery of the falcon is another success story wildlife officials are celebrating.
Falcons have a long association with people as they were used in hunting dating back as far as 2000 B.C. in ancient Egypt and China. The peregrine falcon was the bird favored by royalty in the Middle Ages, and its nests were sometimes the exclusive property of the nobles, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Locally, they've been known to make nests in downtown Cleveland.
“They're charismatic, they're exciting, they're interesting and they're fast,” said Jamey Emmert, of ODNR's Divison of Wildlife. “They're just really beautiful birds that can reach speeds up to 200 miles an hour when hunting. And that's just remarkable. So they're an easy sell to people to talk about peregrine falcons and get people excited.”
The peregrine falcon was removed from the Federal Endangered Species List in 1999 and in 2015 the species was delisted in Ohio. Since then, wildlife officials have made strides in bringing back the peregrine population.
Peregrine falcons are a relatively common sight now compared to several decades ago, especially in Northeast Ohio, but that wasn’t always the case.
Much like bald eagles and ospreys, the peregrine falcon suffered from the effects of DDT, an insecticide that was used in the environment. The use of DDT disrupted their ability to produce viable eggs. Research showed that DDE, a byproduct of DDT, accumulated in the fatty tissue of female peregrines and disrupted their production of normal calcium layers in eggshell formation, according to the ODNR.
“It didn't necessarily harm the individual birds, but they couldn't reproduce successfully when they would go to incubate them. Both male and female peregrine falcons share the responsibility of incubating eggs. When they would sit on the eggs, the eggs were crushed beneath their weight,” Emmert said.
Biologists started paying attention to plummeting populations, prompting them to put peregrine falcons on the endangered species list in 1970.
The comeback of the peregrine falcon is attributed to the ban on DDT and the use of hacking programs, which is when wildlife officials assist a species in their reproduction by providing them with food and protected shelter. In the case of peregrine falcons, that assistance came by way of high-rise buildings and bridges.
Traditionally, peregrines are found in regions of open habitat with tall cliffs that range from tundra, savanna and forested river valleys. The absence of cliffs in Northeast Ohio and elsewhere in the state forced wildlife officials to pivot and use something that resembles their natural habitat that already existed.
"And that's why they like Northeast Ohio," said Emmert. "And because we have tall buildings in Cleveland and Canton, Akron, Youngstown, they will call these buildings home. They lay their eggs right on the edge of a windowsill, and because the eggs are oblong, they're tapered at one end, it keeps them from rolling off."
Through these programs, peregrines adapted to nesting on a variety of man-made structures such as skyscrapers, bridges and other tall structures.
In 1988, the first nesting peregrines successfully fledged two juveniles at the Commodore Perry Motor Inn in Toledo.
“They're [peregrine falcons] quite adaptive. And people often remark to us that wildlife is suffering because of urban sprawl and there's not enough habitat. To some extent, that's entirely true. It does make it really difficult for some species to thrive. But there's other species that thrive quite well and adapt to the environment that humans have presented them. And peregrine falcons are a perfect example of that,” said Emmert.
Emmert said hacking programs allow peregrine falcons to be in as close to a natural environment as possible without human interference.
By the numbers
When the peregrine falcons were de-listed in 2015, the Division of Wildlife’s goal was to maintain the nesting population at or above levels of 30 territorial pairs, 25 nesting pairs and a total of 100 eggs laid with a 68% hatch rate and an approximate 35% fledging rate.
In 2020, the Division of Wildlife monitored a total of 12 peregrine nests, 11 of which successfully fledged young. Wildlife officials say hatch and feeding rates were “above average.”
Emmert said there are 17 nests in Northeast Ohio, eight of which are in Cuyahoga County.
However, the results from 2020 should be interpreted with caution, as staff and volunteers could only monitor a limited number of nests, instead of the entire population, due to the pandemic.
“We weren't able to monitor assertively, as we normally do, during the pandemic last year. But we're hoping to get back into learning a little bit more about how peregrine falcon populations are doing in Ohio, but we're not concerned because they're doing so well,” said Emmert.
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