by Alexandra Forsythe

The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal in the world, capable of traveling up to 200 mph in a “stoop” or dive. Their primary food source is birds, and they have been documented preying on over 450 species of birds in North America, including Sandhill Cranes, White-throated Swifts and hummingbirds. As fast as Peregrines are, however, they could not escape the deadly impact of humans.

Like the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine Falcon was dramatically affected by the pesticide DDT. By 1965 no Peregrines were known to be nesting east of the Mississippi, and less than 40 pairs were nesting west of the Mississippi by 1975.

Unwilling to sit idly by and watch these magnificent birds of prey go extinct in the U.S., Dr. Tom Cade created the Peregrine Fund, a captive breeding program to reintroduce Peregrines. Getting the Peregrine Fund started was not easy!

I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Cade about his work with the Peregrine Fund. This is what he had to say about the early days of the Fund: 

“The main problem was to find the money necessary to do the captive breeding and the release of falcons back into outdoor environments. In 1967 I joined the faculty of Cornell University as a professor of zoology. One of the conditions of my hiring was that the university would build a breeding facility for falcons. It took the university four years to find the money to build the facility for $150,000, but we finally got started in December of 1970. Being an academic scientist all of my experience in raising money for research had relied on obtaining grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, and the National Institutes for Health, and I thought I could support the falcon program that way. It never occurred to me in the beginning that I would need to establish a nonprofit organization called The Peregrine Fund. For the first four years I did receive support from NSF, but it was little more than enough to provide salaries for a couple of assistants, and it became clear that what we were trying to accomplish was too applied to attract much support from the scientific community. Then the Laboratory of Ornithology, with which the falcon program and facility were associated at Cornell, began receiving unsolicited contributions from the general public to support the falcon work. That gave me the idea to seek this source of funding actively, and I went to the university’s Development Office for advice and help. They agreed to help but advised that I would have to abide by their priorities for asking major donors for support. To make a long story short, the arrangement never worked, because every time I wanted to approach a potential donor, the Development Office had a higher priority for that person. One of the private breeders who cooperated with me in keeping and breeding birds of prey suggested that we form our own nonprofit corporation independent of the university to support our mutual interests in breeding and releasing Peregrine Falcons; that was done in 1975. Soon we were receiving funds from various conservation organizations, foundations, many private donors, and both federal and state agencies involved in endangered species work. It turned out to be the smartest thing I ever did, but I can’t claim much credit for dreaming it up. Plato, or someone back in his time, said that ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’” 

Needless to say, the Peregrine Fund was a huge success and serves as a model of conservation. Thanks to the Fund’s efforts, by 1999 there were over 1650 breeding pairs in the U.S. and the Peregrine was removed from the endangered species list. Mr. Cade was present at the bittersweet moment when his first brood of fledglings that were hatched in the wild flew away. I asked him what he felt at that moment. He said, “This was a great time in the peregrine recovery program. I will never forget climbing up into the nest tower at Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge near Atlantic City with my colleague, Jim weaver, and banding the four nestlings. Looking out over the expanse of the Brigantine marshes, I realized that we had surmounted the last hurdle…”

He also informed me of some interesting survival rate differences based on nesting sites. “At first when falcons started nesting on buildings, and particularly on bridges, it appeared that fledging success was quite a bit less than for young fledged from cliffs.  On bridges quite a few young fell into the water below when they first tried to fly and drowned, but some made it out of the water.  But the Peregrines have persisted in moving into urban and industrial landscapes to nest on manmade structures in a spectacular way, so that the fatalities may simply look worse than they really are in terms of population maintenance and growth.”

During his work, Mr. Cade noticed an oddity that remains a mystery. “Falcons that breed successfully in captivity lay eggs that average smaller than the eggs collected from wild birds. However, this is not an inherited trait, as the young birds that are released into the wild and become breeders lay eggs of normal size.  Something about captivity reduces egg size, but we do not know what it is.”

The Peregrine Fund has expanded their focus beyond that of the Peregrine Falcon. 

“The Peregrine Fund now works on a worldwide scale on many kinds of projects to do with birds of prey, so naturally there are many projects I would like to see done.” One goal is to have at least one trained raptor biologist in every country to monitor populations. Another project is the California Condor. “We have been trying to reintroduce captive-bred condors into northern Arizona and southern Utah for the past 15 years but are unable to establish a self-sustaining population because of lead poisoning from bullet fragments and bird shot in the carcasses they eat. It is easy to breed condors in captivity, relatively easy to get them re-established as independent, free-flying birds in the wild, but no condors have survived long enough to produce more than one or two young before they die of lead poisoning. We desperately need some kind of a national PR campaign to convince the shooting public to stop using lead bullets and lead shot in their ammunition. Ideally this problem should be taken care of by state and federal regulations, but political idealism is hard to come by these days.” 

His advice to anyone interested in starting up a conservation program: “Start small with a well defined goal that you are totally committed to, and come hell or high water you will succeed.”

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