One summer, not long ago, I was walking down my home street in Duluth when a pigeon came streaking above it, like the proverbial bat out of hell. A flock of pigeons lived in an old school building on the end of my street. Seeing pigeons around was not unusual, but I’d never seen one fly so fast. In another few seconds, a peregrine falcon zoomed by in pursuit.
This minidrama was a first for my quiet neighborhood, as far as I know. The birds were too far away for me to see if the pigeon was doomed, but witnessing the chase was definitely exciting.
Not long ago, peregrines were classified as an endangered species in Minnesota and the rest of the country. They were delisted federally in 1999 and in Minnesota in 2013, although they are still considered a species of special concern.
I’ve had the privilege of documenting and even helping a bit with their recovery, so seeing one fly down my street did my heart good. It all began in the spring of 1985 when I was the environmental reporter for the University of Minnesota college newspaper, “The Minnesota Daily.” A photographer and I were invited to the top of the IDS Tower (also known as the Multifoods Tower, the tallest structure in the city at that time) for a peregrine falcon media event. Staff from the university’s raptor center and biology department were going to install chicks that had hatched in a hack box that had been newly established atop the tower.
Hack boxes are large wooden boxes with a nest inside them. Young birds of prey grown from eggs that were either captive bred or taken from wild nests are placed inside the boxes a couple of weeks before they fledge (start trying to fly). In the meantime, the birds are closely looked after and provided food without too much human contact. In a few days, the box is opened, and the birds can start stretching their wings, so to speak. They are still fed until they are self-sufficient.
Why was it a good idea to introduce falcons into the middle of the city? Well, Minneapolis contained plenty of food for the falcons (pigeons), the skyscraper mimicked their preferred habitat (steep cliffs), natural enemies were scarce, and it was an easy place for researchers to access.
I remember the excitement when one of the researchers (Pat Redig) took a squawking, fluffy baby falcon out of a carrier to put into the box. As he did, he described the plight of the birds and the concept behind hacking. Photographers clicked away and reporters scribbled in their notebooks. We were able to wander around atop the building and look over the impressive edge, 51 stories high – a memorable experience in itself.
A pre-event story I wrote about that news conference ended up being 40 newspaper column inches long. This was longer than usual. My editor (Doug Iverson) asked me to justify why he should give me such a large space. I don’t remember what I said (probably something like, “because peregrine falcons are cool!”), but it must have worked because he didn’t cut its length. The post-event story I wrote made page 1 of the newspaper, which was a big deal to this cub reporter.
The next time peregrines came into my life was a couple years later when I was a summer volunteer for the Forest Service on the LaCroix Ranger District in Cook, Minnesota. My boss (Steve Hoecker), was a falconer and he was involved in the recovery effort. A hack box was being constructed on one of the iron ore mine pits nearby in Virginia, MN. Like the IDS Tower, the mine featured steep cliffs that peregrines prefer.
My memory of this experience is hazier than the IDS Tower event, but I think I helped Steve scramble box construction materials down the steep banks of the mine. I took photos and covered the story for the local newspaper.
The next time I saw a falcon, it was in the wild. I was hiking on Isle Royale, a national park island in Lake Superior in the early 1990s with a group from an Audubon Society camp, when a peregrine shot across and above the trail in front of us, like a kamikaze jet. The island features some steep cliffs as does the Canadian shore not far away where the falcons could nest. I remember thinking that maybe all the work being done to restore the falcons was beginning to pay off.
After that, my last experience with a falcon (before seeing the one on my street) was in downtown Rochester, Minnesota. It happened during the winter of 2009 when I was working at Mayo Clinic in public affairs. I lived within walking distance of my office. As I trudged along on cold winter days and evenings, a strange call of a bird echoed loudly against the clinic building walls. The call was familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place it. And what kind of bird would still be in Minnesota in February, for goodness sakes?
It took me a few months, but I finally figured out that the obnoxious bird call that accompanied my walking commutes was a falcon. They had been hacked atop one of the clinic buildings. I think I was even able to attend some sort of celebration event about the project at Mayo that year.
If you’d like more information about the history of peregrine recovery in Minnesota, a good article can be found here.
So, it seems like peregrines have been following me around ever since my first encounter with them in downtown Minneapolis. Or have I been following them around? Maybe we’ve been following each other. In any event, their recovery is a good news story in a world beset by so many environmental problems.