I was parking my car recently at the Safeway in the Rockridge area of Oakland/Berkeley when I happened to glance up at the power pole near the street and watch as a graceful raptor swooped in.
I knew its pattern of flight from my past observations in the wilds. It was a peregrine falcon, and it sat proudly atop the pole, possibly waiting for a pigeon meal to pass by.
Come to think of it, there use to be a lot of pigeons in this area. But now I don’t find many scrounging for scraps at the Safeway. The peregrine is probably controlling their population.
To see a peregrine in 2009 in this Safeway parking lot led me to think back to the 1970s when I first shopped at this Safeway.
At that time, the plight of the peregrine was indeed grim. DDT accumulating at the top of the food chain softened their shells, preventing successful hatching.
I have followed their story for the last 40 years, primarily in Idaho, where they were saved from extinction, partly because of the work of one man, Morley Nelson.
“Saving the peregrine falcon from extinction has been the finest conservation success story in the history of wildlife,” I remember Nelson telling me.
He was one of the guiding spirits behind Idaho’s 485,000-acre Birds of Prey National Conservation Area along 81 miles of the Snake River. He also helped found the World Center For Birds of Prey, the major research and breeding facility near Boise.
I remember spending a day conversing with the aging but charismatic Nelson, who had done much to reverse public opinion about birds of prey, or raptors, as they were sometimes called. Raptors include eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls.
My meeting with Nelson took place at the Center, which the public can visit and tour. Later, we boated through the Birds of Prey terrain. Anyone in the public can participate in concessionaire float trips or jet boat trips along the river, guided by naturalists.
This special area of Idaho hosts the densest population of nesting raptors in North America, and possibly on planet Earth.
“The old attitude toward eagles, falcons, and hawks was simple and simple minded,” explained Nelson. “The attitude was: shoot them because they are eating our food. This was largely misguided. They ate relatively little of our food and definitely kept the natural environment in balance by eating rodents and rabbits. My own grandfather, a good man, typified that attitude. He was a farmer and rancher in North Dakota. To him, every raptor was a ‘chicken hawk.’ He shot every one he could.”
“The new attitude,” Nelson continued, “is: let’s preserve these magnificent soaring birds, let’s live with them, let’s admire their special role in the environment.”
Nelson recounted how in 1960 over 12,000 eagles were killed in Texas in a massive campaign to eliminate eagles. One man in Wyoming boasted that he alone had killed 750 eagles in that state.
Another devastating factor in the decline of raptors was the use of DDT, which accumulated in the birds and caused their egg shells to become fragile, breaking before hatching.
The most endangered of the raptors was the peregrine falcon. The original population of an estimated 4,000 pairs of nesting birds in the U.S. had dropped to 60 by 1960. All peregrine falcons had died out east of the Mississippi, where there were a known 300 nesting pairs in the 1940s. Western states peregrine populations were declining precariously.
The Peregrine Fund, a group instrumental in setting up Boise’s World Center for Birds of Prey, reacted to this tragedy by developing an extensive captive breeding program for peregrine falcons. Peregrines hatched in captivity were released throughout the United States in the known historic range of the bird. Many pairs of the released birds are nesting successfully, even in urban areas, where they feed off pigeons.
Though all raptors are remarkable, the peregrine falcon captures the imagination of the observer. The peregrine’s eyesight is eight times as acute as a human’s eyesight. Peregrines can see a rabbit or squirrel at a distance of two miles. They can then dive with great speed, clocked at over 200 miles per hour, to capture the prey. To survive such blinding speed they have an extra eyelid layer to keep the eye moist, nostrils that baffle the wind and reduce its pressure, and extremely hard feathers to deflect the force of the air. The beauty of peregrines, their regal demeanor, is also noteworthy. For thousands of years, falcons have been trained by man to hunt ducks and other birds. Only with the advent of the gun did the role of falcons decline as bird hunters.
Birds of prey congregate along the Snake in dense numbers for several reasons. The deep volcanic soil on the cliff benches above the river supports large populations of Townsend ground squirrels and black-tailed jackrabbits, the main raptor food supplies here. It is a wondrous phenomenon of evolution that the young of the prairie falcon, the most numerous raptor here, and the young of the ground squirrel are born at the same time, providing predators with their prey. The Snake River gorge also offers secure nesting perches, close to the food supply. Climate and food supply are ideal for spring nesting.
So we have come full circle, and it is a good thing. When I first came to Oakland-Berkeley in the 1970s there were only a few peregrines left in the entire US. Now they are flourishing, even in this California urban area.
I discuss peregrines in more detail at www.fostertravel.com/IDPREY.html.