Peregrine Falcons at Whitewater State Park

The summer before graduation or right after graduation is a typical time for students to apply for internships in their field of study. My experience is no exception, and this spring I sent out around 15-20 applications for internships all over the United States. I was lucky enough to be hired right here in Minnesota by the Department of Natural Resources! I am absolutely thrilled to be working for Whitewater State Park as one of their 2 Naturalist Corps Interns.

Whitewater State Park

The Naturalist Corps is a government internship program that was created from funds generated by the Legacy Amendment that Minnesotans voted for in 2008. The Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment (aka the Legacy Amendment) to the Minnesota Constitution was a tax increase that is used “to protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.” I feel compelled to personally thank anyone reading this who is from Minnesota, because you are providing me with this amazing opportunity!

So being a Naturalist is, hands down, the best work experience of my entire life. My normal activities at the office include things like feeding birds and snakes, taking data on the Whitewater River, typing up program schedules and releasing them to the local media, walking the grounds (of oak-savanna bluff land [which harbors the highest concentration of biodiversity in Minnesota[) to deliver and post program schedules and talk to campers, leading educational presentations for local school field trips, campers staying in the State Park, and locals, about topics including fossils, wildflowers, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, wild edibles, invasive species, and local history, creating my own original interpretive program for the park, and any other random, menial things the interns normally do.

The location where stream monitoring data is gathered once per week.

And then there’s days like this where our amazing Park Manager sends the interns on adventures. The morning task of the day? Join the crew of the Midwest Peregrine Society up to the nesting site of Whitewater’s pair of Peregrine Falcons to observe the banding of their 3 week old chicks. (!!!!!!!!!)

BTW, the falcons are nesting up in a limestone cliff face.

So, a little back story is in order here before I continue.

Natural History of the Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus, Latin for “wandering falcon”, is a bird found on every single continent, except in polar regions. Peregrines are the fastest species of animal on the planet, being clocked traveling at speeds over 200 mph during a dive!

Photo Credit: National Geographic

Sadly, this falcon became an endangered species in many areas around the 1950s and 60s. It was discovered that because of pesticides, specifically DDT, the shells of their eggs thinned, leading to an increase in mortality. A well-known book, “Silent Spring” by biologist Rachel Carson, was written about the topic. This book (along with other classics like Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” and Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond”) catalyzed a grassroots environmentalist movement which significantly effected the public opinion of Americans. As a result, national public policy changed; it is credited for spurring the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a ban on DDT and other pesticides in the 1970s.

Rachel Carson, as seen in her U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee photo. Credit: Wikipedia.

Which is kind cool in and of itself on another level for me. I’ve got this tattoo on my forearm of a quill writing the word “resilient” across my wrist. The tip of the feather dissipates into birds. I got it to represent my education, so the quill symbolizes scholarship and a passion for knowledge. The birds remind me of Rachel Carson. Rachel Carson was such a badass; a felmale scientist in a male-dominated field, shakin’ up the system, ushering in a new status-quo, all with poetically articulated, evidence-based criticisms of the norm. The woman is an icon for putting environmentalism on the map, and as a female environmentalist, you might say I’d give her mad props. I mean, just check out some quotes:

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.”
“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”
“As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life – a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no “high-minded orientation,” no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.”
“It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks…the public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road and it can only do so when in full possession of the facts…”
(Not to get political, but can you say “fracking? [Or if you’re  local to the Driftless Region like me {which, I might add, was also Aldo Leopold’s native environment}, “silica sand [read: frack sand] mining”?])
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road / the one less traveled by / offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
But I digress.
At Whitewater State Park, these birds were once common, but had vanished for 47 years, until recently, as conservation efforts became fruitful. For the past three years, one pair of falcons has taken residence in a cliff side at the park. Each year, the organization of folks responsible for restoring the population of birds, The Midwest Peregrine Society, comes to place 2 bands on the feet of any chicks to track their movement and to take a blood sample of the birds for DNA analysis.

An adult Peregrine in flight over Whitewater State Park.

So to get to said chicks in said cliff face, there needed to be a rock climber. Most Peregrine bandings involve someone going someplace risky, because that is the preferred habitat of the birds, be it natural places like cliffs (as seen in Whitewater), or man-made places like tall buildings (as seen at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester), or high smoke stack towers (as seen at Xcel Energy along Hwy 52).

This is a specially made box that the chicks are put into after they are taken from their nest. It is made with soft edges, and breathable, insulated cloth to keep the chicks warm and comfortable as possible. We found 4 little baby chicks in the nest!
There was a crew of volunteers that came up to the nesting site, and many people had different assigned tasks for the banding. There were 2 rock climbers (to retrieve and replace the birds), 2 vets from the Minnesota Zoo (to take blood samples and document other important data and observations), the Vice President of Field Work from the Midwest Peregrine Society (to place the bands), 3 DNR employees (one was me!), a handful local bird enthusiasts, 2 small kids, a dog, and 3 local media outlets, including KTTC and The Rochester Post-Bulletin.
Above: KTTC interviewing Jackie from MPS during the banding.
During the ordeal, two bands are placed on the feet of the 3 week old chicks. The bands can give researchers information that lets us observe nesting patterns, migration routes, habitat range, among other useful data for conservation efforts.
Timing is crucial during this event. At 3 weeks of age, chicks are not very mobile. Under the event a chick is not in the box or being held by a human, their ability to run is limited and their instinct is to remain still, presumably paralyzed in fear. At 4 weeks of age, chicks are more likely to be “runners”. Just a week later in their development, the chicks are quite mobile, and their instinct becomes to run away from researchers (an understandable reaction). The problem is, the chicks can run, but not fly yet, so more often than not, older chicks that run away from researchers will run right off the cliff, or building, or tower, etc. Sad! 😦 Timing is also important because this experience is extremely stressful for these young animals. The goal is to obtain the data as quickly and efficiently as possible to minimize the stress experienced by the chicks. But it is true, the event is inherently invasive and stressful for both the adults and the babies. Especially this part:
A blood sample is taken from each of the chicks that allows researchers to study topics ranging from population structure and details of mating patterns, to gene flow, genetic diversity and integrity. Because of data collection from bandings like this one, around 90% of the Midwest Peregrine population has been sampled. To help the population grow, the U.S. government created The Peregrine Fund and spent around $3 million on conservation efforts. Beginning in the 1980s, Peregrines were bought from captive breeders and placed back into their habitat. The birds that have nested at Whitewater have come on their own; the nearest release location to Whitewater is near Weaver Bottoms (aka Weaver Dunes, about 10 miles away). The project had a rocky start, though. In the late 1970s, a few chicks were released in Nelson, Wisconsin, but half (2 of 4) were eaten by Great Horned Owls. After the initial failure, the birds were placed in habitats without natural predators. For 5 years, conservation efforts in the area stalled. But in 1982, Patrick Redig, The Raptor Center, and Harrison Tordoff, Bell Museum of Natural History and Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, went ahead with releases independently of The Peregrine Fund, using young provided by private peregrine breeders. Because of these efforts, this area went from completely eliminating the local population of falcons, to having around 200 nesting pairs! I really like this story, because I think it is a great tale of how with the help of science, organization, and a concern for the well-being of the biotic community, we can continue to enhance the integrity of our local landscapes.
Above: The 4 Peregrine Falcon chicks of Whitewater State Park, named Jackie, Jim, Jenny, and Karla. From right to left, the chicks are female, male, female, female.