In the Spotlight

News & Features
Endangered Falcons Make An Encouraging Comeback
By Mary Losure
August 8, 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

For the first time in 40 years, peregrine falcons are nesting and raising young on the cliffs along the upper Mississippi River. They're taking back nesting spots that have sat empty since peregrine falcons were nearly wiped out by the insecticide DDT. It's one of the final stages in the spectacular comeback of the once endangered birds.

THE TRAFFIC is heavy on highway 61 along the Mississippi River south of Winona, but retired University of Minnesota biologist Bud Tordoff ignores it. He strides along the shoulder carrying a tripod and high powered spotting scope. He sets them up and aims at the sheer rock cliffs about a quarter mile away in the distance, rising like fortresses from the wooded bluffs along the river.

Within seconds, he has the mother peregrine in his sights. She's perched on a dead tree, so far away she's invisible to the naked eye; but Tordoff knows just where to find her. He's spent his life studying peregrine falcons.

Bud Tordoff, retired University of Minnesota biologist and peregrine enthusiast (MPR Photo/Mary Losure)
For almost 30 years Tordoff has been one of the leaders of the effort to bring them back to the Midwest. In the mid 1970s, he and his colleagues tried releasing captive-bred birds from the cliffs of the Mississippi. Back then, however, he says those efforts were met with disaster.

"The early nestings, they never got beyond about three weeks," he says. "As soon as they started getting conspicuous, they vanished."

Tordoff believes great horned owls killed the baby falcons.

"At both places we climbed to band them, you put bands on them about three weeks of age only to find at one place the chicks had disappeared overnight and the other, the remains of one dead chick and two others that disappeared the next couple of nights."

Back then, peregrines were so scarce that Tordoff and his coworkers were afraid to risk any more birds on the cliffs. So instead, they began releasing them from skyscrapers in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. They also used power plant smokestacks along the Mississippi.

There, peregrines built up their strength in numbers and now, young birds, looking for a place to nest, are starting to do what they couldn't when there were so few peregrines. On their own, they're taking back the old, wild strongholds on the cliffs.

Tordoff aims his spotting scope at a ledge on the sheer cliff face far above him.

Changing Course Stories
The Whistleblower
Seizing opportunity
A Greener Corps?
One Man and a Wheelbarrow
The Sins of Pig's Eye
Last Chance for the Higgins Eye
>Small Victories

Changing Course Home
"If there's a still an active nest, it's back down in there behind that ledge" he says. "See the dropping of whitewash from the birds that have been perched there? Little white marks? When the female went back into it last time I was here, she went clean out of sight. So if there are chicks they're probably in there somewhere."

Tordoff stares at the ledge and waits patiently. Finally, a chick emerges from the crevice and hunkers down uncertainly on the ledge. It's an unglamorous heap of whitish down and dark feathers, but it marks a milestone in peregrine conservation.

Its taken nearly 30 years and $14 million to bring the peregrine back. Critics questioned spending so much time and money on one species when so many others were in trouble. Tordoff didn't see it that way.

"If you want a better world, you've got to start somewhere," he reasons. "What are you going to do if you don't start something you can handle? Everybody has their own special interest and you work on the things that interest you, I think that's just human nature."

This summer, peregrine falcons have nested successfully on three cliff faces on the Mississippi and Tordoff says in time, they should be able to take back all their old nesting places along the river. Peregrines are also returning to cliffs along the north shore of Lake Superior.

Tordoff spends days on the road, checking on the birds' progress as they gradually move into the wild. Near Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, he stares up at a cliff face. At first, only a pair of turkey vultures circle lazily in the sky. Suddenly, a dark shape comes hurtling in on swift wing beats.

"Here she goes, she's flying, coming across the face" he says in admiration. "Maybe we'll see the male. Nice updraft, look at her, she just goes up like an elevator."

"I've always liked birds" he says, when asked about his fascination with peregrines. "I've been an ornithologist my whole adult life and peregrines are just about one of the most spectacular of birds. When they were gone they were sorely missed, and getting them back just seems worth doing."