An Avian Success Story


Return of the Peregrine: a North American Saga of Tenacity and Teamwork. Cade, T. J., and W. Burnham, editors. 2003. The Peregrine Fund, Boise, ID. 394 pp. $59.50 (hardcover). ISBN 0–9619839–3–0.

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) restoration in North America is presented in Return of the Peregrine as the largest and most comprehensive endeavor to restore wild populations of an endangered species ever accomplished. And, indeed it is. This effort reveals itself as a major accomplishment when one considers that peregrines were extirpated from the eastern United States by 1964 and that 7000 peregrines were released over a 25-year period.

Return of the Peregrine is a multi authored volume by scientists with a long-term involvement with Peregrine Falcons. It has 21 chapters but differs from two earlier, related volumes, the first addressing the peregrine's decline (Hickey 1969) and the second the peregrine's recovery (Cade et al. 1988). The book is presented in a fairly logical sequence, although there is some overlap among chapters. It is not a “coffee table” book, but it is loaded with facts (including many sidebars, tables, and figures) and stories by and about those people doing peregrine work. In addition, the book has 495 images, mostly in color, including many of historical importance. A series of paintings by Robert Bateman (and others) also is included. Most of the individuals involved with Peregrine Falcon research and conservation are shown in photographs alongside a list of their contributions. One of the most interesting photos is of Joe Hickey (an early hero of mine), around 1950, buried in the sand holding a pigeon on Assateague Island (Maryland, Virginia, U.S.A.) with only his head and hands showing. When the peregrine attacked a pigeon, the trapper (Hickey) would grab the legs of the falcon!

The prologue, written by Tom Cade, sets the stage for the book. His knowledge, gleaned from many years of experience with peregrines, is immediately apparent. Cade notes that the Peregrine Falcon is the most widely distributed naturally occurring bird in the world, but nowhere is it really common except in a few localized areas. (A sidebar provides the historical number of pairs in North America by geographical region, estimated at 10,600–12,000). In retrospect Cade believes that the recovery goals were too modest, but their achievement provided the base for the birds to attain their present-day carrying capacity. Critics earlier claimed that it would be impossible to breed peregrines in captivity and reestablish them successfully, but Cade argues that they failed to understand the bird and discusses this issue in detail. He suggests that the peregrine was behaviorally predisposed to propagation in captivity.

Cade and Bill Burnham date the beginning of the peregrine recovery efforts to the year of the Peregrine Falcon Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. The conference was convened by Joe Hickey in 1965 when the situation for peregrines was bleak. Unprecedented population crashes had occurred since the 1950s in both Europe and North America, coincident with the widespread use of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. Many conference attendees were convinced that DDT was involved in the decline, but full proof was to come later.

The concept of combining techniques of captive breeding and reintroduction germinated after this conference when a group of biologists and falconers got together to discuss what could be done to save the peregrine from extinction in North America. The Raptor Research Foundation came into existence in 1966 to promote captive breeding and reintroduction, although it now has a much broader scope. It is important to remember that no federal protection existed for Peregrine Falcons at that time. A second Peregrine Falcon meeting was held at Cornell University in 1969 by concerned scientists, resulting in a petition sent to the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico to do what was in their power to provide legal protection for the peregrine. As a result, in 1970 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officially listed both Falco peregrinus anatum and F. p. tundrius as endangered under a precursor to the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.

Derek Ratcliffe, who documented the population crash of the British Peregrine Falcons, discusses the circumstances leading to his discovery of the link between organochlorine pesticides and eggshell thinning. Charles Wurster, one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), provides the history of the development of EDF, which began with a lawsuit against the Long Island Mosquito Commission seeking to halt the use of DDT on local marshes. This case and others by EDF may well mark the beginning of environmental law.

Cade details how the Peregrine Fund was started at Cornell University. The program later was incorporated as a nonprofit organization separate from the university and moved to Boise, Idaho. Two interesting stories are told about how they received their first funds from the USFWS and how Cade testified before the House Interior Subcommittee on Appropriations, which resulted in an “add-on” to the USFWS budget for captive propagation.

Much additional detailed information is presented about reintroduction and research efforts in Canada, regional populations in the United States, the population in Greenland, and counts and trapping activities of migratory populations at key sites along migration routes. Ian Newton provides his usual expert summary of research findings, including his own, over the last 35 years. He discusses food supply and nesting density, annual survival rates, population regulation, age of first breeding (including effect of population density), sex ratios of nestlings, breeding success in relation to height of cliff and features of nest site, natal dispersal distances, and migration patterns. Burnham and Cade in their summary note that the program to restore the peregrine in the 1970s and 1980s ultimately led to a new emphasis in conservation called “conservation biology.”

Because of my special interests, I have probably slighted certain sections of the book. Researchers who study and protect Peregrine Falcons are passionate about their work, and this becomes readily apparent. Return of the Peregrine, which has many dimensions, could be considered a historical document from which much can be learned. It is a good read for those interested in conservation biology and belongs in the library of all those with an interest in Peregrine Falcons and other raptors.