Falcons continue flight back to stable population in Ohio

6/8/2013
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Jennifer Norris, wildlife biologist and the peregrine falcon coordinator for Ohio, bands a peregrine chick with Bob Ford, acting wildlife management supervisor. The aim is to monitor the long-time survivorship of peregrines in Ohio.
Jennifer Norris, wildlife biologist and the peregrine falcon coordinator for Ohio, bands a peregrine chick with Bob Ford, acting wildlife management supervisor. The aim is to monitor the long-time survivorship of peregrines in Ohio.

Not all that long ago, the only falcon seen regularly in this part of the country was the mascot at Bowling Green State University.

A female falcon chick, about three weeks old, receives a ban. Falcons have nested in the clock tower of the old portion of the Wood County Courthouse in Bowling Green since 2011.
A female falcon chick, about three weeks old, receives a ban. Falcons have nested in the clock tower of the old portion of the Wood County Courthouse in Bowling Green since 2011.

By 1968, these lethal hunters of the sky, who can knock their prey out of the air with strikes approaching 200 miles per hour, were wiped out by an invisible enemy called DDT. This pesticide caused their egg shells to weaken and be crushed when the adults tried to incubate the eggs. As a result, no peregrine falcons remained east of the Mississippi River.

This bird was put on the endangered species list, and once the use of DDT was severely curtailed, biologists went to work on bringing a peregrine falcon population back to the eastern United States and the Midwest.

This raptor, once prized by royalty for its hunting skills, traditionally nested on narrow cliff ledges. In cities, falcons used towers, steeples, or any other high vantage point to nest.

As biologists worked to assist in the reintroduction of falcons in Ohio, nesting boxes were placed at appropriate locations. Juvenile falcons were collected at sites elsewhere in the country and brought in to populate these nests. The young falcons were carefully raised there, with the hope they would return and utilize the nest.

The first known productive falcon nest in Ohio after the bird had been extirpated was located at the former Commodore Perry Hotel in Toledo. In 1988, a falcon pair fledged two juveniles at that site. “Fledging” refers to the birds beginning to fly and hunt on their own.

The practice of placing immature falcons in these nesting boxes, called “hacking,” continued at sites around the state, including those in Cleveland, Akron, Cincinnati and Columbus.

According to Bob Ford, the acting wildlife management supervisor for the Division of Wildlife’s office in Findlay, the hacking program produced 46 falcon offspring from 1989 to 1993. In 1997, five falcon pairs successfully fledged 20 juvenile falcons.

“This is huge, it is a wildlife success story, and not just in Ohio, but really nationwide, and regionwide, specifically,” Ford said.

The falcon population had rebounded enough by 1999 that they were removed from the federal endangered species list, but they remain threatened.

The Division of Wildlife maintains and monitors 60 nesting boxes around Ohio, and the state now boasts roughly 36 territorial falcon pairs — the birds are monogamous and pair for life. At least 27 of those pairs have successfully fledged young, which Ford said represents a remarkable recovery.

“They have been established from basically nothing,” he said. “This bird is part of the natural landscape of Ohio, part of the food chain, and its presence increases the diversity of wildlife in the state.”

Ford said that initially state wildlife biologists attempted to band every falcon in Ohio they could get access to, but now the banding operation continues at 10 sites, including the Wood County Courthouse in Bowling Green and the bell tower at the University of Toledo.

The young birds are removed from the nests at about three weeks of age, a quick health assessment is done, and then bands are attached to both legs.

A federal band on the right leg carries what is essentially the bird’s official ID number, while a black-over-red colored band on the left leg identifies the falcon as Ohio natives, and a large number on that band gives its precise origin. With binoculars, biologists can easily gather this data on falcons they observe.

By utilizing the banding identification, Ohio falcons have been observed as far away as New York, Alabama, Texas, West Virginia, and Canada. Some falcons will migrate seasonally, while others do not, with weather and food availability as big factors in that variation. Falcons almost exclusively eat other birds.

Peregrine falcons become highly territorial in February and will aggressively protect their nesting area. During the banding process, when the young birds are temporarily removed from the nest, the larger adult females will attack biologists, who wear hardhats and use shields to fend off the aerial assaults.

“She is going to defend those young as best she can, so we usually have one person grab the chicks, while one or two others hold shields and protect the operation from the female,” Ford said. The banding process usually takes about an hour, and the mother stays close throughout, usually flying around and voicing her displeasure, Ford said.

The state’s peregrine falcon program utilizes the Wildlife Diversity Fund — the income tax check-off, and sales of conservation license plates and wildlife legacy stamps. Ford added that volunteers and property owners play vital roles in reporting nesting and fledging activities.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.