Peregrine Falcons rule the skies

Peregrine falcons, like those soaring Indiana skies, can reach speeds of 200 miles-per-hour. Photo provided by author

Many people have a romance for raptors. Maybe it’s because of their stealth and poise or grace in flight. When it comes to birds of prey the peregrine falcon sits on the throne. They are the fastest animal on earth reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour on a spectacular, well-executed dive.

There have been two instances where I have witnessed peregrine falcons snatch a bird from mid-air and those are memories not forgotten. The first was in downtown Indianapolis. Two falcons were circling high above the skyline when one folded its wings dropping multiple stories in a matter of seconds where it snatched an unsuspecting starling. Pedestrians had no idea of the natural event that was playing out over their heads.

The most impressive was right here in Kokomo. Back then falcons resided on the top of our once famed gas tower. While driving down Webster Street I noticed a pigeon flying erratically along the paved roadway. There was an explosion of feathers as a falcon took his meal in midflight.

Unlike most types of wildlife which prefer to live in more natural areas, peregrine falcons primarily reside in our state’s largest cities. Why? They prefer large skyscrapers and towers which closely mimic cliffs and high river bluffs where they normally make their home.

Peregrine falcons are medium sized birds, a bit larger than a crow with a wingspan of 36-44 inches. Unlike other birds of prey, falcons are distinguishable by their longer, pointier wings which are swept back, almost resembling some jet fighters.

Indiana’s breeding population of peregrine falcons remains productive, according to the DNR’s nongame biologists. Just recently DNR staff members banded 40 new chicks, up from the 32 who received leg jewelry last year. According to Allisyn Gillet, Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist, chicks were banded in East Chicago, Fort Wayne, Gary, Michigan City, South Bend, Terre Haute, Wheatfield and Indianapolis.

But the number of new chicks hatched may even be higher. “Some of the known nest sites are inaccessible to biologists and its possible there are other nest sites that have yet to be discovered,” said Gillet. “They do not typically build a nest,” Gillet explained. “Historically they create a scrape on the ledge of a cliff and lay eggs there.”

DNR biologists monitor peregrine falcon nesting activity every year. Young birds are banded to help monitor their movement and survival. Biologists credit building managers and volunteers with supporting the program.

“Once again building and plant managers throughout the state were cooperative in allowing us access for banding at nest sites,” said John Castrale, prominent nongame bird biologist who recently retired but still dedicates his time helping monitor the birds.

Once threatened with extinction, peregrine falcons represent one of the most successful restoration stories in the 40 years of the Endangered Species Act. The recovery resulted in their removal from the federal endangered species list in 1999. In 2013 they were removed from our state’s endangered species list and are now classified as a species of special concern.

Roughly a half century ago, habitat loss and a decrease in reproduction resulting from the use of pesticides, such as DDT, put these falcons in peril of surviving. By 1965, no peregrines nested east of the Mississippi and western populations declined by 90 percent.

Indiana’s began its peregrine falcon reintroduction efforts back in 1991 and by 1994, 60 young falcons were released in Evansville, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis and South Bend. Since then the number of nesting pairs continues to increase. Nest sites are located on tall buildings, under high bridges and on smokestacks at power plants.

Research and banding efforts are done through the DNR’s Wildlife Diversity staff and is funded through the Indiana Nongame Wildlife Fund, which receives no state tax dollars. For every $5 donated, another $9 is matched through federal funds. If you are interested in contributing, tax deductible donations can be made at endangeredwildlife.IN.gov.

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John Martino

Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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