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Peregrine Perils

Bayou-Diversity (20 April 2020) In the spring of 1996 a feathered bolt of lightning launched from the top of a skyscraper in downtown Minneapolis. During her maiden flight the young peregrine falcon tested long, pointed wings that make her species the fastest fliers on the planet. She soon learned to knock the city pigeons from the sky by sheer force of impact and returned to roost at her nesting site on top of the office building.

Peregrines are found around the world and have been worshiped by kings and sheiks for centuries as the most sought after weapon in the ancient sport of falconry. Admiring owners harness the prowess of semi-tame falcons to hunt game birds. They have also served humanity in ways other than recreation. At the beginning of World War II, the Royal Air Force trained peregrines to intercept Nazi carrier pigeons in the time-honored tradition of Caesar, King Richard I, and Bismarck.

By the 1960's, peregrine populations in North America had plummeted as the pesticide DDT worked its way up through the food web into the falcons. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formally listed the bird as an endangered species. DDT was eventually banned, peregrine restoration programs began, and the species slowly recovered.

The Minnesota falcon ranged farther as the summer progressed and continued to hone her hunting techniques on wild birds up to and including her size. Larger than her brother, she eventually left him and the nest site for good. Later in the autumn she began to respond to an urge with origins in her Miocene ancestors – the mysterious phenomenon we call migration. She followed the crests of north-south ridges, riding thermals to ease her journey. Traveling flocks of shorebirds and waterfowl provided ample food.

By January 18, 1997, she had flown nearly 800 miles and crossed the invisible boundary between the Natural State and the Sportsman’s Paradise following the sinuous Ouachita River with its attendant bayous. Barely five miles into Louisiana, her pilgrimage ended when a person who likely claimed to be a hunter shot her.

We know these details of her life because biologists banded her in the nest on the skyscraper, and someone brought her mortally wounded to my office. We don’t know the details of the perpetrators life. In other times when human survival depended literally on intelligence, this person may not have lived beyond adolescence. He does not think. (Adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)


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