In 1994, a spirited male peregrine named Sota hatched in a nest box atop the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The falcon fledged that summer before reappearing four years later in downtown St. Paul at the North Central Life Tower, where he was nesting with a female known as Meg. When ornithologist Harrison "Bud" Tordoff confirmed the falcon's identity by reading his band number via a spotting scope, he noticed Sota had two toes on each foot that appeared to be half frostbitten off.
"For a predatory bird such as a peregrine, this injury could be fatal. Not for Sota!" says falconer Jackie Fallon, who had helped Tordoff band the bird. "He not only had the skill required to catch enough food for himself, but also enough to feed the female and chicks for about six weeks."
Sota successfully nested for 15 years, producing 35 young, and lived until the ripe old age of nearly 19. He stayed in Minnesota every winter rather than migrating. Fallon has banded all of his offspring.
"Sota was an inspiration to many of us over the years," says Fallon, who is the vice president of field operations and co-coordinator for Minnesota peregrines at the Midwest Peregrine Society. "He will always remind me that I can overcome any challenge that life may throw my way."
The falcon lives on today as a symbol for the success of the state's decades-long peregrine restoration program—a multi-partner effort that has returned the raptors to many of their historic cliffside nesting sites, as well as new urban sites on human-made cliff-like structures such as high-rises and power plant stacks. Now it's possible to see the fastest bird in the world in northeastern and southeastern Minnesota and even in the urban areas of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, and Rochester.
But its comeback was never guaranteed. The restoration launched in fits and starts, and required the efforts of a group of passionate falcon experts. This is their story.
Shot, Demonized, and Poisoned
The peregrine falcon is a legendary, almost mythical bird. It becomes an avian missile in flight, perfectly designed to strike prey at speeds up to 242 miles per hour.
The scientific name, Falco peregrinus, means "sickle-shaped wanderer." Among the most widely distributed birds in the world, peregrines are found on all continents except Antarctica. Nineteen different subspecies are found around the globe, three of them in North America. The peregrine also became an avian hunting companion for humans more than 4,000 years ago through the sport of falconry, which continues to this day.
Until the early 1900s, there had been about 400 pairs of peregrines nesting in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, including roughly 40 pairs in the Upper Midwest. Most early records for nesting peregrines came from University of Minnesota Bell Museum director and ornithologist Walter Breckenridge and brothers Dana and John Struthers of Minneapolis, avid falconers who located peregrine nests, or aeries, on cliff sites.
In the 1900s, though, peregrine populations became threatened by a host of human activities. Their eggs were taken from nests by collectors. The birds were shot by waterfowl hunters, by homing pigeon fanciers, and by shooters who targeted them at fall migratory passage sites such as Duluth's Hawk Ridge. In 1929, the Minnesota Legislature even removed legal protections from eagles, hawks, owls, and falcons, declaring them "outlaw birds" before eventually restoring the protections in 1948.
The biggest blow to peregrines, though, came from the pesticide DDT, which was used to control agricultural and forest pests after World War II. DDT impaired the calcium metabolism of raptors including peregrines, thinning their eggshells so much that the eggs were often crushed under the weight of the incubating parents. By 1965, peregrines were extirpated all the way from Minnesota to the Atlantic coast.
Science, law, and public opinion all came to the aid of peregrines. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, published in 1962, aroused widespread concern for the peregrine and other raptors and songbirds. The federal government listed peregrines as an endangered species in 1969 and banned DDT in 1972. By then, biologists and falconers had begun to explore ways to bring back peregrine populations devastated by DDT.
In the late 1960s, falconers began to develop methods of successful captive breeding for large falcons such as peregrines. Tom Cade of Cornell University and The Peregrine Fund further advanced these techniques, propagating peregrines in captivity by artificially inseminating falcons donated by falconers. In 1974, The Peregrine Fund began releasing some of these captive-reared peregrines at historic peregrine aeries in the East using a falconry practice called hacking.
In hacking, chicks are hatched in captivity and then placed in large nest boxes overlooking favorable peregrine habitats. They are fed and cared for remotely by human attendants. At around 40 days of age, the chicks are allowed to fly free. This method of gradual release allows the birds to adjust to life in the wild.
Inspired by the success of these early falcon releases on the East Coast, in 1976 and 1977, Tordoff, then a University of Minnesota professor, released eight peregrine falcons provided by Cornell at historic Wisconsin aeries along the Mississippi River. However, predation and other problems ended in the deaths of some chicks and the return of the others to Cornell. Restoration would have to wait a few years for new developments.
In 1981, Tordoff and fellow U professor Pat Redig began discussing new strategies for reintroducing peregrines in Minnesota. Pat and Bud were the perfect team for this process. They had an infectious passion for peregrines that quickly spread among fellow raptor enthusiasts, including me, then supervisor of the Nongame Wildlife Program at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Redig was director of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, an international expert on medical care of raptors, a professor of avian physiology, medical director of the North American Falconers Association, a member of the California Condor recovery team, and a falconer.
Tordoff was now director of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. He had studied ornithology at Cornell University and received master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Michigan. In the middle of his college education, he joined the Air Force from 1942 to 1945 and became an ace World War II fighter pilot.
One day, while returning from a mission in Germany, Tordoff spotted two German Messerschmitts below him. He dove vertically about 8,000 feet at more than 400 miles per hour like a peregrine diving on its prey, then pulled in behind one of the jets and opened fire, shooting it down. He later said his experience as a fighter pilot was as close as a human could get to being a peregrine. That personal connection inspired him to see the peregrine returned to the skies from which it had disappeared.
At the time, the Nongame Wildlife Program had a statewide budget of only $25,000 per year. In 1980 Minnesota created a Nongame Wildlife Checkoff on state tax forms so citizens could make voluntary donations to help nongame wildlife species. Citizens began donating in 1981, and in 1982 the program's budget grew to over $500,000. The peregrine falcon was a high priority nongame wildlife species at the time. When I realized the potential impact of the checkoff donations, I called Redig and Tordoff and exclaimed, "We've got money! We can resume reintroducing peregrines!"
We began planning the peregrine falcon restoration project in earnest with partners including The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Raptor Resource Project, and the Minnesota Falconers Association. More than 40 falconers-turned-falcon-breeders throughout the United States and Canada agreed to provide us with young falcons for release. Restoring peregrines in the Upper Midwest was begun in earnest, and with full community support from across the region.
Minnesota Falcon Webcams
Watch peregrine falcon nests, or aeries, on these webcams from roughly late March through July.
Multifoods Tower/City Center, Minneapolis
Bremer Bank Building, St. Paul DNR Nongame Wildlife Program
Mayo Clinic, Rochester Mayo Clinic Peregrine Falcon Program
Great Spirit Bluff, La Crescent Raptor Resource Project, click on “Great Spirit Bluff Falcons I” and “Great Spirit Bluff Falcons II”
Goals and Challenges
Our goal for peregrine falcon restoration was 20 breeding pairs of falcons as a self-sustaining breeding population—about half of the pre-1900s population in the region. Falcon chicks would be purchased from falcon breeders and, after a medical exam at The Raptor Center, released by hacking in nest boxes atop cliffs, towers, and tall buildings.
The restoration commenced in 1982 with the release of five falcons from a specially constructed release tower on the savanna prairie of The Nature Conservancy's Weaver Dunes in southeastern Minnesota. The tower was near 10 historic peregrine nesting cliffs on the Mississippi River. Forty-one falcons were eventually released there through 1986.
Those first five chicks were obtained in 1982 from professor and falcon breeder Lynn Oliphant at the University of Saskatchewan. In 1983 another 10 chicks were available from Saskatchewan, and getting them included a harrowing experience. I had arranged for a DNR conservation officer to fly Redig and me to Saskatoon to pick up the chicks. As we returned, we encountered an ominous blackish-purple thunderhead northwest of Bemidji accompanied by rain and lightning.
We were forced to land on a grassy airstrip near Bagley and called the state patrol. They sent a trooper out to the airstrip in the driving rain to pick up us and 10 peregrine chicks worth $15,000. The trooper drove us to the Bemidji airport, where we arrived just in time for the afternoon commuter flight to Minneapolis. An enthusiastic crowd of media and peregrine team members greeted us there. These 10 chicks were released at the Weaver Dunes in 1983, and their story generated an enormous amount of interest and enthusiasm for the project.
The Chicken and Cowbird Connection
Other episodes in our restoration journey stand out as memorable. Falconer Bob Anderson was a major supplier of falcons for this project. I once visited Anderson at his home in Hugo and saw that his living room had become a peregrine nursery. Peregrine chicks were "pipping" their eggs and hatching before my eyes. Even more amazing was a bantam chicken sitting on peregrine eggs in his porch. Anderson discovered that peregrine eggs placed under the chicken had a better hatching rate than those in an incubator. So a chicken that would never fly would hatch peregrine chicks that would one day fly more than 200 miles per hour!
People may be surprised to learn that brown-headed cowbirds also contributed to the success of our restoration project. Initially, dead laboratory quail were fed to the chicks. I was concerned the mash that had been fed to the quail might contain undesirable hormones. We needed a more natural food. I knew friends involved with endangered Kirtland's warbler management in Michigan who trapped brown-headed cowbirds that laid their eggs in warbler nests. I called and asked what they did with the cowbirds. They euthanized and buried them. I asked if they could freeze the birds and send them for use as peregrine food. Over the next couple of years I regularly received ice chests with hundreds of frozen cowbirds for feeding the falcon chicks.
As we honed our techniques, releases continued to expand all around the state. More chicks were released at Weaver Dunes, as well as in Superior National Forest near Tofte, at open mine pits on the Iron Range, and atop skyscrapers such as the Multifoods Tower (aka City Center) in downtown Minneapolis. This site introduced peregrines to an urban location safe from great horned owls and with an abundance of pigeons—prime peregrine prey.
A total of 21 peregrine chicks were hacked there in 1985 and 1986, and in 1987 came a major success: the first wild-produced peregrine in the region to successfully fledge. The bird, dubbed Maud, proceeded to travel north, find a mate, and successfully nest at a building in Winnipeg for several years. Maud signified the creation of a self-sustaining population of peregrines that would not indefinitely rely on the release of hacked birds. More than 80 peregrines have subsequently fledged from this single building, helping to repopulate the region beyond Minnesota's borders.
A year later, a pair of peregrines nested successfully at Palisade Head at Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Seeing the success of peregrine releases in Minnesota, 12 other Midwestern states, as well as Manitoba and Ontario, joined forces with Tordoff and Redig in a regional restoration effort. The road to recovery was being paved throughout the entire Upper Midwest, and the peregrine was on its way to reclaiming the skies of the region.
Success in the Skies
The peregrine restoration program has been a wonderful success in Minnesota and beyond. The new population of peregrines in Minnesota is self-sustaining, with more than 70 occupied territories producing 120 to 150 chicks every year. We reached our original goal of 20 pairs in 1993 after just 11 years and have now more than tripled that goal.
Nearly 200 peregrines have been released in the state among nearly 1,300 peregrines released in the Upper Midwest. Since that first fledgling left its nest on the Multifoods Tower in 1987, more than 2,500 wild peregrine chicks have fledged in Minnesota. In 2019, more than 130 young were produced.
Falcon restoration was so successful nationwide that the peregrine was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999 and from the state list in 2013.
An important part of this project has been banding and long-term monitoring of the newly established falcon population. The monumental task of annually visiting every accessible aerie in Minnesota is now carried out by Jackie Fallon of the Midwest Peregrine Society and Amy Ries of the Raptor Resource Project. Banding and survival data is archived on the online database of the Midwest Peregrine Society.
Fallon and her team are finding valuable new facts in their peregrine monitoring and research. They've identified more than 100 different prey species consumed by peregrines in the region. They've learned that individual birds vary widely in migration strategies, ranging from staying year-round in Minnesota to migrating to Cuba, Costa Rica, and even South America. They've verified that peregrines can live to almost 20 years of age.
Also, says Fallon, "We have learned that peregrines are not strictly monogamous in their mating strategy. They are extremely diligent parents to their offspring, and will allow themselves to be completely buried under eight inches of snow to protect a newly hatched chick.
"And we've learned that it isn't the size of the falcon that determines whether they can gain possession of a territory, but rather the fire and spirit to fight to the death for that territory." Just ask Sota.