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SCIENCE

A peregrine falcon
swoops past fall
foliage on a late
October day.

WATCHING

THE WANDERER
BY LISA BARIL

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PHOTOGRAPHY BY K ATE DAVIS

Since the peregrine falcon left the endangered-species


list in 1999, it has made a big comeback in Montana

n a gusty spring morning in southwest

Montana, Jay Sumner and Don MacCarter


thread their way through the sagebrushstudded flats above Gardiner. They have
come seeking peregrine falcons at a narrow
sandstone cliff overlooking the Yellowstone River.
The two men unfold their camp chairs at the edge of
the flats where the land falls abruptly into the roiling
river below. Jay, president and founder of the Montana
Peregrine Institute, raises his binoculars and begins
scanning the cliff for falcons. Then he spots one, leadenbacked and soaring above the river.
Ive got one, he says. Don, a volunteer with MPI,
raises his own optics as the falcons angular wings slice
the crisp April air with dives and figure eightsa male
courtship gesture. The female, perched on a ledge,
accepts his offer and he flies in to meet her. The pair mate
in a brief encounter and the male flies off.
In a few weeks, the female will use one of the ledges
to lay three to four bronze eggs flecked with ochre. And
if the adults can protect their young from predators such
as golden eagles and great horned owls, theyll leave
the nesting area in August and migrate to Mexico, or
perhaps as far as Panama, though no one knows for sure.
Peregrines get their name from the Latin root peregrinus,
which means wanderer. True to their name, peregrines
are found on every continent except Antarctica.
These falcons are just one of more than 100 pairs that
Jay and his team of volunteers monitor as part of MPIs
nest watch program. Jay launched the group in 2002 to
track Montanas growing peregrine population following
their removal from the endangered species list in 1999.
But Jays passion for peregrines began much earlier,
before anyone knew they were endangered.

Discovering Peregrines
I was a teenager when I read a National Geographic
article about falconry by John and Frank Craighead,
says Jay.
The article inspired Jay to begin his own search for
peregrines and in 1961, while a senior in high school,

PHOTO BY DON MacCARTER

Peregine falcons nest on ledges on steep cliffs. Here, Don


MacCarters wife, Jane, seeks falcons for the Montana Peregrine
Institute.

he found his first pair of falcons near his hometown of


Livingston. I saw that falcon stoop into the nesting ledge
and I was hooked forever, says Jay.
In a bold move for a teenager, Jay contacted the
Craighead brothers to tell them about the nest. To Jays
astonishment, John Craighead suggested they collect one
of the nestlings for falconrya legal and unregulated
practice at the time.
The pair scrambled to the top of the 300-foot cliff and
though Jay wasnt a rock climber, he stepped into a climbing harness and lowered himself over the edge. Jay was
nervous, but with Johns encouragement he made it down
the vertical rock face to the ledge where two young peregrines stood. Jay gathered one of the nestlings, a female
judging by her larger size, and began the climb back up the
wall. Jay planned to train her to hunt game birds but says,
After about a week I realized I didnt know what I was
doing, so I gave her to John, who was an expert falconer.
Not to be deterred, Jay continued reading all he could

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It was a relatively simple problem. DDT was the cause of peregrine


declines and once DDT was banned, peregrines were able to recover.
Releasing young birds into the wild expedited the process.

Even speed demons need a break. This peregrine falcon perches on a fencepost along the Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau.

about the art of falconry. He recalls trapping and skinning skunks as a teenager to save $25 to purchase King
Frederick the IIs classic book, The Art of Falconry,
published in 1250. We stunk up the entire west side of
Livingston for weeks, says Jay. He also learned much
about falconry from John and became an expert himself.
Hes had numerous falcons over the years and now flies
a young female named Ki. Together they hunt pheasants,
ducks, grouse and partridge.

Plight of the Peregrine


When John and Jay collected the nestling falcon in
1961, they had no idea peregrines were endangered. It
was still a year before Rachel Carsons publication of
her controversial book, Silent Spring, which exposed the
harmful effects of pesticides on the environment.
As Jay was heading to college at Eastern Montana
College in Billings, biologists from around the world
were reporting declines in peregrine populations. The
news motivated biologists in the U.S. to launch their own

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surveys. Despite an exhaustive effort, they failed to find


a single peregrine falcon from Alabama to southeastern
Canada. In the West, more than 90 percent had vanished
from the regions craggy peaks and valleys, though Jay
still knew of a few in Montana.
The culprit was determined to be DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane)a volatile pesticide developed
shortly after World War II. DDT proved to be a cheap and
effective way to kill insects. The trouble was that it also
killed birds because the lethal chemical moved up the
food chain from the bugs it targeted.
By consuming birds that fed on insects, peregrines
accumulated DDT in their tissues. This prevented some
peregrines from laying any eggs at all, while others
laid eggs with shells so thin that they cracked during
incubation.
Because of the harmful effects of DDT, the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service listed the peregrine as endangered
in 1970 under the Endangered Species Preservation
Act, a precursor to the Endangered Species Act that was
passed in 1973. Two years later, DDT was finally banned

after more than three decades of use on crops and forests. But
the damage had already been done. Peregrines continued to
decline as the effects of DDT lingered in the environment.
By 1975, the North American population of peregrine
falcons had reached an all-time low. Jay was then teaching high school science in Arlee and, with summers off, he
searched Montanas cliffs for any remaining peregrines. He
says the last pair in Montana bred in the Mission Mountains
in 1979 and, By the early 1980s, I didnt know of a single
active peregrine site in the state. The wanderer was rapidly
soaring towards extinction, but that was a fate biologists, and
falconers like Jay, were unwilling to accept.

Back from the Brink


Fearing the loss of their sport, falconers took the lead in
recovering the peregrine. They had begun with establishing
the Peregrine Fund in 1970. Its mission was to save the peregrine from extinction through captive breeding, and falconers
donated birds to the program.
Some of the first falcons bred in captivity were hacked
back east in 1974. Hacking is a release method that helps
young falcons learn to hunt by gradually reducing their food
supply. Biologists would place three or four young falcons in a
large wooden box set high on a cliff or manmade tower, which
mimics their natural environment. The box was either flown in
by helicopter or carried in and assembled on site.
Hack site attendants were responsible for feeding the
falcons a daily diet of quail while they acclimated to their new
home. After 10 days, the attendants opened the hack box but
remained on site for the next eight weeks to monitor and feed
the young falcons. As time passed, the attendants cut back on
the amount of food they delivered, which encouraged the birds
to hunt for themselves.
But it would take seven years before there were enough
falcons available to release some of them in Montana. First,
Jay needed to find suitable habitat. In some states, says Jay,
release sites were chosen based on historical occupancy, but
not much was known about where Montanas peregrines had
nested in the past.
Jay did know what made for a good peregrine cliff. I knew
the release sites had to be a high cliff near water, says Jay.
I searched all the major drainages in central and western
Montana. He also looked at parts of Yellowstone National Park
and Idaho. His efforts were funded by the Peregrine Fund.
Jay remembers working 12-hour days hiking over rough
country. It was exhausting, but his love and admiration for
peregrines kept him going. Although only about the size

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of a crow, a peregrines aerodynamic shape gives it


unmatched power in the air. A peregrine in full dive, in
pursuit of ducks, swallows and other birds, can exceed
200 miles per hour, making it the fastest bird in the
world.
Jay was eager to get these aerial predators back into
the wild. Montanas first peregrines were hacked on a
cliff in the Centennial Valley. Ralph Rogers, a wildlife
biologist and falconer, oversaw the operation, bringing
along his wife and two young children. Over the next
three summers, Ralph and his family released 15 young
falcons in the Centennial Valley. I raised my kids on
hack sites, says Ralph. What a treasure that was.
Between 1981 and 1997, more than 600 peregrines
were released in Montana. While many peregrines
survived their first eight weeks, some were killed by golden
eagles at the hack sites and others died during migration.
The large number of releases made up for the loss.
Unlike with many other imperiled species, the peregrine rescue effort did not generate conflict over land use
practices, says Ralph. Thats partly because their most
critical habitatnesting sites on steep cliff faceswasnt
important for most land uses.
Furthermore, says Ralph, it was a relatively simple
problem. DDT was the cause of peregrine declines and
once DDT was banned, peregrines were able to recover.
Releasing young birds into the wild expedited the process.

Intrinsic Magnetism
Wild peregrines in Montana began breeding again in
1984. The first pair to nest fledged three young in the
Centennial Valley near the release site Ralph and his
family tended. Jay continued to search for new release
sites, but was thrilled at finding new breeding pairs.
By 1999 all recovery goals established by the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service had been exceeded and the
peregrine was removed from the endangered species list.
The goal for Montana was to establish 20 breeding pairs,
and by 1999 there were 27. The decades of struggle and
effort by Jay, Ralph, and others had finally paid off. Today
there are an estimated 3,000 pairs in North America.
That same year, the site that Jay found as a teenager
in 1961 near Livingston became active again, with peregrines choosing to nest on the very same ledge theyd used
nearly 40 years earlier.
Theres something about those ledges that peregrines
key in on, says Jay. He calls it an intrinsic magnetism.

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Veteran falconer Jay Sumner flies his young peregrine in


Montanas Bitterroot Valley.

After decades of absence, peregrines all over the country


chose the same ledges their predecessors used.
In 2002, when Jay launched the Montana Peregrine
Institute, there were only 36 known territories and today
there are more than 160, most of which are in central and
western Montana. Jays convinced there are more, but hes
uncertain how many. Id like to survey more in eastern
Montana, but there just isnt time, says Jay.
Jay has 80 volunteers, and between them they survey
more than 100 territories annually. Jay would like to
survey them all, but for that he needs more volunteers
and time. Some volunteers like Don MacCarter have been
monitoring peregrines for years. They are a dedicated
group who dont mind sitting for hours in the cold days of
spring or on hot July afternoons, waiting for a glimpse of
a peregrine or to hear their telltale wailing call.
Back at the site above the Yellowstone River, Jay
admits he doesnt know if its a historical territory or not,
but its a new one to him and hell add it to the growing list
of known sites in Montana.
The male peregrine flies out of view up river, but the
female is still perched on the cliff. She hops into a crack
in the rock wall and makes a scrape in the sandy floor
with her soft belly. And thats a positive omen.
Thats a good sign shell use that ledge for nesting,
Jay says. He spotted his first wild falcon an hours drive to
the north. Over the decades, he watched them disappear
and he helped them rebound. Though tufts of gray hair
now peek from his faded ball cap, the gleam in his eye is
youthful. The birds are back.