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Peregrine falcon trapped

Washburn’s fresh from the net, peregrine falcon trapped last week near Lake Superior’s northern shore. Returning from the brink of extinction, the falcon represents the culmination of a boyhood dream that was harbored for more than 60 years.

For about as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the birds of prey. And of all the hawks, falcons, and eagles there were to choose from, the noble peregrine quickly became my favorite.

As a youngster, I devoured everything I could get my hands on regarding America’s legendary "Duck Hawk:" notes by John James Audubon, the encyclopedia, bird books, you name it. I learned that the falcon was credited with being the planet’s fastest living creature. The preferred choice of nomadic desert sheiks and European royalty, peregrines had stood at the very pinnacle of traditional falconry – the pastime of pursuing wild game with trained raptors – for at least the past 4,000 years, give or take.

After viewing the original, 1958 airing of Walt Disney’s “Rusty and the Falcon,” I longed for the thrill of hunting in the company of wild falcons. For a 9-year-old boy, it was a lofty though seemingly impossible dream.

By the time I reached high school, the dream seemed farther away than ever. A casualty of the indiscriminate, post-World War II use of DDT pesticides, peregrine populations – along with bald eagles, osprey, and others – had gone down in flames.  

In 1972, the use of DDT was forever banned. Equally significant was the fact that a handful of falconers were learning how to successfully produce falcon chicks from birds taken from the wild years before. Although something of a monumental long shot, the idea of restoring vanished populations by releasing captive bred youngsters seemed a concept worth trying.

When asked to chair Iowa’s Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team, I jumped at the chance. During the 1990s, I enjoyed the opportunity of spending five consecutive years conducting peregrine releases in both urban and cliff ledge release sites. The project involved a dedicated coalition of Iowa falconers, raptor propagators, professional biologists, and a gung-ho cadre of private sector conservation enthusiasts.

No longer considered as threatened or endangered, the peregrine falcon has been completely delisted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. For the first time since the species’ tragic demise, the Fish & Wildlife Service is allowing a limited take of first year [passage] peregrines for use in falconry.

As an Iowa falconer, I’ve had the privilege of training and flying 14 peregrine falcons during the past 34 years. Each of those falcons were the offspring of captive breeding projects. And although I loved them all, I still retained that boyhood yearning to capture and train a completely wild peregrine.

Renewed hope – or at least a glimmer of it -- occurred in 2018 when Iowa falconers were offered a total of five peregrine capture permits to be issued through a lottery drawing. I applied, of course. But demand was high, and I was eliminated in the draw.

This year, I applied again but was drawn out for a second time. When I learned that Minnesota was allowing nonresidents to compete for their five permits, I applied but once again failed in the draw. When one of the Minnesota permit holders unexpectedly turned their license back, the DNR tossed everyone’s application back in the hat for a redraw. When they gave the squirrel cage a couple of spins, my name came to the top. 

Minnesota’s Lake Superior region is one of North America’s best locations for observing large numbers of migrating birds of prey – including peregrine falcons moving southward from subarctic nesting areas. But although populations have grown in abundance, trapping one is no slam dunk. In spite of the location, I was unsuccessful in trapping, or even seeing, a migrating peregrine during my first two trips to Lake Superior.

Last week, I headed north again for what would likely be the season’s final attempt. Since the peregrine migration generally peaks by late September, I knew time was running out. Sharing in my final expedition was Minnesota falconer and experienced hawk trapper, Jack Vooge; renowned birding authority, Gary Swanson; and Ben Ohlander, a published authority on northern goshawks.

Arriving at the spine of a prominent ridgeline, we quickly erected a set of four large mist nets. Safely located behind the corral of netting was a harnessed pigeon. When lifted by an attached pulley line, the fluttering bird would become the live bait that would hopefully lure a passing falcon to our invisible barrier. The ruse becomes successful when passing hawks mistake the pigeon for an easy meal. When a raptor attacks and strikes the net, it becomes entangled in the mesh. The pigeon remains unharmed, ready to tempt the next passing hawk.

Things were looking bleak until when in late afternoon, I suddenly spotted a peregrine falcon flying down the ridgeline. Spotting our tethered pigeon, the bird turned, launched an attack, and then crashed the net with such gusto that the impact bent one of the 8-foot-tall metal support poles.

Stunningly beautiful, the falcon turned out to be a tundra female – the very first peregrine I had encountered in three trips to Superior. Unfortunately, the bird was an adult. And since only first year juveniles are legal for take, we had to let her go. Nevertheless, it was a unique thrill to see and handle such a magnificent bird.

As the afternoon wore on, a sudden squall blew in. But although an incredible number of hawks were riding the squall line, the much anticipated first year peregrine didn’t show. Our day finally ended, and we began packing to leave. Although there was currently no bird anywhere in sight, Jack decided to give the pigeon line one last pull. And that’s when it happened. Within seconds of twitching the pigeon, a big first-year female peregrine came smoking in from who knows where. Crashing the net at warp speed, the falcon was instantly entangled. Robust and feather perfect, the falcon was mine! Hard to say who was most shocked by the sudden turn of events, me or the bird.

And so it ended. At one second, I was once again going home empty handed. A minute longer, and I was pulling a legal peregrine falcon from the net. For me, it was nothing short a lifetime event – the culmination of a boyhood dream that I’d been harboring for more than 60 years. Surrounded by good friends in wild country, it was a never-to-be-forgotten moment.

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Enjoy more wildlife tales online at Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog

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