Protecting America's birds of prey

At the World Center for Birds of Prey, in Boise, Idaho, a dedicated staff is working to help get California condors and aplomado falcons off the endangered species list. Which bird is next?

The bald eagle was on the endangered species list until just a few years ago. This stunning bald eagle, which is housed at the World Center for Birds of Prey, in Boise, Idaho, was injured and is no longer capable of living in the wild. It is one of several birds on display at the center, which is run by The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit with the goal of breeding endangered birds of prey and, hopefully, getting them off the endangered species list. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

BOISE, Idaho--When I've heard stories about various endangered species making it off that ominous list and becoming successful again, I've often wondered how it happens.

In some cases, I'm sure, the species managed to breed themselves back into plentiful numbers. But in many others, it has taken the steady, caring hand of humans dedicated to helping these animals. I wanted to know more about who these people are, and how they work their magic, so when I visited Boise on Road Trip 2009, I stopped in at the World Center for Birds of Prey.

The center was originally started at Cornell University in 1970 as a captive breeding facility, and over the years it has released 4,000 birds back into the wild. Among its biggest achievements was helping to get the peregrine falcon off the endangered species list.

In 1984, the center, which is operated by The Peregrine Fund, moved to its current location on a hill on the south side of Boise. In recent years, its main goal has been rehabilitating and breeding California condors and aplomado falcons with the goal of removing both of those birds from the endangered species list.

I spent some time at the center with Nick Piccono, the interpretive center operations manager at the World Center for Birds of Prey. He gave me the low-down on how he and his colleagues go about meeting their goal.

Mainly, it's a captive breeding program, Piccono explained. For example, he said, the center has gotten to the point where it is now working with around 60 condors that produce about 10 to 20 chicks per year. On average, he added, the center releases between 10 and 15 California condors into the Vermillion Cliffs area of Arizona each year.

But of course, while people are helping to restore the strength of the California condor population, they were also responsible for the birds being put on the endangered species list in the first place.

"Humans nearly decimated the magnificent California condor, North America's largest flying land bird," the center's Web site reads. "The population numbered a mere 22 condors by 1982. With huge effort by numerous agencies including The Peregrine Fund, a remarkable recovery is under way, but this rare bird continues to suffer from a human-caused threat: lead poisoning.

"Condors present a warning that fragments from lead bullets fired from a rifle are an environmental danger to scavenging wildlife, and also to humans. Our research shows that lead bullets fragment into dozens or hundreds of tiny pieces that disperse widely in an animal when it is shot. When condors consume animal remains, they ingest tiny fragments of lead, enough to cause them to become ill or die. Until this problem is solved, it is unlikely that condors can be established in the wild as a self-sustaining population."

At the same time, the center is working on a similar program with aplomado falcons.

"The northern aplomado falcon...is fast and nimble, and quite equal to the aerial excellence of its famous cousins, the peregrine and merlin," the center's Web site reads. "Aplomados were once widespread in the American Southwest, from southern Texas to eastern Arizona, but by mid-century, their known northern range was restricted to eastern coastal Mexico and a few other areas in that country, including a small portion of eastern Chihuahua. Biologists have offered a long list of possible reasons for the decline, but all agree that the vegetational transformations that followed the Spanish invasion and the grazing excesses of the late 1800s played important roles."

Visitors to the World Center for Birds of Prey can see demonstrations of how large birds, like this turkey vulture, behave, as well as explanations of how they live. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

In the 1990s, The Peregrine Fund started its aplomado breeding program, releasing the mature birds that emerged from the center into the wilds of southern Texas. And the efforts seem to be having an effect. According to the center, by the early 2000s, there were 40 breeding pairs of aplomados, and now, The Peregrine Fund is working to place the aplomados that come from its program into the wilds of western Texas and southern New Mexico.

"Now, the birds are again occupying their important niche in the ecosystem--nesting in yuccas and preying on small birds and insects--and helping maintain biodiversity," reads the center's Web site.

But aplomados are not yet off the endangered species list, and so Piccono and his colleagues are still working hard to breed the birds, release them into the wilds, and build up the population. As with the California condor, however, Piccono pointed out that there is no way to know how long it will take for either bird to have sufficient population numbers to be no longer endangered.

Part of the problem, he said, is that with animals like the California condor and the aplomado, it's impossible to know what number of animals is required to make a self-sufficient population. But while there were once just 22 of the condors alive in the world, Piccono said there are now more than 300. Still, in the wild, a disease could quickly wipe out such a population, so it's important to continue building up the population numbers for some time.

The hack box
I wanted to know how the center goes about breeding and releasing the birds, and Piccono explained that, in the case of the California condor, the process is known as hacking. The idea is to raise the young birds in an environment where they have no chance to imprint on humans, and, in fact, they are released into the wild when they are just 35 days old.

At least six chicks are raised in a box, known as a hacking box, where they are fed and conditioned to each other, without ever seeing people. This process was developed by falcon breeders and helps the young condors develop hunting skills by playing with each other without ever being influenced by the humans who are responsible for their care.

Indeed, Piccono said, condors are like vultures in that they don't need to learn to hunt: it's a skill that comes with their DNA.

When they make it to adulthood, a wild California condor can live to be between 30 and 40 years old. In captivity, where there are many less environmental stresses, they can make it to a full 50 years old.

By comparison, wild aplomados usually live to be between 8 and 10 years old, and in captivity can live twice that long.

Six hundred acres
While The Peregrine Fund puts a huge amount of effort into its endangered species breeding-and-releasing program, visitors to World Center for Birds of Prey won't get much of a chance to see that part of the mission in action.

Instead, visitors to the 600-acre facility are treated to a very interesting interpretive center that does feature a collection of various birds of prey--which, in general, are incapable for one reason or another, of being in the wild--including a bald eagle, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle, a juvenile peregrine falcon, a 45-year-old African Bateleur eagle. All told, the interpretive center has more than 200 birds on site, many of which are on display.

This exhibit in The Peregrine Fund's Archives of Falconry celebrates the philanthropic support of the president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the son of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a longtime falconer credited with spreading education about birds of prey. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But I wondered why, if The Peregrine Fund has so many birds and there are many other endangered species beyond the California condor and the aplomado, it does not work to breed more species.

Piccono explained that instead of working with multiple breeds, The Peregrine Fund prefers to focus on one or two at a time, doing what is possible to get those species off the endangered species list, and then moving on to the next animal.

But it's a slow process, he explained, and so while Peregrine Fund biologists have ideas for which of the many endangered bird of prey species it will work with next, it is still concentrating on just the two current species.

Part of the problem is that a breeding program is very slow to get off the ground. Piccono said that it took three years before the center was able to produce its first peregrine falcon chicks, and that the aplomados also took several years.

Once the biologists at The Peregrine Fund know that either or both of the California condor and the aplomado falcon are going to be OK as a species, they will institute their internal protocols and begin to figure out what the next species they can benefit and work with will be.

Click here for the entire Road Trip 2009 package.

 

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