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Monday, April 28, 2014

Peregrine Fund

"I know he'd be a poor man if he never saw an eagle fly..."
- John Denver, Rocky Mountain High

"Man emerged from antiquity with a peregrine on his wrist."
-Roger Tory Peterson

There are few groups of animals that are more universally admired than the birds of prey.  Eagles have been the symbol of warrior cultures around the globe, from Aztec Mexico to Ancient Rome (and, later on, an upstart collection of thirteen newly independent colonies in North America).  Falconry was the obsession of the Medieval World, with one's social status clearly linked to what type of bird one was permitted to use; the sport still has adherents around the globe.  Birds of prey have inspired art and poetry and legends around the world... which makes it all the more ungrateful of us that we nearly exterminated so many of them.

Birds of prey have been threatened by the same "usual suspects" that have driven so many species to the edge of extinction - hunting, habitat loss, pollution.  The later was especially prevalent in the mid-1900s, when the pesticide DDT was shown to have played a key role in driving down numbers of osprey, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon.  Fortunately, being such beautiful, majestic, and charismatic species, the raptors (for so birds of prey are often called) had their devoted protecters to counterbalance their persecutors.  

Among those protectors was Tom Cade, an ornithologist at Cornell University.  Cade was concerned about the loss of North American raptors and set about to save them, using a combination of new technologies and ancient falconry techniques.  While some scientists like Rachel Carson were spreading the alarm and raising awareness about DDT, Cade was actively taking steps to save imperiled species.  Through captive-breeding and reintroduction, Cade and his allies were able to reestablish populations of peregrine falcon; today, the species is one of the rare few to have been removed from the Endangered Species List (in the good way, not due to extinction).

The peregrine falcon might have been saved, but there are still plenty of other endangered raptors around the world, from diminutive Mauritius kestrels to massive harpy eagles, capable of bringing down a small deer. The success experienced with the peregrine was applied to those species, and the organization known as the Peregrine Fund was born.  Headquartered at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, the fund focuses on the captive breeding of endangered raptors, as well as the education of the public and an instilling of appreciation for birds of prey.  

The Fund also supports and leads research on poorly studied raptors around the globe, trying to determine their statuses in the wild and decide what steps need to be taken to preserve them before they, too, become threatened.  Some of the species that the Fund works with are high-profile conservation poster-children, such as the California condor.  Others, like the orange-breasted falcon and the New Guinea harpy, are considerably less well known.

In most zoos, the role of raptors tends to be somewhat limited.  Most zoos have a few non-releasable native raptors, either as exhibit birds or as educational program birds.  A few of the larger, showier, more dramatic species are kept as exhibit animals.  Other than that, they tend to be ignored.  This is unfortunate - birds of prey have helped shape our cultural psyches and have played prominent roles in art, history, and religion for thousands of years.  Several species, including the bald eagle, the osprey, and the peregrine (and, yes, to a lesser degree the condors) have been ushered away from extinction and are now in some cases thriving.  

There are other battles to be fought, however, in saving the remaining species from extinction.  The Peregrine Fund has had many successes, but it shouldn't have to fight those battles alone.

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