Leaping from a tall building and diving through the sky over Chicago at a speed of 200 mph … the fastest animal in the air is back. No, it’s not Superman or Tom Cruise in the movie sequel of “Top Gun,” its nature’s most awesome predator, the peregrine falcon.
Once on the endangered species list, extirpated throughout the Midwest, and absent in Illinois from 1951 until 1986, the peregrine falcon has returned. Its population through reintroduction and careful conservation now exceeds historic levels.
The peregrine falcon’s status in Illinois has improved over the years from endangered to threatened, and now the bird has been removed altogether from the state list of species needing aid. Peregrine falcons are still federally protected but no longer on the edge of extinction.
But there was a time when the sound of these raptors’ cries went silent along the riverside cliffs of Illinois.
By the 1960s, humans had taken a toll. Pesticides, like the now banned DDT, thinned the bird’s eggshells, so parents crushed their chicks before they hatched. Season after season, fewer and fewer falcon chicks survived.
However, humans helped them return. It has taken close to 30 years, but conservation and the bird’s own adaptability put it back on the map, albeit the center of recovery in a different and unusual spot: Chicago. Now, there are more falcons in Illinois than ever.
Mary Hennen, director of the Chicago Peregrine Program, was quoted saying, “We have exceeded our historic population levels. … To be fair, Illinois never had many falcons to begin with. It used to share about 50 pairs of peregrines with the entire Midwest. … The birds longed for height and traditionally lived in cliffs like the few along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
“But there was something about the city. It has no cozy, rocky bluffs, but it is filled with potential perches — skyscrapers, high-rises, even the water intake cribs on Lake Michigan; and plenty of prey, like pigeons. So, they settled and multiplied.”
Angelo Capparella, an Illinois State University zoology professor was quoted saying, “Though the restoration effort spanned the entire Midwest, Chicago ended up being the center for recovery. In Illinois alone, there are now 29 falcon nesting territories. Twenty of those territories are in the city, the Chicago Peregrine Program reports. … It’s a conservation success story. Sometimes you delist because a species is extinct, which is not a good thing. Delisting in this case is a good thing. It’s pretty exciting.”
Peregrine populations have continued to grow and thrive. What began with a single breeding pair in Chicago in 1988 has grown to more than 20 pairs in more than 30 territories. These are known locations holding one or two birds.
Through a process called hacking, peregrines began to return to the wild. From 1986 to 1990, the Chicago Peregrine Program released 46 peregrines at four hack sites. With reintroductions throughout the Midwest, it was hoped some birds would return to Illinois to breed.
The birds average 15-20 inches in length. Like all falcons, it has pointed wings and a thin tail. The peregrine’s dark “sideburns” are distinctive. The adult has a blue-gray back, while the chest and belly are white to orange with darker spots and bars. The immature falcon has the same head and facial patterns as the adult but is brown on the upper side. The lower side of the immature bird is cream-colored with brown streaks. Male peregrines weigh up to 2.3 pounds while the females are slightly larger and average a weight of 3.3 pounds.
Three or four white eggs with dark markings are deposited by the female, and she incubates them for the entire 33- to 35-day incubation period. Fall migrants begin arriving in Illinois in August.
Nesting and perching peregrine falcons can be observed at several webcam links in Illinois at chicagoperegrineprogram.squarespace.com/webcams-illinois.
With continued diligence and conservation, the state’s peregrine falcon population will remain steady and continue to grow. Move over Tom Cruise … there is another “Top Gun” in the sky over Illinois.