story and photos by Andy Johnson
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2021 issue of Living Bird, the membership magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Just a few miles north of Ithaca, New York, Taughannock Creek (pro-nounced tuh-GAN-uck) carves between the sheer rock walls of a 400-foot gorge, dropping toward Cayuga Lake in a free-fall curtain of water taller than Niagara Falls. There’s a state park trail up this gorge, with a sun-faded sign at the trailhead that bears a mono-chrome photograph of a peregrine falcon perched by her cliffside nest, hulking protectively over three downy white chicks. Framed by the white waters of the Taughannock cataract, the peregrine mother is a picture of power: her velocity-hewn teardrop shape is steadfast, even as the film’s long exposure captures the water rushing by. Her gaze is transfixing, even through the sign’s grainy, faded ink and the century that now separates us.
The photograph was taken at Taughannock Falls in the 1930s by renowned Cornell University ornithologist and Cornell Lab of Ornithology founder Arthur Allen. A few short decades after that photo, however, the cliffs at Taughannock were empty – and peregrine falcons were nearly wiped from the continent altogether. A nationwide recovery effort, centered at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, ensued to deliver the peregrine falcon back to the wild later in the 20th century. But even after a remarkable population rebound in North America, and after peregrines were delisted from the Endangered Species Act, falcons were still missing from Taughannock on my early-morning walks there in the spring of 2020.
It was the early weeks of COVID’s sweep across the United States, in March 2020, and I sought respite on walks along Taughannock’s ice-chocked creek, passing that familiar trailhead sign as I went. Taughannock’s walls – with the slanting sun revealing their rugged contours and myriad ledges – practically begged for those cliff-dwellers from Allen’s photograph.
And then on one brisk afternoon walk, craning to peer up at the looming gorge overhead, I saw peregrine falcons again.
In the wake of receding glaciers some 10,000 years ago, peregrine falcons occupied cliffside aeries across northern latitudes. In eastern North America, home range of the anatum subspecies, the peregrine’s likeness was repeatedly invoked in the artwork and lore of the Mississippian civilization (which prospered for nearly a thousand pre-Columbian years). More than a century ago, in 1913, Arthur Allen penned a detailed account of a nesting pair at the Taughannock gorge for the academic magazine Bird-Lore, after “a peregrine falcon espied this cleft in the earth and chose it for his aerie.”
In the following decades, Allen and his friend and colleague, the eminent ornithological painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes, documented the falcons breeding at Taughannock in evocative writings, paintings, and photographs. Their depictions are definitive renderings of the species, capturing their kinship with the craggy ledges high above Cayuga Lake, and the echoing of their screams between canyon walls.
“One forgets everything in the excitement of that scream, which announces the return of the provider,” Allen wrote. “Every bird in the covert crouches and freezes immovable when he hears it.”
That unbroken line of anatum falcons, captured at their zenith in the family portrait on the park sign, unraveled in mere decades. In the late 1940s, as postwar America was beginning to boom, the nation’s agricultural engine boomed, too – and it began exhaling dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane: the notorious DDT.
After shielding millions of troops from mosquito-borne illness during the Second World War, DDT flourished commercially in the United States as a pesticide to protect gardens, pets, orchards, croplands, and livestock. Ironically, the new insect killer was canonized as a life-saving technological marvel, even earning its discoverer the 1948 Nobel Prize in medicine. But the poison entered soils, leached into waterways, and climbed up the food chain meal by meal. Upon reaching the tissues of apex birds of prey – peregrine falcons and bald eagles most prominent among them – DDT thinned the shells of the eggs they laid. Nests failed consistently, and populations fell precipitously.
The last nesting pair of peregrine falcons in Taughannock gorge was recorded in 1946. By the mid-1960s, there wasn’t a single nesting pair east of the Mississippi River. Another decade later, some 90 percent of peregrine aeries along the Pacific Coast also lay silent. By 1975, there were only 324 known nesting peregrine pairs across all of North America.
Rachel Carson spoke out about the lethal dangers of DDT. In a nationally broadcast television interview after the 1962 publication of her book Silent Spring, she said: “We have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” If left unregulated, Carson warned, this chemical marvel DDT would become our undoing.
But it wasn’t too late. An environmental awakening quickly found traction, beginning with multiple Senate hearings on pesticides within a year of Silent Spring’s publication. The Endangered Species Conservation Act of 1969, which paved the way for the present-day Endangered Species Act, listed the peregrine falcon in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency, formed that same year, banned the use of DDT in 1972.
Meanwhile, in the quieter hills of Ithaca, New York, another movement was rallying in support of the dwindling falcons. A Cornell University expedition in 1967 ventured to the farthest corners of North America to find peregrine falcon aeries that still lay beyond the insidious reach of DDT. Near Alaska’s Colville River, on rocky tundra headlands, biologists collected young peregrines from healthy, wild nests. These birds, along with others contributed from around the world by a tight-knit and passionate network of falconers, were the beginning of an audacious effort to breed peregrines in captivity and reintroduce them to bolster wild populations.
Dr. Tom Cade, a zoology professor at Cornell University and research director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, co-founded what became The Peregrine Fund in 1970. The work of captive-rearing and wild reintroduction of falcons that Cade and his colleagues pioneered was widely thought to be impossible. But the team leaned on centuries of accrued knowledge from falconry, adapting old techniques to suit present needs. Hack towers – elevated platforms traditionally used to give young falcons flight experience before training with lures – were employed to give captive-bred falcons a jump start in the wider wild, once the time came to fledge.
In the 1970s, 50 captive-reared peregrines successfully fledged from hack sites across the Northeast. Over the next two decades that tally rose to 1,600. By the end of the 20th century, more than 6,000 young falcons had been released into the wild across North America by The Peregrine Fund and other academic and nonprofit groups, as well as state and federal agencies. The reintroduction efforts met with unexpected success and gained traction with proud local communities in metropolitan centers like New York City, Minneapolis, and Chicago where falcons took to the gravelly ledges of high-rise buildings and bridges.
In 1999, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release heralded landmark news: “Today, the world’s fastest bird soars off of the Endangered Species list.” As one of the Endangered Species list’s inaugural members, the peregrine falcon’s removal from its ranks was an acknowledgment of an unprecedented recovery, and a culmination of the act’s grand experiment. Conservationists rang in the new millennium on a high note.