Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Peregrine Falcon Nest Box Program

Bob and falcon at Minnesota Power, Cohasset plant. 
Several of the Peregrines we watch are nesting at utilities, including Xcel Energy's Sherco, Blackdog, King, Prairie Island, and Monticello plants; Dairyland Power's Alma and Genoa plants, Minnesota Power and Light's Cohasset and Hibbard plants, Great River Energy's Elk River plant, and Alliant Energy's Cassville and Lansing plants. Our utility partners are also home to other birds, including bald eagles (Xcel Fort St. Vrain), great horned owls (Xcel Valmont), kestrels (Xcel Pawnee), and blue herons (Xcel Riverside). This isn't an accident - utilities provide an excellent home for peregrine falcons and other species of birds. A list of the sites we watch online can be found at http://www.farmyou.com/falcon_cams/index.html

The Raptor Resource Project started working with utilities in 1990, when peregrine falcon Mae was spotted at the Allen S. King plant in Oak Park Heights, Minnesota. A falconer and plant employee named Paul Simonette called Bob, who verified the sighting and asked for permission to construct and mount a nest box on a catwalk at the 400' level of the plant's stack. The site was tall, near water, inaccessible to most predators, and accessible to humans while remote from their daily activities. It was perfect!

At that time, the peregrine falcon was still highly endangered. Mae's mother MF-1 was produced by the Raptor Resource Project and released from the top of the MultiFoods building in Minneapolis in 1986. When she returned to breed in 1987, she became the first Peregrine to breed in the wild mid-continent, in the US or Canada, since the species' extirpation in the early 1960s. Mae, who hatched in 1989, was one of just 13 wild peregrines produced mid-continent that year. An awful lot of falcons have hatched since then. Here is a look at total numbers as of 2012 from the nine utility/industrial sites we watch online:

  • Xcel Allen S. King plant. First year: 1990. Total young produced: 60
  • Xcel Sherco. First year: 1992. Total young produced: 54
  • Minnesota Power and Light, Cohasset. First year: 1993. Total young produced: 59
  • Xcel Blackdog. First year: 1993. Total young produced: 56
  • Dairyland Power Alma. First year: 1997. Total young produced: 55
  • Dairyland Power Genoa. First year: 1998. Total young produced: 46
  • Red Wing Grain. First year: 2001. Total young produced: 27
  • Great River Energy. First year: 2007. Total young produced: 19
  • Minnesota Power and Light, Hibbard. First year: 2008. Total young produced: 10

Xcel Energy could have said 'No'. While having a peregrine falcon on site was really cool, it was also a risk.  The company had no responsibility to provide a home for endangered species, and suppose Mae died? Any persons who bring danger or death to an endangered species can be fined up to $100,000, and the story would have been headline news. But plant manager Mike Miser said 'Yes' - he thought the peregrines were neat, plant staff were enthusiastic, and the birds provided wonderful organic pigeon control. The Utility-Peregrine Project was underway!

After the success of the Allen S. King plant, several other utilities expressed an interest in their own peregrine falcons. In addition to expanding the program at Xcel Energy, we received requests for nest boxes and or releases from Dairyland Power, Minnesota Power and Light, Wisconsin Power and Light (now Alliant Energy), MidAmerican Energy, Rochester Gas and Electric, and many more. Cargill, Red Wing Grain, and Bunge America also joined our efforts, installing nest boxes in Lake City, Minnesota, Red Wing, Minnesota, and McGregor, Iowa. A few statistics:
  • The utility peregrine program has produced over 1000 young falcons in the wild. 
  • At present, birds are nesting at 17 RRP/utility sites. Species include peregrine falcons, bald eagles, kestrels, great horned owls, and blue herons. An osprey pole had to be removed for bridge construction in Stillwater, Minnesota, so we are waiting to see if ospreys adopt their new pole at the Allen S. King plant. 
  • I pulled a list of 473 peregrines known to have survived into adulthood. 64 of them fledged from utilities and went on to nest at other utilities, bluffs, grain elevators, bridges, and buildings.
  • Peregrines have been nesting at our oldest site, the Allen S. King plant, for 23 years. 60 falcons have been produced here alone.
  • Our birdcam work began in 1998, with "Mae's Internest". The cam was a sensation, and Xcel Energy's site was briefly the world's busiest corporate website according to alexa.com.
Our work with utility companies is sometimes controversial. Power lines present electrocution and collision hazards and the impact of wind turbines remains unknown. Utilities in general are not considered especially friendly to conservation. But the Utility Peregrine Program, a unique marriage of bird conservation and power production, was crucial to recovering the peregrine falcon, delisted from the Federal Endangered Species List in 1999. We've also worked with power companies on avian utility interaction issues and would like to think that our falcons are one of the reasons Xcel Energy voluntarily signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002. Our partnership with utility companies has greatly benefited birds. 

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