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Falcon restoration continues in Shenandoah National Park

A 7-week-old peregrine falcon lands at a Shenandoah National Park restoration site. The falcon is part of the park's ongoing effort to return the birds of prey to Virginia's mountains. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah National Park.

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By Katie Demeria

Falcons that were once sought after by kings are returning, after over 30 years, to Shenandoah National Park.

Nine peregrine falcons were restored to the park between May and mid July, and the one breeding pair found within the park has successfully fledged three young this year.

Peregrine falcons once frequented Virginia mountains, but were put on the endangered species list in the early 1970s after exposure to DDT caused reproductive failure in the birds -- along with bald eagles and osprey, according to Shenandoah National Park Biologist Rolf Gubler.

The early round of peregrine restoration took place from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Gubler said.

"Well, unfortunately, in some ways the peregrine restoration was successful in the eastern, coastal regions, but in the mountains of Virginia, where they are historically most common, they were struggling," he said.

In the late 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the birds of prey off the endangered species list because they were doing so well in the coastal regions, Gubler said.

So in 2000, Shenandoah National Park got together with several partners, including the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Department of Transportation, to continue the restoration.

The nine falcons restored to the park this year were done so through a method called hacking: the process of taking rare or at-risk birds from coastal bridge nests, where fledgling survival has been very poor, and bringing them to the mountains, according to Gubler.

The young birds are kept in a rocky, cliffy habitat within a protective, large box for 14 weeks. They are then gradually acclimated to their surroundings.

"They eventually hone their hunting skills and disperse along rivers or coastal areas, then hopefully they come back in two or three years as adults and pair up with other peregrines," Gubler said.

He added that restoration is still continuing, but the park staff is happy to be seeing some results now.

DDT seriously impacted the falcon's ability to reproduce, and by 1965 there were no peregrines east of the Mississippi River -- the bird's eastern race was essentially extinct.

But the falcons were historically a significant part of the Appalachian Mountain landscape. Gubler said hopefully visitors will be able to see them in their natural habitat.

"Shenandoah represents some of the best mountain habitats to see natural peregrines on the wing on the mountains," he said. "It's a pretty ideal place."

He described the birds as an iconique species -- in ancient history, he said, kings used peregrine falcons in the art of falconry, while individuals of lesser ranks had to use other birds.

"There's a mystique about peregrines," Gubler said. "They're some of the best flyers and best hunters in the bird world."

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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