Western North Carolina contains many diverse habitats that attract a wide range of bird species. The unique topography includes one feature particularly suitable for the magnificent peregrine falcon: isolated towering rocky ledges with widespread views ideal for the nesting sites required for these raptors. These ledges recently played a major role in one of the greatest success stories of the federal Endangered Species Act.
Falcons have shared a unique relationship with humans for nearly 4,000 years. The ancient Chinese and Persian civilizations perfected the art of hunting game birds with trained falcons. Later, falconry became popular with noblemen of medieval Europe.
The peregrine's sparse distribution and predator status contributed to its sudden decrease in population during the late 1950s and 1960s. The World War II development of organochlorides for use in DDT and other military pesticides was so successful in eliminating malarial mosquitos and other insect pests that the chemicals were later made available worldwide for agriculture and home use. The advantage of these compounds was that they remained potent for many years, reducing the need for reapplication.
This same characteristic led to environmental disaster for many animals, especially predatory bird species. Through a phenomenon called biomagnification, the insecticide accumulated in the tissues of animals as they progressed up through the food pyramid. The accumulation of poisons either killed outright peregrine falcons or, even worse, caused a calcium deficiency which resulted in clutches with thin eggshells. For the widely scattered peregrines, the impact was particularly great, and their population numbers dropped quickly.
It took a decade to solve the mystery of their demise and nearly another to ban DDT and its cousins and formulate a plan to bring the peregrine falcon back from its close brush with extinction. Using a two-part system of captive breeding and release through a method called hacking, a successful program began in the mid-1970s.
In North Carolina, hack boxes were placed in historic or likely nesting sites among the highest cliffs and ledges of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Young falcons were kept and fed in these boxes until they were able to fly. The boxes were then opened, but food was still provided until the birds were able to sufficiently hunt on their own, after which the boxes were permanently closed. The species made its recovery. By the early 1990s, more than 4,000 peregrine falcons had been released in the United States. As with wild populations, a much smaller percentage survived to reproduce on their own, but where only 60 nesting pairs were known to exist in the mid-1970s, 800 pairs were recorded in the nation by 1993. In North Carolina, captive-release programs were conducted at Grandfather Mountain, Hawksbill Mountain, Looking Glass Rock, Whiteside Mountain, and Chimney Rock. Today, these powerful birds are periodically sighted in these spots, as well as in the Shining Rock and Linville Gorge wilderness areas, the Graveyard Fields, Alum Bluff caves, and other suitable locations.
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