Saving the Winged Cheetah

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1971

The peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on earth. When it spots prey with its piercing eyesight, it shrieks down out of the sky at more than 200 miles an hour. Yet in 1970, the U.S. peregrine falcon was nearly as dead as the dodo. In the lower 48 states there were only 39 known breeding pairs left. The bird’s recovery since then is one of the dramatic ecological success stories of our times, and philanthropy is a star player.

Once measures had been taken to curb overuse of pesticides that were weakening falcon eggshells, the government launched efforts to repopulate the bird. They failed. Enter Tom Cade. When Cornell University offered him a job at its famed ornithological lab, he agreed—on condition that it support his efforts to test ideas for restoring the peregrine. A $125,000 grant from IBM was earmarked for the purpose. Then other donations began pouring in, including many small ones from individuals who, like Cade, had taken up the sport of falconry.

Instead of trying to breed captured birds, as the government had, Cade’s philanthropic project hand-reared hatchlings and kept them in captivity for use as breeders, starting in 1971. Within a few years, the Cornell group was releasing into the wild the first of 4,000 young birds, and discovering how to keep them alive until they learned to hunt on their own. The researchers concluded, counterintuitively, that one of the best places for artificially incubated peregrines to make the leap back into the wild was the downtown regions of major cities. Skyscrapers and bridges served as cliff-like roosting and nesting places, free from the owls and eagles that were devouring juvenile falcons released into the wilderness. Urban pigeons were ideal food sources for the young hunters.

Since 1984, the Peregrine Fund has been located on a bluff near Boise, Idaho. Throughout its history, it has been supported by thousands of private donations that cover operating costs, plus an endowment given by donors such as Lee Bass, Roy Disney, Julie Wrigley, and Hank Paulson. Thanks to its efforts, a creature that was nearly extinct now breeds naturally and thrives in at least 40 states across the U.S. The peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list in 1999. More recently, the Peregrine Fund has produced chicks to help restore the California condor to the Grand Canyon, the Aplomado falcon to the Southwest, the Harpy eagle to Central America, and many other birds to their respective homelands.