The Local Climate – Peregrine

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In 1955 the last of Nova Scotia’s peeregrine falcons was plucked from its nest on the cliffs of Cape d’Or, probably sold to falconers in the midst of the species’ collapse.

We’ve all heard the name peregrine, even if a precious few of us have actually seen one. They’re famous, not only for their formidable appearance but also their unrivalled speed, distinguished as the fastest animals on Earth. They’re also known for their adaptability, making homes as easily atop human structures as natural ones. In cultures past and present the peregrine is nobility, a fact made especially sad by that day in 1955. By 1975, not a single nest was known to persist west of Alberta. Once common in the Bay of Fundy, these famous skies fell silent, and the reason was DDT.

This pesticide and other organochlorines became popular after WWII, and have among their side effects the thinning of egg shells for certain birds who ingest too much. Because peregrines and other birds-of-prey reside at the top of their particular food chains DDT concentrates in them most of all, bioaccumulating in their bodies with every contaminated meal. Peregrine mothers warming their eggs would often end up crushing them, leading to catastrophic reproductive failure wherever these poisons were used.

Eagles, osprey and other aerial predators declined here also, but the disappearance of the peregrines was complete in Eastern Canada. The situation became so dire that a captive breeding program was launched in Wainwright, Alberta, in the 1970s in order to bring them back. Around this time organochlorines were banned in both Canada and the United States, giving the species a chance to rebound wherever they could still be found.

In 1982, the peregrine falcon was brought back to the lonely shores of Nova Scotia, specifically those of the Minas Basin. We released 109 individuals total, at Cape d’Or, Blomidon Provincial Park and Five Islands Provincial Park up until 1991. Nova Scotia held its breath for several years after that, waiting enviously as new nests popped up elsewhere in Eastern Canada, in regions also seeded with these captive-bred beauties.

Mark Elderkin of Wolfville retired this past December from his post as provincial species-at-risk biologist for Nova Scotia, and is among those who recognizes the nobility of the peregrine falcon. Over a lifetime of committed birding he’s often lamented the loss of these predators from our skies, admiring them instead by helicopter while surveying Labrador in the 1990s. To hear him speak of peregrines is to acquire a deeper appreciation for their uniqueness and their recovery.

“There is some kind of profound spiritual connection between peregrines and me,” he explained mid February. “I always say that I don’t look for peregrines. They look for me.”

His stories, of peregrines finding him in the least likely of places, are chilling or heartening depending on how you look at it, but for me his most staggering story came from 1995 when he personally spotted the first established peregrines in Nova Scotia for decades, breaking the bird’s long silence and demonstrating the value of concerted conservation. I’ve been asked to keep the locations to myself for obvious reasons, but from 1995 to about 2015, 12 peregrine territories total had been identified across our Fundy border.

There have been suggestions of the species elsewhere since then, like the odd sighting on Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island – a pair seems to have established themselves somewhere between Halifax and Dartmouth – but for the most part the peregrine falcon seems restricted to the Bay of Fundy. They are spreading across Eastern North America and indeed the Maritimes, but slowly.

“This has been the flagship of North American recovery,” said Elderkin. “There’s no story in species recovery that can touch, by geographic scale or biological dimension, our success with the peregrines. It’s unprecedented.”

While levels of DDT have dropped in peregrines to manageable levels, the pesticide still persists, as it’s still used routinely in South America. But the near future of these birds seems relatively secure, alongside the other birds-of-prey recovering swiftly across our region. While I have yet to spot a peregrine myself, eagles and osprey are a common sight outside my front door.

I asked Mark if we can call this a good news story, and his answer was mixed, informed by a career in defence of species-at-risk. He said the recovery of this bird was swift because it only required farms to trade one pesticide for another. Had the recovery of the species demanded the protection or restoration of land, which Canadians have proven themselves very bad at sharing, the story of the Peregrine falcon would probably have ended differently. The idea of protecting land for any species, especially if that land has economic value, is a hurdle very few politicians are able or willing to overcome. In such cases there is always compromise, said Elderkin, even when the species in question cannot survive compromise. For examples, see those plants and animals listed under Nova Scotia’s Endangered Species Act.

The ongoing recovery of the peregrine falcon, therefore, is an enormous and important success, probably because of its relative convenience. Here is a sobering reality which we as a province must overcome, but in the meantime, look up. Good news is no longer that hard to find.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.

Shown above is a Peregrine falcon photographed in Nova Scotia.  (Mark Elderkin photo)