Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

An incubator that helped saved peregrine falcons from extinction


Joel “Jeep”, Ph.D, Raptor Ecologist, shares the scratches from attacks by a peregrine falcon. Photo courtesy of J. Avery.

WASHINGTON D.C. – This month, the Forest Service headquarters received an egg incubator that was pivotal in bringing the peregrine falcon population back from the brink of extinction. 

Raptor ecologist, and former peregrine falcon specialist for the Forest Service, Dr. Joel “Jeep” Pagel loaned the incubator he used to help safely transport peregrine falcon eggs from wild nests during a time when peregrine falcons were extremely rare. Dr. Pagel worked on research and management of peregrine falcons and other raptors in the Pacific Northwest for the Forest Service from 1983 to 2004. This incubator and its protective box were crafted by highly skilled Forest Service electronics specialists headquartered on the Rogue River National Forest — now Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest — specifically for peregrine falcon management in the late 1980s. 

The American peregrine falcon population was greatly reduced from the late 1940s through the 1990s, and the species almost went extinct. By the late 1960s, this falcon had been eliminated from the eastern United States and was limited to a few known nest locations west of the Mississippi River. After careful work by numerous raptor researchers in the U.S. and Europe, scientists determined concentrations of DDT and its metabolite DDE caused eggshell thinning, which in turn greatly reduced the annual nest success of peregrine falcons, bald eagles, osprey, pelicans and other fish-eating birds.

DDT bio accumulates in the prey of raptors, and is broken down in the bird to create the metabolite called DDE. This chemical contaminant accumulates in fatty tissues in the birds and mammals and is released back into the bloodstream when the fat is used for energy during egg formation. For raptors, DDE reduces the amount of calcium deposited on the outer layer of an eggshell, which ultimately causes very thin eggshells that have weak egg structure. Worldwide use of DDT led to decades of widespread eggshell thinning where peregrine falcons broke their eggs in their nests throughout whole swaths of North America. This led to fewer peregrine young, lowered productivity, and ultimately the decline in the species population in North America and other places on the planet.

Peregrine falcons were among the world’s first endangered species prior to the current Endangered Species Act enacted in 1973 by the Nixon administration. The United States worked to protect the American and Arctic peregrine falcon subspecies by listing them as an endangered species in 1970.

From the late 1970s to mid-1990s, a handful of highly skilled raptor field ecologists and biologists like Dr. Pagel climbed precipitous cliffs in remote habitat to switch out thin falcon eggs with clever ceramic replicas. They would then use a vehicle — car or airplane — to transport the live eggs in this incubator to a laboratory for captive hatching. 

When the captive hatched chicks were a little over two weeks old, they were taken back to a nest where the fake eggs were being incubated by adult peregrine falcons. Dr. Pagel or other experienced bio-climbers would climb into the nest, remove the warm, fake eggs and replace them with live, fuzzy wide-eyed chicks. The adult falcons would immediately switch from incubation duties to caring for youngsters, and always brought food into the nest in less than 30 minutes.  

To build upon regional and national peregrine research, all chicks would be banded, and trained observers would continue to monitor their growth from afar until the chicks fledged.

Today, the Forest Service headquarters Information Center is displaying the Forest Service incubator Dr. Pagel used in the Pacific Northwest along with a video illustrating how raptor ecologists helped save peregrine falcons from extinction.

 


Joel “Jeep”, Ph.D, Raptor Ecologist, is attacked by a parent peregrine falcon while rappelling from a cliff to a nest. Photo courtesy of J. Avery.

Joel “Jeep”, Ph.D, Raptor Ecologist, replaced peregrine falcon eggs who’s shells were thinned by DDT pesticides. He incubated eggs until they hatched and returned them to their nests. This process helped bring back the peregrine falcon species from extinction. Photo courtesy of J. Avery.

Joel “Jeep”, Ph.D, Raptor Ecologist, donated the incubator he used to help recover the peregrine falcon population from extinction. The incubator is now housed in the Forest Service Washington Office Visitor Center, D.C. Forest Service photo by Cecilio Ricardo.