Powering Peregrines

The youngsters complete with the new bands which will allow scientists to track their progress as they fly away and start families of their own.

When you think of baby peregrine falcons, you might not necessarily think of power plants. But that’s exactly where many peregrines are hatching and (quite literally) learning to spread their wings these days. While, historically, peregrines built their nests on cliffs alongside rivers and lakes, widespread use of egg-thinning pesticides like DDT decimated the species in the 60’s until they were nearly extinct east of the Mississippi River.

It was an out-of-the-box idea by peregrine researcher Greg Septon to get falcons into boxes that has really made a difference for this species. When Greg approached We Energies to build nest boxes at some of their power plant sites, they quickly agreed. Captive-born peregrines were released at the plants and quickly took a liking to the new nest boxes. The program remains a rousing conservation success and today, 45-50% of all peregrines in Wisconsin are born at power plant sites.

The work is far from over, however, as peregrines remain endangered in Wisconsin. To continue the progress made, each young falcon born at these sites is banded by scientists so their progress can be tracked and studied throughout their lifetimes. These banding events are harmless to the birds but, in addition to the future scientific value, offer members of the public a rare chance to see this powerful species up close. When two of us at Riveredge received an invite to a banding at the Port Washington Generating Station, we were awed by the adorably ferocious power of these young falcons and in all the Riveredge connections we noticed in the room that day.

Take Mike Grisar. Mike, We Energies’ Principal Ecologist, works hand in hand with Greg to monitor and oversee the peregrine project and to take the work into classrooms as a conservation teaching tool. Mike also sits on Riveredge’s Board of Directors and is a key advisor for our research and conservation work. In a story similar to those we hear from many Riveredge Kids, Mike first visited Riveredge on a class trip in first grade grade and credits his time here as part of the foundation for his love of the outdoors, a love he has dedicated much of his work and personal and life to.

Fittingly, Mike succeeded Noel Cutright as Principal Ecologist at We Energies. Noel, who passed away in 2013, was foundational to the creation of the peregrine project, in addition to a huge range of other environmental initiatives throughout the state and beyond. He’s also a beloved member of the Riveredge Family- Noel, who was recently inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, sat on our Board and, in addition to many other efforts here, helped create the Bird Club that today bears his name. Noel’s legacy was well represented at the banding by members of the Wisconsin Ornithological Society, an organization he headed as President twice, and by four Noel J. Cutright interns the organization is sponsoring who will be joining Riveredge for the summer to research and contribute to the statewide Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II initiative. 

Vivian Kolosso, Riveredge Kid, examines the falcons and the banding process up close.

It’s the last Riveredge connection that might have most inspired us that day, though. It came in the form of Vivian Kolosso’s beaming face as she shook with excitement about her chance to witness the birds and banding in action. Vivian’s grandmother won two spots to the banding at Riveredge’s annual Farm Dinner fundraiser and knew it would make the perfect unique gift for her granddaughter, a Riveredge Kid who loves wildlife and science. “This is an amazing experience, and it just makes you feel good to see this live and in action,” Vivian told us after the banding.

That’s the Riveredge spirit- one Riveredge Kid inspiring another. Don’t be too surprised when you see Vivian featured here again some day. A talented writer with a love of Jane Goodall, Vivian told us she thinks she might one day want to be a wildlife writer. We can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

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