My fascination with raptors started around third grade, when I read Jean Craighead George’s iconic My Side of the Mountain...
...I imagine this book marked the start of many young bird enthusiasts love for our feathered friends, as much as it planted the seeds for wanderlust and a love of wilderness for others. (Haven’t read it? Young adult novels are great for the young-at-heart, too.)
In the novel, a young boy named Sam runs away from his family's cramped life in New York City in order to live alone in the wilderness of the Adirondacks. Along the way, his companion is a peregrine falcon named Frightful, who he has trained to help him retrieve food, but who also becomes his one steadfast friend in the wild. Sam and Frightful are inseparable. As a kid this blew my mind: who knew that raptors were so intelligent, familial, and possessed the ability to bond with humans? Of course, Craighead’s book is fiction, yet the idea of the bond between humans and raptors is something that has stuck with me since I first devoured her words as an eager elementary student.
Most Madisonians are aware of our own celebrity falcons – those who have taken up occupancy of the nest box installed on the MG&E Blount Station, just a few blocks from the state capitol building. Since 2009, several nesting pairs have raised broods in the box, and with the installation of a live cam, their daily dramas (and not-so-dramatic events, too) unfold before our eyes. (As of the posting of this article, I've mostly been watching the chicks snooze and fluff their fuzzy gray feathers...)
The falcons at Blount Station didn’t show up overnight: the nest box was installed for nearly ten years before a pair decided to call it home in 2009. Now, the return of nesting pairs and subsequent rearing of fuzzy, clumsy chicks at the MG&E site is an event that isthmus residents look forward each spring. Though it may seem like an odd site for the world’s fastest raptor to raise a family, many falcons have taken to feathering their nests on human structures: power plants, high-rises in cities like Chicago, and the outsides of factory smokestacks have all hosted falcon families. These raptors are busy making lemonade out of the lemon of disappearing natural habitat - an action that has proven essential to their survival in many regions.
Just this week, Madison Audubon director Matt Reetz and volunteer conservation photographer Arlene Koziol had the opportunity to view the banding of this year’s four tiny MG&E falcons, named Jean, Witt, Paul, and Billy after famous Wisconsin aviators. The bands will help researchers keep track of the young birds, and hopefully allow us to gain insight as to their movements and future offspring, too. As recently as the 50s and 60s, peregrine populations in Wisconsin faced serious trouble due to the use of DDT. In the 1980s, only 11 nest sites were recorded in the state. Now, there are 33 known nests. The MG&E nest box started as a classroom project for an employee’s son who is now well past his college graduation. This recovery – and the decade-long wait for falcons at Blount Station – are the proof that good conservation takes time, patience, and perseverance.
While we haven’t trained the Madison falcons how to help us hunt for food like Frightful (why would we with The Old Fashioned just up the street?) my fascination with the birds has been rekindled with the opportunity to engage with these urban residents. Just as Sam learned in My Side of the Mountain, I'm learning that the lines between wild nature of these falcons and our structured human world are often blurred.
By Emily Meier, Director of Communications & Outreach
For more information about the MG&E Falcons, view the articles below:
- MG&E's Live Falcon Cam
- MG&E's Falcon Update
- Madison.com article on Jean, Witt, Paul, and Billy
- WDNR falcon conservation plan
- Read about the Field Museum's Illinois Peregrine project
- An incredible story of one photographer's pursuit of the perfect peregrine pic