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Former New Kid on the Block is Now Old-School

Say “Hello” to the New Kid (Bird) on the Block

by Ron Skleney,
Community Services and Education
Willowbrook Wildlife Center Newsletter, December 2004

A new face, a young peregrine falcon, has recently taken up residence on the exhibit trail at Willowbrook Wildlife Center. We are excited to offer a home to this permanently disabled young bird which found its way to the center this past summer. Peregrine falcons were once listed as a federally endangered species but through conservation efforts and protection offered by the “Endangered Species Act,” peregrines were removed from the endangered list in August 1999. Through the dedicated work of local conservationists, peregrines have been reintroduced in the Midwest. In 1989, our Willowbrook’s Sandy Fejt became involved in efforts to reintroduce peregrines back to Chicago’s skies.

Our new peregrine — named Zeus — was brought to the center on July 7, 2004 by an Elmhurst resident. Dr. Higgs quickly realized that this was an immature peregrine falcon, most likely hatched earlier in spring. Zeus may be a young bird hatched from one of the active nests in the Chicago area. He was diagnosed with permanent vision impairment in his right eye. Although we don’t know with absolute certainty the cause of his injury, it was likely due to a collision. Vision impairment in birds compromises their ability to safely navigate while in flight as well as impacts their ability to find food. This is particularly serious in the case of raptors who hunt moving prey.

Willowbrook staff conferred and agreed that Zeus would make an important addition to the exhibit trail. It was also decided that he would be glove trained for use in Willowbrook’s education program. As a conservation message, peregrine falcons offer a compelling story that fits well with the educational messages of the raptor outreach program. Additionally, glove training this young bird would ultimately result in a calmer exhibit animal. After a recuperative period, Zeus was sent to master falconers George and Bernadette Richter for initial glove training. George and Bernadette, founders of Save Our American Raptors (SOAR), have been involved for decades in peregrine conservation. They have personally raised dozens of peregrines for reintroduction efforts throughout the United States. The Richters are frequently called on regarding matters of raptor care and husbandry. We were extremely fortunate to have them glove train this young bird for us. After just a few short weeks at SOAR, Zeus was back at Willowbrook. Once cage preparations were completed, he was moved to the exhibit trail on Dec. 8.

Exhibiting a peregrine falcon is significant for Willowbrook for a couple of reasons. As previously mentioned, the peregrine’s conservation story regarding reintroduction efforts and its slow comeback in the Midwest is an important educational message. It joins Willowbrook’s bald eagle as an example of a conservation success story.

Another more personal reason is the role of Fejt in the reintroduction of peregrines right here in DuPage County. In 1990 Sandy was shown an article calling for “hack site attendants” to monitor released peregrines from the Chicago Peregrine Release project. This project — organized in 1985 — was a collaborative effort between the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Illinois Department of Conservation, Lincoln Park Zoo and the Illinois Audubon Society. The goal of the program was to reintroduce peregrines in the Midwest with the hopes that some birds would once again breed in Illinois. These hopes were realized in 1988 when “Jingles” and “Harriet” successfully hatched two eggs on a 34th floor ledge of the Northern Trust Building in downtown Chicago. This represented the first time young peregrines were hatched in Illinois since 1951.

After completing a college level course on peregrine natural history, biology and behavior, Fejt signed on as a volunteer hack site attendant located at the College of DuPage. The College of DuPage McAninch Arts Center (virtually across the street from Willowbrook) was chosen as one of the last hack sites in 1990 for releasing young birds in the Chicago area. Hack boxes are nest boxes where young fledgling peregrines learn flying and important hunting skills in a controlled setting with trained observers monitoring their progress. Ten chicks were placed in the hack box on June 13, 1990 and were monitored and fed on a regular basis until their eventual release on June 21. “Fledgling peregrines are like little toddlers. They would spend many hours at the hack box, just flapping their wings and then eventually they would take their first flight. Our job was to document behavior and monitor their location,” noted Fejt. 

Many of the birds would continue to spend time near the hack site even three months after their release but would eventually disperse. Fejt recalls that summer well. “One of my fondest memories was observing a great blue heron fly over the pond near the Arts Center and being harassed by five young fledglings. Another significant memory from that project, although sad, was leaving at the end of a shift and observing one of our youngsters on a light pole near the tennis courts. I came in for my next shift and we discovered that he had been preyed upon by a resident great horned owl. All we found of him were a partially eaten wing and his leg band in the owl’s cast pellet. It’s unfortunate that we lost this young bird but it was a real life lesson in predator/prey relationships.”

The project’s initial phase lasted from 1986 to 1990, and 43 birds were released from four different hack sites in the Chicago area. Since 1990, the project has moved into monitoring nesting pairs. From that initial success of two young peregrines hatched in 1988, breeding success has continued. According to the Field Museum, which now monitors the area’s nesting peregrines, there are 10 breeding pairs occupying 12 different territories as of 2003.

When peregrine falcons are spotted, it is always a special sighting, whether you are a new or veteran birder. It’s thanks to local conservation efforts and the dedication of staff and volunteers with the Chicago Peregrine Release project that these birds roam our skies today. If you haven’t had an opportunity to see Zeus in his new home, please come and visit us soon.

Today, Zeus is still a raptor favorite by our center staff, volunteers and visitors.

Sandy Fejt first began working with peregrine falcons in the Chicago Peregrine Release project in 1990.

Willowbrook Wildlife Center introduced Zeus as an education raptor in his first program in 2004.
One of Willowbrook's volunteers talks about Zeus' adept hunting skills to visitors along the exhibit trail. 
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