By Autumn Laniel
Campus Eye contributing writer
Notebooks in hand, more than 100 people waited for Andrew Weaver to bring two live birds to the stage for the 27th Annual Science Night at the Anoka-Ramsey’s Cambridge Campus. The birds were a peregrine falcon and a red-tailed hawk, both raised and trained in captivity. Weaver spoke to explain the dangers peregrines have faced, and he also presented two birds to the audience.
The Feb. 25 event drew a capacity crowd of nearly 130 people to the Cambridge auditorium, said biology instructor Mary Januschka, one of the organizers.
Weaver told the audience “you live in exceptional times, especially if you’re a raptor person!” Peregrines have recently been taken off the endangered species list because of the effort put into restoring peregrines. In the 1950s, the use of DDT on crops almost wiped out the peregrine population. The diet of a peregrine typically is song birds, but the song birds absorbed the DDT from the insects they ate. By ingesting DDT, peregrines had a very low success rate of reproduction. Weaver said “every egg that tried to incubate would break.” In 1973, the United States banned DDT, but the peregrines could not reach normal population levels without help.
Early falconers found the best way to restore peregrines is to raise them in captivity to increase the reproductive success rate. Between 1983 and 1989, around 10-40 falcons were released each year into the Minnesota wild after raising the birds in captivity. Weaver estimated it cost $500 to raise and release each falcon, but now the peregrine population is healthy and no longer suffering from the DDT.
Weaver has been a licensed falconer since he was still in high school, but he did not start dedicating his time to restoring peregrines until 2002. As an advanced placement biology teacher at Stillwater Area High School, Weaver used his permit to own raptors to create a facility to house falcons on school grounds. “We were building a facility for bird killers,” Weaver said, “and robins decide to nest there.” The captive peregrines are fed Japanese coturnix quail, which are raised by the hundreds locally in Owatanna.
The increasing levels of peregrines have not been kind to everyone. One woman in the audience complained “I’ve lost four chickens to these birds.” Weaver told the woman her best solution is to lock the chickens indoors to prevent any more from being eaten. “It’s a really tough winter,” Weaver said regarding the frigid temperatures the peregrines have been faced with. “There’s just not a lot of food around,” which is why the peregrines have resorted to eating chickens instead of their typical song birds.
Weaver brought out his peregrines one at a time, both of them attached to a chain. The birds wore a mask on their head to blind their eyesight, but Weaver removed them to show the audience their large eyes. The peregrine falcon, whom his daughter named “Pickle” calmly sat on Weaver’s hand and opened its wings on the stage when Weaver lifted Pickle up. When Weaver brought out the red-tailed hawk, it swung around wildly, hungry for the small pieces of quail Weaver had in in hand.
“We live in great times” for raptors, Weaver said. The populations of peregrines have been increasing steadily thanks to the effort falconers have put into raising and releasing healthy peregrines back into the population. “We have the fastest animal on the planet that was almost extinct,” Weaver said, “and through the efforts of folks around the country we were able to grasp that bird from the clutches of extinction.”