By Diane Wong-Kone
This is a falconer’s tale. Although scientists usually get the credit, the recovery of the Peregrine Falcon would not have been possible without the dedication and passion of falconers, whose knowledge and connection with the birds made development of captive breeding techniques possible. The successful implementation of these captive breeding techniques was critical to the success of Peregrine Falcon recovery. This is the story of Dave Jamieson, a Nevada falconer.
Falconry as a sport has been practiced since before medieval times, with knowledge and craft handed down from generation to generation. Trapping a wild bird, training it, caring for it, and hunting with it requires lifelong dedication. Falconers, like their birds of prey, can be misunderstood due to the nature of the hunt. In this story, they play the unlikely heroes in a tale of conservation.
The thrill of the flight never ceases to amaze Dave Jamieson and that is what attracted him to falconry. Peregrine Falcons, when stooping with their wings folded in a freefall, can reach speeds over 200 miles per hour. At these speeds, the G-force a diving Peregrine Falcon experiences is greater than that of a fighter jet pilot. Their aerodynamic shape, nictitating eye membrane, tubercles in the nostrils, fast heartbeat, and specialized skeletal structures are all examples of physical adaptations that allow these birds to fly at such high speeds (1). Seeing these birds chase, stoop, and perform their amazing sky aero-acrobatics, Dave knew he wanted a Peregrine Falcon, the fastest of the birds.
There was a problem, however. By the time Dave was a young man and learning to become a falconer, it was the 1960s and wild Peregrine Falcon populations had crashed. People had hunted them as pests and chicken-killers and then the pesticide DDT came into widespread use. DDT caused eggshell-thinning and eggs crushed under the weight of incubating adult birds. By the 1960s, populations of Peregrine Falcons east of the Mississippi River had disappeared, and the species was on the edge of extinction.
Given this scenario, Dave decided that the only way to get a Peregrine Falcon would be to raise one on his own, because wild falcons were so few and illegal to collect. Also, he did not want to see this magnificent bird go extinct. Unfortunately, back then, no one knew how to breed Peregrine Falcons in captivity. It was a crazy thought.
Dave had some falconer friends that helped him out. In 1952, a Life Magazine photo essay featured a young falconer named Brian McDonald and documented him trapping Peregrine Falcons on Assateague Island on the Atlantic Coast, using a live pigeon as bait (2). One of Brian’s falconer friends was Bill Shinners, who also trapped birds at Assateague Island. One day, Bill set out in Nevada to look for Prairie Falcons, and he found an arrowhead in a cave near Winnemucca. Bill named this famous archeological site Falcon Hill, after the falcon he was searching for. Bill was a good friend of Dave.
Because of this connection, Dave acquired a pair of Peregrine Falcons that had been collected along the east coast during a time before the Peregrine Falcon was listed as an endangered species. The pair of birds were not perfect. The male had a broken toe, and the female had sores on her feet. Dave took them in and cared for them, nursing them back to health.
Simply having a pair of Peregrine Falcons, however, did not mean they would breed. As it turned out, breeding Peregrine Falcons in captivity was not an easy task to accomplish. Back in the eastern U.S., scientists were slowly discovering that wild-caught birds would not breed in captivity, even as years went by. With the Peregrine Falcon population crash in the 1960s, the situation looked dim. Back in Nevada, Dave was having a similar problem with his Peregrine Falcon pair. They had eggs, but the eggs were infertile.
With natural methods not working, scientists and falconers began looking for ways to artificially inseminate female falcons so that eggs and chicks could be reared in captivity. Not surprisingly, the first attempts at artificial insemination were unsuccessful. One of Dave’s falconer friends learned how to manually extract semen from a male falcon, but that, of course, was only half of the formula. Going back to the eastern U.S., Tom Cade, ornithologist from Cornell University and founder of the Peregrine Fund, was trying to raise Peregrine Falcons in captivity, but he also had little to no success. The problem, it seemed, was that the female falcon’s oviduct needed to be inverted to apply the semen for fertilization. No one knew how to do this though.
At this point, Dave had a bright idea and called Lester (Les) Boyd up at Washington State University. Les had talked to the local poultry farmers, and from them, he learned about artificial insemination techniques for turkeys. Part of this technique included inverting a female turkey’s oviduct. Dave then had the novel idea to try this out on his Peregrine Falcons. As it turned out, the technique was fairly easy to accomplish once he knew how to do it.
Les Boyd, by the way, is probably best known for inventing the “copulation hat.” Male falcons raised in captivity imprint on their human handlers. During the nesting season, courtship behaviors like bowing and prey sharing encourage imprinted falcons to mate. The falcon handler at this point puts on a special rubber hat dimpled with shallow wells. The imprinted male falcon will mount atop the hat. Once the act is complete, the falconer collects a drop of semen into a capillary tube and stores that until a female falcon is found.
Figure 2. Left: Dave and a male Gyrfalcon. Right: After initial courtship bowing and calling displays, the Gyrfalcon mounts on top of the copulation hat worn by Dave Jamieson.
After Les showed Dave the artificial insemination techniques for turkeys, Dave tried this on his pair of Peregrine Falcons. Unbeknownst to him, however, the Peregrine Falcons had this time successfully mated. The female laid three eggs. Two chicks looked the same, but one chick looked different. Because of this, Dave knew this chick was the result of artificial insemination. Dave named this chick Artie, which is short for artificial insemination.
Artie was born around 1974. During this time, researchers and falconers all over the U.S. were experimenting with different ways to raise Peregrine Falcons in captivity, to save the species from extinction. Artie was one of the very first successes of artificial insemination of captive Peregrine Falcons.
For many years, once he matured, Artie’s semen was collected, using the techniques developed with Les Boyd, and sent out to falconers who coordinated with The Peregrine Fund’s efforts to captive raise Peregrine Falcons for release back to the wild. Artie lived to 21 years old, which is old for a Peregrine Falcon.
The efforts of the Peregrine Fund were a tremendous success. Their mission is to conserve birds of prey worldwide (3). The reintroduction of Peregrine Falcons to the wild began in 1975, and this program released 7,000 captive birds across the U.S. and Canada (4). In 1999, the Peregrine Falcon was removed from the Endangered Species List. Today, the Peregrine Fund continues its efforts on the recovery of other endangered species such as the California Condor and Aplomado Falcon.
The recovery of the Peregrine Falcon was achieved through the efforts of many people. This is a success story, but it could not have been done without the dedication of many falconers, falconers like Dave Jamieson. This is a falconer’s tale.
1. https://centerofthewest.org/2020/01/28/adaptations-for-speedy-life-style-of-peregrine-falcons/ (accessed 4/8/2022).
2. https://falconry.org/virtual_exhibits/assateague_1952/ (accessed 4/8/2022).
3. https://www.peregrinefund.org/mission-and-vision (accessed 4/8/2022).
4. https://www.audubon.org/news/peregrine-falcons-finally-return-nest-their-most-famous-us-eyrie (accessed 4/8/2022).