BY JANET WISSINK
The long-awaited spring has finally arrived, bringing with it warm sunshine and the cheerful singing of birds. Why do the birds sing so heartily in spring? And why do many of the male birds molt into their more colorful feathers once again? Because it is time to establish nesting territories and attract a female.
There is one special pair of birds that I will be watching for: Deborah and Talon. Yes, they have names and were tagged as chicks. Their story begins with Hondo, a Peregrine Falcon who became a local celebrity when he and his mate, Deborah, chose the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh for their new home territory back in early 2011. The University promptly constructed and mounted a nest box on top of Gruenhagen Conference Center. Fortunately, Hondo decided he liked the nest box, and Deborah agreed. With a webcam placed in the nest box, students and the public were able to watch as the eggs were laid and hatched, and see the chicks grow up and fledge.
Peregrine Falcons had suffered population declines similar to that of Bald Eagles. There was widespread DDT pesticide use in the 1950s and 60s and, until it was finally banned in 1972, it is believed to have been a major contributor to their declines. The pesticide passed up through the food chain, affecting birds of prey. Their eggs became brittle from calcium loss, and many egg clutches never hatched.
Years after the DDT ban and other governmental protections, Peregrine populations have been rebounding well in many parts of North America, but here in Wisconsin they are still considered endangered. Although Peregrine Falcons had previously been spotted migrating through here, it may have taken the nesting of a captive pair of Peregrines in 1988 to jumpstart Wisconsin’s falcon repopulation. The number of new nesting sites continues to grow throughout the state. In 2009, our Hondo was raised and banded at a Sheboygan site. Deborah was produced the same year farther south in Evanston, Illinois.
In 2012, Hondo and Deborah returned to raise their second brood. But that summer, Hondo was believed to be out on a morning hunting run to feed his and Deborah’s young when he collided with a vehicle along Highway 41 in Oshkosh. Luckily, a Good Samaritan found him and he was eventually transported to Aves Wildlife Alliance, a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility in Neenah. He had sustained injuries to his right wing and leg. Initially, the hope was that the injuries were not substantial, and that he could be released within a short period to help Deborah finish rearing their young, but x-rays revealed fractures in his shoulder and collarbone areas. Hondo was hospitalized for several months at Aves and then transferred to a falconer for flight conditioning and further evaluation for an additional several months.
Falcons need to be able to tuck their wings in order to dive at high speeds (called “stoops”) that can exceed 200 mph, and from great heights of up to 3,000 feet. It is essential for them to be able to hunt this way in order to survive in the wild. Hondo has a permanently reduced range of motion in his right shoulder due to his injuries and lingering arthritis. He was deemed not releasable.
When a wild animal cannot successfully be released back into the wild, especially an adult of a highly excitable species like a Peregrine Falcon that has lived its life in fear of humans, it can be a difficult transition or even an unethical decision to keep them in captivity. Sometimes humane euthanasia is considered over a painful life in captivity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have guidelines that aid and often govern these important decisions.
Hondo’s temperament has been encouraging, and the falconer and the staff at Aves Wildlife Alliance have made suitable progress towards his continued life in captivity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed, and Aves Wildlife Alliance has recently been granted an educational bird permit for him. With continued training, they will be able to use him as an ambassador of native wildlife in future educational programming.
Deborah has continued to return to the UW Oshkosh nest box. Last year, she produced a clutch of four eggs with her new mate, Talon. Talon was hatched and raised in another successful Peregrine nesting site in Green Bay.
Oshkosh has been recognized as a Bird City since 2011. The Peregrine nest box and webcam at the University in 2012 helped the city qualify for High Flyer status when the renewal application was submitted. As a Bird City, we celebrate International Migratory Bird Day at Oshkosh Bird Fest on May 3.
Special thanks to Tim Kneeland for sharing Hondo’s story. Tim is a fulltime certified veterinary technician and a volunteer state licensed wildlife rehabilitator. He and his family assist Aves Wildlife Alliance. Currently, and thanks in part to Winnebago Audubon, he is building an enclosure on his property to foster patients from home. ν
Janet Wissink is an avid birder, President of Winnebago Audubon Society (www.winaudubon.org) and co-chair of Oshkosh Bird Fest (www.oshkoshbirdfest.com).