Mayo Clinic Falcon Class of 2023

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(ABC 6 News) – Decades of recovery efforts continue to pay off for the fastest bird in the animal kingdom.

The Peregrine falcon was on the verge of extinction in the United States. In the late 1940s through 60s Peregrines and many raptors, saw their numbers drop dramatically due to DDT poisoning.

This led to their eggs developing softer shells, that would break when their partner sat on them. In Minnesota, a breeding population of almost 40 pairs of birds was extirpated due to DDT poisoning.

In 1972 DDT was banned, and the long road to recovery began for all of our nation’s raptor populations.

Fast forward 15 years to 1987, the Mayo Clinic partnered with the Midwest Peregrine Society to put a hack box on the rook of the Mayo Building to assist with the release of 32 young Peregrine Falcons.

Decades later, the Peregrine Falcon is back in the North Star State and its habitat continues to expand across the country.

This year the Mayo Clinic Peregrine Falcon Program (MCPFP) welcomes four new chicks to its family.

Even though they were born just three weeks ago, for the most part, they are fully grown. 

“The first three weeks are all about bone and muscle growth,” Jackie Fallon, a Peregrine Falcon Biologist for Mayo Clinic said. “They’re about 80% adult size.

“Even in two or three days from 14 days to 17 days, they’ve doubled their body weight.”

Jackie Fallon has been working with the program for 36 years. Since the program’s inception, 74 chicks have been born and returned to the wild. 

But before the chicks venture out into the world, they have to go through a check-up if you will. 

Every year chicks born into the program go through their Banding Day ceremony. But since they nest atop the Mayo Building, a brave group of scientists and volunteers climb a ladder up the elevator shaft to the roof. Armed with umbrellas and sporting hard hats to protect themselves from mom and dad. 

“Very few birds are as defensive as Hattie is,” Fallon said.

Hattie and Orton have raised 24 chicks through the MCPFP. Like any mother and father, they will go to great lengths to protect their children. 

Thomas Behrens, Unit Head of Facilities Operations, has witnessed this display of love on many occasions. 

“They actually get more aggressive each year,” Behrens said. “The first couple years they’d fly within five or six feet from us, but then they’d get more success of driving us off the roof and then I got hit a couple of years ago.

“So safety wise we have to be very careful.”

One person who got to experience a falcon’s love for their children for the first time was freelance photographer Jeff Grotte. While this was Grotte’s first time meeting Hattie and Orton, he is not a stranger to photographing raptors in their natural habitat. 

“Trying to keep up with them is crazy and scary at the same time,” Grotte said. “The mother was very upset.”

Grotte first became aware of MCPFP when we has a patient at Mayo Clinic. Due to a number of heart surgeries and kidney transplants, Grotte says his time photographing raptors and other wildlife in the field is limited. So having this program where the wildlife comes to him, has been a blessing.

“This is the closest I can do to being what I wanted to be when I was a little kid,” Gotte said. “It’s therapeutic.”

Once the chicks were safely escorted to the auditorium, the banding ceremony commenced. 

Each chick was given a unique band to help MCPFP and other wildlife biologists in Minnesota track where they go and keep tabs on their health. One thing they’ve found in their years of this program is how adaptive the Peregrine Falcon can be. 

“The work we’re doing here in the Midwest especially is crucial to understanding how a species can adapt to an ever-changing landscape,” Jackie Fallon said. “We didn’t have skyscrapers in the 30’s and 40’s, now they’ve adapted to living in cities.

“So we are rewriting the ecology in understanding how a species can do in the landscape we’re giving them.”

After the chicks received their bands, Fallon confirmed the sex of the chicks. This year’s class is comprised of two girls and boys. Then came the time to name them.

Names were drawn from a hat of hundreds of name suggestions from the community. The lucky names were:

Piper, Horris, Arrow, and Genesis. 

It was a long day for the chicks. Now swabbed, weighed, banded, and named, they are back in their nest atop the Mayo Building. Waiting for their next major milestone, learning to fly. 

“People love falcons. They’ve fascinated people for generations,” Fallon said. “I hear it all the time from patients and staff about how much this program means to them,

“I’m happy to still see Mayo participate in this program 36 years later.”