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Peregrine falcons no longer threatened species in Illinois

CHICAGO — In the early 1950s, there were no peregrine falcons in Illinois and scientists worried that the species would disappear entirely from North America.

But officials with the Chicago Peregrine Program announced Tuesday that the quick-diving birds are flourishing in Illinois and are no longer in immediate danger.

Over the years, the peregrine falcon’s status has improved from endangered to threatened. Now the species has been removed from the state’s endangered and threatened list but is still protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, officials said.

Mary Hennen, director of the Chicago Peregrine Program, leads the 30-year-old conservation effort operated out of the Field Museum and its team in reintroducing, tracking and researching the birds.

“We’re thrilled that peregrines are doing so well, but the journey’s far from over. Now that they’re off the threatened list, in some ways, we need to work harder to make sure that they’re doing OK,” she said.

At one point, Illinois shared about 50 pairs of peregrine falcons with the entire Midwest. Now the state has 29 nesting territories, known locations holding one or two birds, 20 of which are in the city, according to the Chicago Peregrine Program.

The program spans the Midwest, but Chicago wound up being “the center for recovery,” said Angelo Capparella, an Illinois State University zoology professor.

Peregrine falcons have traditionally lived in cliffs, Hennen said, but the birds have found more modern perches in Chicago on its skyscrapers, high-rises and water intake cribs on Lake Michigan, as well as plenty of prey, like rats and pigeons.

“It’s a conservation success story,” Capparella said. “Sometimes you delist because a species is extinct, which is not a good thing. Delisting in this case is a good thing. It’s pretty exciting.”

Peregrine falcon populations are on the rise across the U.S. and in other big cities, including New York and London, Hennen said. About 300 falcon territories exist in throughout the Midwest and the bird’s migratory zones in Canada.

In 1999, the species was removed from the federal endangered species list, and have since been removed from some states’ threatened lists, Hennen said.

“Yes, it’s a great success story. I don’t want to diminish that on any front,” she said. “But it’s not going to change our program.”

Hennen realizes there’s still work to be done to protect peregrine falcons.

The U.S. still exports DDT, the pesticide responsible for the bird’s dramatic decline decades ago, and some countries where peregrine falcons migrate still use the chemical, she said.

“We can’t forget they still have that potential to decline.”