Blizzard, new peregrine falcon, is a fighter
As the fluffy baby peregrine falcon was held aloft "Lion King"-style, it was easy to imagine every heart in Mayo Clinic’s Gonda Building auditorium melting. It was that darn cute.
What Blizzard, the newly named baby chick, was thinking was less clear, but judging from its continuous squawking, self-expression was not going to be a problem.
Just moments before, Blizzard had been taken for the first time from its nest box atop the Mayo Building while its protective parents swooped and dived overhead. The peregrine parents, Hattie and Orton, were understandably worried, but they needn’t have been. The humans only wanted what was best for the bird.
It was "banding day" at Mayo Clinic, a nearly annual feature of the clinic’s peregrine falcon program.
As the crowd inside the auditorium looked on, Jackie Fallon, vice chairwoman of operations of the Midwest Peregrine Society, banded the bird’s legs. The bands help biologists study the bird’s migratory patterns and life cycles. Logan Allison, 12, of Waterloo, Iowa, drew a piece of paper to give Blizzard her name. The bird was soon restored to its nest.
Fifty years ago, peregrine falcons were an endangered species, a bird population decimated by pesticides and poisons such as DDT. Their soaring silhouettes no longer existed east of the Mississippi. Today, they are a fully recovered species, thanks to programs like the one at Mayo Clinic whose rooftop nests have produced nearly 60 chicks over the last three decades.
"Peregrines have made a tremendous comeback since the 1960s," Fallon said. "There is no other species that has bounced back to that degree in such a short time period."
The name Blizzard seemed appropriate. It suggested a survivor’s instinct for braving harsh weather conditions. Though four eggs were laid, Blizzard was the only one to hatch and survive. Fallon also attributed the chick’s survival to her mom, Hattie, who huddled over her eggs to protect them from snowstorms and lashing rains.
"This chick is definitely a survivor," Fallon said. "I’ve never watched the camera as much as I have this year. We had such horrific blizzard conditions. Her mom did such a good job keeping that chick warm."
A hopeful outcome was all the more desired, given that all four chicks hatched last year died after ingesting food believed to be tainted with poison. Peregrine falcons are a bird-eating species, and it is believed that the chicks may have been fed prey by their parents that consumed some poison beforehand.
As the fastest birds on the planet, peregrine falcons are capable of reaching speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. They can appear as a dot in the sky and be on top of you within seconds, said Thomas Behrens, Mayo’s unit head of facilities operations, who has known the experience.
They are also territorial. Hattie and Orton have nested three straight years atop Mayo’s Gonda Building, but both spent the spring fending off intruders. Hattie fought off six different female falcons, Fallon said, and in the process, suffered a puncture wound to her eye and a scar to the side of her face.
Blizzard benefited from this fierce protectiveness — and also from being the lone surviving chick. With one mouth to feed instead of four, the chick was the object of two doting parents who made sure she was "well-fed," Fallon said.
Peregrine falcons are banded at three weeks, because they don’t know yet how to defend themselves with their beak and feet. But they learn fast.
Three weeks from now, the bird will take her maiden flight, a "dicey" time in a bird’s life. Fallon compares the moment to a novice driver being told by a driving instructor to step on the gas and drive at 200 miles per hour. Baby peregrines have been known to flutter to the ground and land in garden areas and on Second Street.
"That flight is very treacherous," Fallon said.
By August, if everything goes well, the training wheels will come off, and Blizzard will be off in search of a territory of her own. And if she does survive, credit will have to go to her parents.
"That’s the only reason these chicks survive," Fallon said. "If you don’t have adults that are protective, those babies are not going to make it."