Falcons Get Glimpse of New Texas Habitat

After living in cardboard U-Haul boxes for two days, 28 endangered North American aplomado falcons got a glimpse of their new home in the rugged West Texas desert Tuesday.

VAN HORN, Texas — After living in cardboard U-Haul boxes for two days, 28 endangered North American aplomado falcons got a glimpse of their new home in the rugged West Texas desert Tuesday.

Chirping like hungry seagulls, the birds flapped their narrow wings and fluttered around the boxes lined with straw and the remains of Japanese quail, the snack their handlers fed them during the 1,360-mile ride from Boise, Idaho, in the back of a minivan. Groups of the birds were lifted into small wooden boxes that will be home until they get their first shot at flight in about a week.

Part of the nearly two-decade-old Peregrine Fund plan to return the birds to their natural habitat, 126 aplomado falcons are to be released in about 10 West Texas locations this year. The fund started as an effort to replenish peregrine falcons, which has succeeded.

The aplomado falcons -- 12 inches to 16 inches long with a wingspan from 2 1/2 feet to 3 feet -- disappeared from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona about 50 years ago, and raptor biologist Bill Heinrich said it's unclear why.

Now Heinrich hopes there are enough survivors to mate and revitalize a species listed as endangered since 1986, but he only expects half of those released this year to make it. When they reach 40 weeks and leave the "hack box," a white plywood structure protecting them from roaming cattle and other prey by a narrow strip of electrified tape, the aplomado falcons will have to learn to fly and hunt.

"Sometimes they won't be a good enough hunter and will starve to death," Heinrich said, adding that others may become prey themselves while learning how to survive.

First brought back to South Texas in 1995, the aplomado falcons are no longer released in that area because dozens of pairs are nesting there, Heinrich said. West Texas releases started in 2002, and researchers should be able to determine if they were successful within months.

"They don't start mating for three or four years, so it didn't make sense to track them," Heinrich said.

Now monitors will keep tabs on the birds, each marked with ankle bracelets from Heinrich's group and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, to get a count of how many survive and stay in the area.

Biologists have been trying to bring the falcons back to the open desert for nearly 20 years. But the effort didn't gain enough support until 1999, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service implemented a "Safe Harbor" program that guaranteed private landowners would not be responsible for accidental damage to habitats for endangered species.

Jackie Means, whose family owns and operates the Moon Ranch, one of the sites where birds were released Tuesday, said her family would have been hesitant to let Heinrich bring the birds to their 88,000-acre cattle ranch without the federal program.

"From the get-go we have been interested in participating," Means said. "But we would have had a really hard time without Safe Harbor."

Bob Cook, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the 1999 federal law was the best thing that could have happened for wildlife conservationists in Texas.

"It encourages people not only to provide and protect good habitat, but it protects them too," Cook said.

Heinrich said the restoration program may soon extend to New Mexico, possibly followed by Arizona. It is likely to take a decade for the aplomado falcon to be removed from the endangered list, Heinrich said.

Source: Associated Press

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