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Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016

Falcons make power plant home

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Associated Electric Cooperative employee David Childers places the peregrine chicks in the hacking box.
NEW MADRID - Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. employees tend to walk these days with their eyes on the sky. Scanning the rooftops and smoke stacks, they watch for the four peregrine falcons who have made the power plant their home.

The birds are welcomed residents. In fact, they are the result of a cooperative project involving power plant employees and wildlife officials, including the Missouri Department of Conservation. The idea of introducing the once-endangered species to the power plant began several years ago.

"We were having a problem with pigeons at Industrial Park," said Dennis Meier. "We were spending a sizable amount of money to eradicate pigeons when it was suggested we get some falcons."

The falcon, Meier explained, is a bird of prey. Using speeds of up to 280 miles an hour in a dive, the falcon attacks and kills birds for its meals.

Workers put up a nesting box at the plant in hopes of attracting a falcon using the Mississippi River Flyway. When that failed, they decided to try bring in some baby falcons.

Last May, Meier and Dave Childers went to Iowa to learn how to handle the nesting falcons from Bob Anderson of Xcel Energy and Raptor Resource Project as well as staff from other utilities with successful peregrine nests.

In June a private breeder in Idaho shipped a group of one-month old birds to St. Louis on a plane. Meier, Childers, Jacques DeLisle, Kevin Ivy, Tim Pinnell and Rusty Rice began the job of raising, or "hacking" the chicks in a box on a roof at the plant.

The men took turns feeding the birds. The four young birds each received a quail a day. Fortunately for their feeders, the quail (feathers and all) are shipped to AECI frozen.

Although raised from the egg, great effort is made to keep the birds from imprinting on humans and to keep them wild. New Madrid County Conservation Agent Rodney Ivie said part of his job was to ensure the birds were healthy and remained wild.

Also Ivie oversaw the placement of two bands on each bird. One identifies the bird and where it is from while the other gives information if someone should find the bird dead. Putting the bands on the bird was an exciting moment, the agent said.

"That will be the last time anyone will handle them, it was a big point for us and big point for them," he said. "This has been a learning process for every body. I think it is great Associated has taken the lead on this and we have the opportunity to see these birds in this area."

Ivie praised those involved in the project at Associated noting they have worked hard to complete the project successfully and keep the birds from associating with humans.

After several weeks, the bars to the nesting box were removed, giving the birds their first taste of freedom.

"The first day they didn't fly, they just hopped outside around the box," recalled Meier. "The following day they began to fly. They seem to be doing real well."

For Meier, a birdwatcher, the experience is more than he could hope for. He admitted he watched the birds so much the first few days they were released his neck hurt from looking up.

"I've been birder for years but I have never witnessed a peregrine falcon," he said. Now he is watching them as they perch at the plant and occasionally try their wings. Until the birds begin hunting on their own, the AECI employees will continue to feed them.

For Rice, the environmental coordinator for AECI, being involved in the project is work and pleasure. He anticipates the falcons will eventually help rid the site of problem pigeons which can pose a health danger.

"But I really didn't know much about the falcon other than what I saw on TV," said Rice. "It has been quite a learning curve."

He isn't the only one learning and enjoying the birds. The other workers at Associated are taking an interest, too, Rice and Meier said.

"I think at first there were some doubts but now that they are here and doing well and imprinted to the area I have several people come up to me to say that they watched (the birds) do this or that today. There has been positive feedback since people can actually see the falcons learn to fly. Right now they are basically playing tag with other birds but eventually it will turn from play to hunting."

Falcons, Rice explained, mate for life. From the three males and one female currently in the nest, he expects one to become the dominant bird and take over the nest as its own, returning to live and mate there. The others would likely make their nests nearby.

"We are one of the places furthest south trying to establish this bird - if it all works out we will be bringing them back to this area," said Rice. "Eventually you may be driving down I-55 or in Illinois or at Cape Girardeau and see these birds."

And the public will know it all began with four small birds, six men and a power plant.