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How Morro Rock peregrine falcons came back from brink of extinction

Peregrine rescued after injuries near Morro Rock eyes her trainer, Merlyn Felton Nov. 1978.
Peregrine rescued after injuries near Morro Rock eyes her trainer, Merlyn Felton Nov. 1978. Telegram-Tribune

Rangers hear a variety of excuses before they issue a citation.

Last week, a Romeo climbed the morro named Morro. He was rescued from a vertigo-inducing cliff via helicopter, later arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor being under the influence.

Occasionally, thrill-seekers tumble to their death, missing the safe return trail.

Morro Rock, elevation 581 feet, is the site of one of the most spectacular environmental comebacks ever. A Dec. 8, 1970, UPI story said that the peregrine falcon was extinct east of the Rocky Mountains. Only 10 were counted in California during nesting season. Only two nests had eggs.

The fastest animal on the planet was being stalked by twin threats: Pesticides like DDT thinned egg shells, allowing them to dehydrate or be crushed under the mother. Contaminated prey accumulated deadly concentrations at the top of the food chain.

There was also a more sordid human threat, thieves. As wild numbers dwindled, wealthy falconers were said to be willing to pay from $10,000 to $25,000 per bird.

In the early 1970s, falcons nested in only two places in San Luis Obispo County: Morro Rock and in the Santa Lucia Wilderness Area called Huff’s Hole between Hi Mountain and Lopez Lake.

The Tribune files from the 1970s and 80s are filled with stories about the plight of the falcon. Success was noted when the peregrine falcon was removed from the threatened and endangered list August 25, 1999.

Brooks Townes wrote this Telegram-Tribune story May 14, 1985:

Falcon chicks swapped at Morro Rock to help rebuild population

It must have been a bit of a shock for Morro Bay’s female falcon.

Mother’s Day morning, the big peregrine falcon was rousted from her Morro Rock nest by a man in a helmet who came swinging down from the top of the Rock on a rope.

When she flew from her aerie, the big bird left behind a three-week-old chick. When she returned it was gone. The man on the rope had taken it — and replaced it with a pair of two-week-old chicks.

The morning had begun well enough for the 13-year-old mother. It was warm and sunny, the southern view from her lofty Rock home all blue sky and sea and sandpit.

Then, about 10:30, Victor Apanius rappelled the cliff above, a cage strapped to his back bearing the two downy chicks. The big female falcon did not appreciate the intrusion and let it be known, making invectives continuously as she flew around, never out of sight of her nest.

The switch was completed in minutes while a gaggle of people, necks craned, watched from below, by the bay.

Cautiously, the mother returned, circling closer until at last she landed on her driftwood front porch. She paused, glanced inside at the two youngsters where before there had been one. She surveyed the horizon, sat stock-still a moment, then hopped inside her hole-in-the-Rock home.

In a few minutes, Apanius was down. As he walked to his car, protests from the chick in the box on his back competed with the clank from his climbing hardware. His task for the morning was complete.

His efforts have become a spring ritual, an important part of the work done by some 40 people of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group.

Their aim: to help wild bird populations, especially falcons, regain the populations they enjoyed before man and his pesticides all but wiped several species off the globe.

This year, the pair of peregrines nesting on the Rock produced three eggs, said their guardian, Dean Thompson. One egg broke under the mother’s weight, its shell weakened from pesticides. The other two were taken to incubators in Santa Cruz and hatched with human help.

The week before last, Apanius climbed Morro Rock with one chick and carefully placed it in the nest.

That chick — the one he stole back on Sunday — was one of dozens of West Coast peregrines hatched this spring, a number increasing yearly, due mainly to the efforts of the Santa Cruz group and their kin in other parts of the country.

“Their shells are 26 to 30 percent thinner than normal due to the effects of DDT,” Thompson said. “If we don’t remove the eggs from the nest and incubate them, the mother’s weight will crush them or they’ll dent and won’t hatch.”

Though use of DDT has been banned in the U.S. since 1973, residues linger.

The small birds that falcons prey upon have eaten too much grain sprayed with DDT south of the border, Thompson said. “Or they ingest Kelthane, which is still legal in the U.S. and is a very close relative of DDT. When birds metabolize it, the effect is the same.”

By noon Sunday, a few dozen people had gathered at the base of the Rock, lured by the activity above — and below. In the water nearby were several sea otter.

The otter were forgotten when Apanius opened the box with the three-week-old pinfeather peregrine inside. He was to go to another nest in the county where another bird about the same age and size is being raised by another pair of falcons.

“If you put birds of different ages in the same next, the bigger bird will dominate, causing the younger one to suffer,” said Eric Wise.

Wise stood guard in 1983 at the base of the Rock, the same duty as performed this year by Thompson. He has been returning almost weekly to watch the progress of the birds this year and to help Thompson pass some time.

Guarding a nest means a long stay in one place: 24 hours a day from mid-March to mid-June, living in a car, eating out or cooking over a camp stove.

“I let Santa Cruz know when the eggs are ready to take by the behavior of the parents,” Thompson said. “If the eggs don’t hatch soon enough, the parents abandon them. The female does most of the sitting and the male, which is smaller, does most of the foraging. He brings back food about six times a day.”

Wise and Thompson estimated the chicks Apanius placed in the nest that morning would try to fledge later this month.

“They’re fun to watch,” Wise said. “When they first come out they have rubber wings. They try them out on the tip of the nest. After a while they try to fly. Usually they fly OK, but they can’t land so well.”

“They fly back and hit the Rock or fly into a bush or get stuck on a ledge with their wings out and they can’t figure out how to fold them up again. The mother is usually not too far away in case she needs to help them out.”