The birds inside the beige transport cage are silent until the door opens. With a gloved hand, Greg Septon reaches inside and pulls out a puzzled peregrine falcon chick about three weeks old. He looks like a giant cotton ball, covered in all-white fluff, with long cartoonish feet and a beak too big for his head.
Immediately it starts to creak. Septon holds the bird on his back and places it gently on a towel as he flaps his underdeveloped wings in protest. Then he places a corner of the towel over the bird’s head. Simple, but effective – without the ability to see the humans gathered around, the bird calms down.
Now the work can begin. Septon grabs two sets of metal bands to wrap around the bird’s legs. It is engraved with identification numbers that allow it to be tracked throughout its life.
Bird banding is a new spectacle for the half-dozen spectators inside the Port Washington Power Plant’s conference room. But for Septon, who runs the Wisconsin Pilgrim Recovery Program, it’s a yearly routine. Each spring, he travels to several dozen nesting sites across the state in a frantic race to band every chick when they are between 18 and 24 days old.
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“You go past 24 or 25 days of age and these birds become more mobile,” says Septon. “And you could inadvertently scare one out of the nest box and it could fall off and die.” Any child under 18 days old, and it is difficult to tell them apart by sex – an important factor, as females are larger than males and need larger bands for their legs.
Septon has banded more than 1,300 peregrines since his recovery efforts began in 1987. Today, more than 30 nest boxes rest atop power plants, factories and office buildings in Wisconsin, mostly in the urban areas. Pilgrims – once on the brink of extinction – have learned to settle in these man-made habitats. And year after year, they come back.
Peregrine falcons are ruthless hunters, sealing their place at the top of the food chain by regularly eating other birds. If you peek inside their nests, it’s not unlikely to see the scattered wings of terns and pigeons or the headless bodies of blue jays. Falcons are known for their signature hunting dive – maneuvering at dizzying speeds of over 200mph to grab a meal in the air with their talons.
Yet predators were once the prey of human inventions. Shortly after World War II, the chemical DDT was introduced as an agricultural insecticide. DDT exposure has wiped out basking sharks and other hunters like bald eagles and ospreys from the high cliffs they once called home. The shells of their eggs became thin and easily broken, and hatching new generations was an impossible task.
In the mid-1960s, not a single peregrine falcon lived east of the Mississippi River. “When I was little, there were no peregrine falcons here,” recalls Septon, a native of Racine. “In high school, I dreamed of putting a dome over Racine’s quarry and having pilgrims nest in those cliffs…the man-made cliffs.”
In addition to peregrine falcons, Septon was also interested in other large birds. As a teenager, Septon would climb trees and ring horned owls and red-tailed hawks. In 1976, he got a job as a taxidermist for the Milwaukee Public Museum. While working at the museum he bonded with others who were enthusiastic about restoring peregrine falcons to Wisconsin and in 1987 Septon led a captive banding program to bring the birds back to the state.
In 1988, Milwaukee became the first city in Wisconsin since the 1960s to see a successful Pilgrim’s Nest. Septon began building nesting boxes for the birds, finding high places for them to nest in urban areas, on top of power stations, office buildings and factories.
Since then, birds have made a comeback. They are still on Wisconsin’s endangered species list, but their numbers have jumped from zero to at least 43 breeding pairs; Septon believes there were 24 to 30 breeding pairs in the state before DDT was introduced.
“Over the past 30 years, no one in Wisconsin has had a greater impact on progress toward peregrine falcon recovery than Greg Septon,” says Sumner Matteson, avian ecologist with the Department of Natural Resources. Septon shares his data on basking shark populations with the DNR to help them track the birds’ recovery.
The nature of the program is “unique,” adds Rich Staffen, MNR conservation biologist. Most bird recovery programs are run internally at the DNR, but Septon works independently with private and public organizations to restore bird numbers.
Yet the return of the falcon is not a one-man achievement. Over the years, dozens of businesses and volunteers have helped fund and run the nest boxes. Many get involved in events like chick banding, naming contests, and educational outreach.
WEC Energy Group hosts four nest boxes at its power plants in Oak Creek, Milwaukee, Port Washington and Rothschild. Prior to COVID-19, the company invited schools and youth organizations to observe chick banding. “Even if it only affects one [student]they are the future environmentalists and stewards we need to carry on environmental traditions,” says Mike Grisar, who as head of WEC Energies’ environmental team helps manage the company’s birdhouses.
Birds also leave an impact on people within businesses. At Molson Coors in Milwaukee, development brewer Emily Harrison watches a box atop the 12-story building with the large red Miller sign. The nesting season is an exciting time for her and her colleagues.
“It’s like the whole campus comes to life,” Harrison describes. “Everyone is listening, especially when the eggs are hatching or waiting to be laid. It’s just such an exciting sense of community all around.
Cameras placed in birdhouses give virtually anyone, inside or outside the company, a front row seat to bird life. It comes with its share of dramatic moments, like seeing prey torn apart in the nest, or even a fight between two territorial peregrines.
Every year, Harrison helps run a contest to name the chicks. A 2020 chick, Brew, was recently spotted nesting in Minneapolis.
But this is not the greatest distance traveled by pilgrims. Septon says Wisconsin-born hawks have been spotted in Austin, Texas; New York and even Barquisimeto, Venezuela.
“Pilgrims do not know geographical boundaries.” said Septon. “It’s just a big world.”