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Marshall Johnson, Fargo, Published April 21 2012

Resilient peregrines of Fargo

To my family and friends, I am considered the resident “bird guy,” and you can just about imagine the wide-ranging list of questions I field at church, while mentoring with the Big Brother/Little Brother program, or at the YMCA.

Why do robins around my home crash into windows? How can I attract birds to my yard? How can I get rid of certain birds in my yard, so I just have the ones I like? Will the lack of snow affect the number of birds feeding? And so on. I love the questions, and while I am not an expert, I have the benefit of working with some of our area’s leading birders – Keith Corliss, Connie Norheim, Dave Lambeth and Evan James, to name a few. Additionally, working for the Audubon Society affords me a network of resources that’s been built up over the organization’s 100-year history; its reach knows no geographical boundaries.

With old man winter retreating and spring rushing in, as sure as the sunrise, the questions narrow down to one subject: The iconic Fargo peregrine falcons. More specifically: Where do they go for the winter? How do the same birds find their way back to the Bank of the West tower every year?

For that answer, one need look to the homing instinct of birds and something that no one can see – a superhighway in the sky that migrants like falcons can feel: The Central Flyway migratory route.

There is ambiguity in boundaries, but imagine a corridor of grasslands, wetlands and woodland landscapes stretching from the Arctic circle to the southern cone of South America; a width the size of two Texas waistlines and then some, providing critical habitat, both in the winter and summer for some of our most beloved ducks, geese, songbirds and grassland birds, guiding their life cycles.

Audubon has focused its efforts and massive network of volunteers, ornithologists, citizen-scientists and community conservationists behind a new vision that allows these flyways – Pacific, Central, Mississippi River, Atlantic – to guide our work on behalf of birds just like our Fargo falcons and the habitat that supports them.

It was not too long ago that the peregrine falcon – a dynamic bird capable of dive speeds in excess of 200 mph, exceeding 18G forces – was on the brink of being wiped off the continent, along with a long list of birds of prey, including the bald eagle. However, thanks to the efforts of conservation organizations, Congress, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, farmers and most of all, a committed and engaged public, many of these birds will be enjoyed and appreciated by many generations to come.

The falcon has been resilient and lucky. Not all birds can relocate to urban dwellings like the sleek falcon. Most birds and wildlife are dependent on specific landscapes and are burdened by multiple threats. Some of the central flyway’s most endangered habitats and birds are right here in our backyard – grasslands, diminishing at an astounding rate, CRP highly effective, yet underfunded, and wetlands, supporting not only wildlife but a way of life.

We’ll need to set our sights and ambitions high if we’re to preserve for future generations that which we cherished during our time on Earth: our natural heritage. Let us begin the heavy lifting, for where birds thrive, people prosper.

Johnson is state outreach coordinator, Audubon Dakota.

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