On Monday, about 70 people gathered to see and celebrate another generation of peregrine falcons. Local birdman Tim Driscoll banded four peregrine chicks, weighed them, checked them for parasites, named them and showed them off.
The crowd included children and adults, professors with doctorates and distinguished research careers and casual bird lovers.
Everyone seemed entranced by the peregrines and by their presence in Grand Forks.
We are not the first to be smitten by the peregrine falcon. Arguably, the peregrine is the most powerfully evocative bird in human history.
Millennia before Americans chose the eagle to represent, the Egyptians seized on the falcon as a symbol of the power of both state and religion, a kind of dual status that no other bird has ever enjoyed.
We can’t be certain that the birds the Egyptians held sacred were peregrine falcons. Peregrines do occur worldwide. In modern times, they have been found nesting on cliff sides facing the Nile River. They often spend winters in the Nile Delta.
Whether that was the case in ancient times, we can’t know.
That several species of falcon occur in modern Egypt complicates the issue. Probably the ancient Egyptians didn’t distinguish between the species, but we can’t know for sure.
But we know they were smitten by the falcon.
Horus, one of their principal deities, was a falcon-headed god, and the pharaoh, supreme in earthly power, wore a headdress resembling a falcon on state and sacred occasions.
Horus was closely associated with the sun. Peregrines use the sun in their hunting forays, often diving on prey with the sun behind them, essentially blinding their targets. The Egyptians imagined that falcons dove out of the sun itself.
They were equally impressed with the falcon’s speed, and this fascinates us moderns, as well. It may be that the falcon is the world’s fastest creature. You can get into an argument about that. Certainly, it is capable of great speed, perhaps as great as 200 miles per hour in a dive. Some argue that the bird neither creates nor controls the speed of a fall. Yet the falcon clearly does influence the rate of fall by using its wings as accelerators and as brakes.
These characteristics are but part of the long-standing appeal of these birds.
Paradoxically, perhaps, they are esteemed as much as birds of civilization as they are as birds of the wilderness. They can be trained as hunting falcons, and they demonstrate strong loyalty to trainers. This made them popular in the Age of Chivalry. Frederick the Great was a keen appreciator of peregrines. They were among the most valuable of birds throughout the Middle Ages.
Peregrine falcons continue to demonstrate this loyalty, but not so much to individual humans. Falcons are faithful to places, as the pair that nests on the UND water tower repeatedly has shown. Chicks raised here have dispersed widely, both in migration, which can take them to South America, and in nesting. They’ve chosen sites around the mid-continent, including Fargo and Winnipeg.
So, in the peregrine, we meet a bird that satisfies two great human yearnings—the desire to roam about and the desire to have a special place.
The falcon’s choice of UND’s water tower might seem a strange one, but it is very much in keeping with falcon tradition. Generations of falcons chose nesting sites on the faces of cliffs, and some still do. Others have adapted to manmade structures. Essentially, what the falcon wants is a high perch with a good view. It helps if the nest site is partially shaded; east-facing cliffs are favored.
Humans attempting to rescue peregrines have lured them to structures such as UND’s water tower by placing nest boxes. The falcons readily accept these, and their numbers are increasing worldwide.
The UND falcons certainly have made their contribution.
This has been possible only with the connivance of humans, notably Dave Lambeth, who first imagined the possibility of attracting falcons to Grand Forks, and Driscoll, who has made himself the go-to guy regionally for all things peregrine. He’s helped establish the birds here—a place, it must be said—where they hadn’t nested before. The Red River Valley utterly lacked structures that would have appealed to peregrine falcons. The only North Dakota nesting records before 2000 were from buttes in the Badlands in the state’s southwestern corner.
But now the falcons are with us, and last week’s banding party was a small and distant echo of the respect and veneration that peregrines have enjoyed through millennia of time.