Falcons on the Rise in South Texas

Crouched in their nest in a towering yucca, three hungry aplomado falcon chicks await their next meal. Soon their mother soars in with a small bird clutched in her talons. She pauses for a moment, peering intently for any sign of danger. Sensing no immediate threat, she picks up the prey with her beak and begins feeding.

The avian morsel is difficult to identify, particularly since it has been plucked and decapitated prior to delivery. She deftly tears the bird into bite size chunks for her two week old chicks, careful to see that all three get their fair share.

She occasionally pauses in her tearing and searches for any encroaching peril, but quickly returns to distributing the final portions. It takes approximately seven minutes for the hungry threesome to complete their meal, and then the female lifts off to resume the hunt.

When the Spaniards first traversed the vast grasslands of Texas they beheld a strikingly beautiful falcon perched on yuccas or in the uppermost branches of scattered trees. The elegant bird was dark gray on the upper half of its body with a black "cummerbund" across its chest and cinnamon colored thighs. The called it the aplomado, which is a Spanish term meaning gray or lead colored.

The northern aplomado falcon once occupied a significant portion of the American Southwest. Before the 1930's the species was regarded as fairly common throughout the coastal prairie of Texas and the interior grasslands of the western part of the state and on into New Mexico.

Prior to reintroduction efforts in Texas, the last know breeding pair in the United States nested near Deming, New Mexico in 1952. After this time, no aplomoado nests were known to exist in the United States until breeding pairs became established in 1995 as a result of reintroduction efforts.

The aplomado falcon vanished from South Texas more than 50 years ago, but thanks to a cooperative effort between the Peregrine Fund, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife and private landowners, the endangered falcon is once again thriving along the coastal prairie.

Aplomados disappeared because of a combination of habitat destruction, egg collecting and harmful pesticides. Falcon eggs have been prized by collectors for centuries because of their rarity and beauty. Many falcon eggs are quite colorful, often having rich cinnamon and reddish hues. More than one hundred eggs were collected in South Texas between 1888 and 1915.

After about an hour siesta, the chicks awaken to another meal being airlifted to their yucca top nest. Aplomados are primarily avian hunters, and once a gain a small bird is on the menu, possibly a red-winged blackbird.

The nest is located on the edge of the Bahia Grande basin, north of the Port of Brownsville. This tract of approximately 10,000 acres of coastal prairie was purchased by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service several years ago and is home to at least two nesting pairs of aplomados. The falcons require a vast territory, and one pair may hunt an area of 5,000 acres or more.

As the female tears the bird for her offspring, a metal band is visible on her left leg. The numbers on the band reveal that she was released in 1997 at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, some fifteen miles north of where she is raising her chicks.

"She has at least three offspring that are currently breeding in the area," said Paul Juergens, Peregrine Fund Field Biologist. "Two males and a female that she raised are now paired up, so she has been a very productive bird over the years."

In 1978 three private groups including the Peregrine Fund, Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group began to develop a captive breeding and reintroduction program for the aplomoado falcon. Between 1978 and 1988, 25 nestlings were collected from several populations in Mexico to form the nucleus of a captive breeding program.

The Peregrine Fund modeled its species recovery effort on the successful reintroduction of the peregrine falcon across its former nesting range in the U.S. From their headquarters in Boise, Idaho, the Peregrine Fund began an intensive program to breed aplomado falcons for release into the wild.

The propagation effort has been so successful that since 1993 more than 1,000 captive bred falcons have been released at a dozen locations along the coast from Rockport to the Rio Grande. "We had 44 breeding pair last year, and the production was great from those pairs," said Bill Heinrich, Species Restoration Manager for the Peregrine Fund. "I think we are going to have a few more this year, but our time and efforts are stretched at this point and we probably won't locate all the nests."

With natural attrition, even in the best of circumstances, raptors typically lose 65% of their numbers before reaching one year of age. However, biologists feel that a known population of more than 40 breeding pairs bodes well for the success of the reintroduction effort. Considering the vast territory the falcons have dispersed to, biologists also believe that there are more pairs than have been observed.

Since the South Texas restoration effort is nearing sustainability, for the first time in more than a decade, the Peregrine Fund did not release falcons along the coast last year. They are now concentrating their efforts on re-establishing the birds in West Texas. A total of 139 aplomado falcons were released at six sites on private ranches in the trans-Pecos region last year.

"We are just starting our releases in West Texas this year," Heinrich said. "The breeding season was a little late here in Boise, but we are planning on releasing over 100." Peregrine Fund biologists are also finalizing plans with the state of New Mexico to release falcons and hope to begin restoration in 2007.

"I think aplomados are going to be one of the next birds to come off the endangered species list," Heinrich said. "I don't think there is any question, whether it's six or seven or ten years, it's going to happen."

The successful restoration of the aplomado falcon is a tribute to the cooperation between the Peregrine Fund, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife and private landowners. There are now more than 1.8 million acres of private land enrolled in the Aplomado Safe Harbor program in South and West Texas. This program provides private landowners with federal guarantees that the presence of the falcons will not result in additional restrictions.

As dusk approaches, the female alights on a yucca spear next to her brood. For more than half a century this was a sight unavailable to Texans, but the aplomado falcon has returned to its historic home. She settles in to keep watch over her young, and for several minutes maintains her vigil. The vast coastal prairie sweeps away to the horizon seeming to extend forever, broken only by yucca and mesquite. It is an enthralling tableau, as little has changed in this corner of South Texas since the Spaniards first encountered the aplomado centuries ago. The falcon stirs from her reverie, and gracefully soars away. Perhaps, there is time for one final hunt before nightfall.

Other Stories

Copyright 2007 Richard Moore