On a clear spring morning in 1995, I stepped off the edge of a crumbling sea cliff with joyful expectation. As a mountain climber, I was elated to be sharing the vertical realm I have come to cherish with a superlative creature variously described as the fiercest, fastest, most efficient, and best-designed of all birds. As a photographer, I hoped to symbolize the cautious optimism I felt about the future of California's coastal peregrine falcons with an image of wild-hatched chicks in a Big Sur eyrie where all breeding had failed since shortly after World War II, when DDT-induced eggshell thinning began causing massive reproduction problems in peregrine falcons, bald eagles, and brown pelicans.
I had visited this eyrie five years before to help replace dead eggs with live chicks for a 16-year California captive-breeding program that was scheduled to end in 1992, whether or not the birds were fully reproducing on their own. After my story appeared in the April 1991 National Geographic, I planned to return and cover a 1995 five-year, continent-wide peregrine survey. After opponents of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) gained power in Congress in 1994, funding cuts stopped most field monitoring in its tracks.
Rappelling below me on a separate rope was Brian Latta, a falcon biologist for the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group. Here on a wild section of the Big Sur coast, we had found four perfect eggs a few weeks earlier. Adult peregrines had repeatedly dived on us, avoiding contact at the last possible moment with a rush of air that swept across our faces. Now the cliff was so quiet that I didn't trust my perceptions of being in the same place. A wave of sadness overcame me as I reached the bookshelf-width ledge.
"It seems so different when it's lifeless," I said to Latta. "Is this really the spot?"
Latta held out sticky fragments like the dregs of a popcorn bowl and replied, "These are definitely fresh."
My photograph of those shell fragments in his outstretched palm delivers the opposite message from what Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt proclaimed to the media that month: "Once a tragic symbol of what was wrong with our environment, the peregrine is now a symbol of hope."
Babbitt announced a "notice of intent to propose delisting" the American peregrine falcon as federally endangered while large numbers of eggs were known to be still breaking along the Pacific Coast, the East Coast, and throughout the Northwest. The birds were rapidly multiplying in interior states around his Arizona home, making for convincingly high national population estimates. Even California statistics appear to support the myth of national recovery. From only two breeding pairs found during a shocking state-wide survey in 1970, the population increased to over 125 pairs in 1994. Beneath the surface, peregrine numbers represent a disturbing enigma rather than an unqualified success.
California now clearly exceeds the 120 nesting pairs suggested by the federal recovery plan, yet no distinction is made between birds born in the wild and those introduced from captive breeding. Mortality and productivity rates of introduced peregrines cannot be presumed to be equal to those of birds born in the wild. Brian Walton, coordinator of the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Group since its inception in 1975, estimates that 90 percent of California's nesting coastal peregrines may be release birds from his 16-year captive-breeding program that has introduced 800 peregrines into the skies. After captive breeding ended in 1992, only a few biologists continued to monitor the population's ability to sustain itself without supplemental introductions.
The federal recovery plan for California suggests that productivity of 1.5 young per year per nest be achieved for five years before downlisting or delisting the species. Because this level has yet to be reached or monitored, wholly delisting the species without following established procedures bodes ill for the future ability of the ESA to firmly mandate courses of action.
Though the ESA provides the vital framework to help save species in trouble, there is a public misconception that a "saved" species removed from the list is no longer in need of special treatment. The fallacy is similar to believing that a person just released from an intensive care ward counts as a healthy member of the work force. The current political climate creates extreme pressure to certify successes by fully delisting species because of sheer numbers rather than healthy populations.
As late as 1968, the peregrine was described by ornithologists as "the world's most successful flying bird" because of its unexcelled flight characteristics and unusually stable, near-global population on every continent except Antarctica. Unlike most endangered species, it suffered an abrupt population crash rather than a gradual slide toward oblivion. Dr. Tom Cade, the biologist who pioneered captive breeding efforts, calls the peregrine "a unique biological monitor of the quality of the world's environments" that tells us, by dying before our eyes, that our Earth is being poisoned.
Like ourselves, peregrines live at the top of their food chain. Fat-soluble toxins bio-accumulate in ever greater levels as they are absorbed by small organisms that are eaten by the fish and other species consumed by birds on the wing that are the peregrine's prey. In the late sixties, research pointed to DDT as the major factor in eggshell thinning. The pesticide was banned in the U.S. in 1972, and the peregrine was declared internationally endangered in 1973. By the end of the decade, the birds were on the increase, yet all along the Pacific Coast they showed high levels of contamination from not only DDT, but also PCBs and dioxins. Eggshell thinning was not improving and embryo mortality was actually on the rise.
Peregrines prey on many species that migrate to Latin America each winter where DDT is still being used. Many basic questions about DDT sources remain unanswered. Are they more U. S. based or international? Current or residual? Do they move up the food chain more through migratory prey birds or residents?
California's intense agriculture consumes about 40 percent of the nation's pesticides, including some with proven effects on birds. Between 1947 and 1971, the Montrose Chemical Company dumped residue from sloppy manufacturing that averaged 600 pounds of raw DDT a day into the ocean off Los Angeles. Parts of the ocean floor still have over 300 parts per million- the world's greatest known DDT hot spot. Biologists consider this to be the major source of toxins for peregrines breeding along the Central and Southern California coasts.
Interior California peregrines are doing somewhat better with average contamination above the egg-failure threshold. Shortly after my 1995 rappel into the failed Big Sur nest, I joined Brian Latta in Sunol Regional Wilderness east of San Francisco Bay to trap a breeding peregrine and take a blood sample. He borrowed my cell phone to call in the bird's band number and found it matched a captive-bred chick I had photographed in 1990 on Mount Diablo, 30 miles to the north, as it was being "cross-fostered" into a prairie falcon nest.
Thrilled to have another chance to honestly symbolize my cautious optimism about the species' future, I asked Latta to hold the bird up for a portrait with his hand as low as possible, so as not to show. As I shot several frames of the fiercely proud bird with a motordriven Nikon F4, Latta said he didn't want to hold it any lower because it might . . .
At that instant, the bird dug its talons into Latta's hand and broke free while I held down my finger to capture an unplanned symbol of the hand of Man behind the agony of a species. The bird dropped onto a short tether, unharmed. Latta wiped his bloodied hand, held the bird up again to release it back into the wild, and relaxed his grip. The bird blasted away like some living heat-seeking missile.