When Jackie Fallon was in her early teens, she read Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain.” It left a lasting impression.
The 1950s-era adventure novel features a young boy who runs away from home in New York City and escapes to the wilds of the Catskill Mountains, where he makes lasting discoveries about nature and himself.
“The book appealed to me because the boy made this connection with a peregrine falcon,” said Fallon, a zookeeper at Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. “This was the first time I was exposed to this concept or idea of falconry: that a human could have a relationship with wildlife that was completely free choice on the bird, whether it stayed or left. Even today that still amazes me.”
For Fallon, 55, the book was the beginning of her “other career” as a volunteer who has worked tirelessly for three decades on one of the state’s greatest conservation success stories — the restoration and recovery of the peregrine falcon. Involving multiple groups, including falconers, the project in the early 1970s involved releasing peregrines raised in captivity.
Today, peregrines are ubiquitous in Minnesota and the rest of the Upper Midwest. From the cliff ledges of the North Shore to the high-rises and smoke stacks of the Twin Cities, peregrines are flourishing.
“For me, being a kid from the Iron Range, to play a small part in the restoration and successful recovery of such a species is what I’m most proud of,” said Fallon, adding the peregrine was removed from the federal endangered species list in 1999. “To go from a population of zero in our region to full recovery in under 20 years is rarely heard of for an endangered species.”
Among the world’s most broadly distributed birds, peregrine falcons inhabit every continent except Antarctica. Three of its 19 subspecies reside in North America. The peregrine is the fastest animal on Earth — and perhaps its most deadly avian sky hunter. When hunting prey, typically pigeons but also ducks and other birds, peregrines can reach speeds up to 242 mph.
“Peregrines are perfectly adapted for speed,” said Fallon, a longtime master falconer. “They’re just amazing, sexy birds. Even after 30 years of working with peregrines, I never get tired of seeing them hunt, preen, sleep, bathe, feed their young, or take their first flight.”
While studying biology at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, in the mid-1980s, Fallon heard a lecture by Tom Cade of the Peregrine Fund. Like the story she read as a youth, the lecture made a lasting impression. Cade told her about the restoration efforts taking place in the Upper Midwest. Peregrines were extirpated from Minnesota to the East Coast by 1965 and listed as an endangered species in 1969. The main culprit: DDT poisoning. The agricultural pesticide was widely used after World War II and decimated certain bird populations (including other raptors like bald eagles) before it was banned by the federal government in 1972.
Upon graduation in 1988, Fallon contacted Bud Tordoff, the director of the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. Tordoff, along with Pat Redig, director of the university’s Raptor Center, were busy working on the peregrine recovery, and Fallon wanted to be part of it.
“I basically harassed him until he let me help,” laughed Fallon of Tordoff, whom she considers an indispensable mentor. “His stories, insights and deep knowledge of peregrines — I just soaked it all in. What I learned from him you can never get in a book.”
Fallon fondly remembers her all-in moment: Tordoff let her band young peregrines on top of the old Montgomery Ward Tower in St. Paul. Wearing a helmet, a male peregrine named Maverick struck her in the head. “I was hooked and I’ve never looked back,” she said.
After proving her worth as a dedicated volunteer over many years, Fallon in 2005 was promoted by Tordoff and took over his position as vice president for field operations for the Midwest Peregrine Society, a nonprofit monitoring, research and educational group.
Carrol Henderson is the retired supervisor for the nongame wildlife program for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He built the nongame program and also played a seminal role for the peregrine. He said such major conservation efforts couldn’t be achieved without devoted volunteers such as Fallon. “Volunteers like Jackie are unsung heroes,” Henderson said. “For her, it’s just not a recovery or monitoring effort. It’s a lifelong passion and devotion to the bird. For Jackie, it’s a lifestyle.”
Fallon’s many statewide annual field duties run from February to late August. She manages 50 of Minnesota’s 70 peregrine nesting territories (there are roughly 300 in the Upper Midwest), logging as many 15,000 miles in her vehicle every year. She has a small team of “devoted and unpaid volunteers” who also help. Donations from individuals and groups like the Minnesota Falconers Association help pay for gas and other expenses. Chick banding begins Monday at the Wells Fargo Plaza in Bloomington. Fallon will band alone this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fallon said she feels a deep responsibility to keep the peregrine recovery intact for future generations. She said mentors like Tordoff, who died in 2008, helped pioneer the techniques used in the peregrine recovery — techniques “now used worldwide for numerous other raptor species” — and she wants to preserve and build that legacy.
“Our work is just beginning in understanding the species in a changing environment, and to ensure it never gets to [population] levels like it did before,” said Fallon, adding humans caused the peregrine decline and “it’s up to us to keep it fixed.”
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer. Reach him at email@example.com.