Of the three peregrine falcons released at a power substation this summer, one is dead, one is hurt and one is thriving.
High mortality rates are a given when threatened bird species are reintroduced to wild and urban areas, but the first two years of the Spokane project have produced better-than-average results, biologists say."It sounds crazy, but when it comes to recovery of endangered species, this one's really on track. We don't feel bad about it," said Madonna King, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Wildlife.
The death rate for peregrine falcons in urban and rural reintroduction programs ranges from 55 percent to 85 percent, she said.
In 1988, three of the speedy, hawklike birds were raised to independence in a hack box at Washington Water Power's Post Street substation downtown. One has since died in Mexico, King said.
No peregrine falcons were available for release in Spokane in 1989, she said.
And three were released this summer.
One of those, a male, died at Washington State University with a wound to its crop, part of the digestive tract, said Dr. Erik Stauber, a veterinary professor.
Another male hit a power pole on its first flight and fractured a wing, he said.
The thriving falcongentle, as the females are called, is delighting bird watchers, King said.
"She's doing very well and progressing at an accelerated rate," said Rod Pharness, a wildlife biologist for Washington Water Power Co. "She has made at least a couple of kills on her own, and she's spending more and more time away from the substation."
Depending on the conditions, the female could head south for the winter, he said.
King said death rates are similar in urban and rural programs. Power lines and traffic can be as deadly as predatory coyotes and eagles, she said.
"I think flying into something in a city is a common hazard with lots of wires and poles," Stauber said.
The bird with the crop injury was brought in for surgery at WSU after it was noticed having difficulty, and it died the next day, Stauber said.
"It was a freak kind of thing that happened," Stauber said.
Spokane's three-year project is a cooperative effort by the state wildlife department, the utility company and the Audubon Society, King said.
The birds are valued at $2,000 each, she said.
The project goal is to have the birds grow up and eventually nest around Spokane.
"This whole area is historically peregrine range," King said. "It may seem odd, but actually a city provides an excellent place for a peregrine falcon to make a living because there are two things - the peregrines have to have a very high commanding roost site and an abundance of prey."
Skyscrapers provide the roosts, and city birds - such as pigeons, starlings and sparrows - are the prey, she said.
The name peregrine means wanderer, Pharness said, and the falcons can be unpredictable as they travel long distances from their first homes. The birds released in 1988 could still return, he said.
"They may turn up 50 to 100 miles in another direction," Pharness said. "That's OK. It's ultimately letting the bird decide where he's going to settle and it's still contributing to the population."
Other peregrine falcon recovery programs are under way in other parts of Eastern Washington and northern Idaho, in hopes that the birds will meet and mate, Pharness said.