LA CYGNE, Kan. — On a recent sunny June morning, it's business as usual at the power plant in La Cygne, a two-hour drive north from Joplin along U.S. Highway 69.
Well, not entirely usual. At 7:30 a.m., as many of the plant's employees are still arriving for work, the littlest critters who make the plant their home have been plucked temporarily from their nest so they can be tagged. It's part of a national project that aims to protect and preserve one of the country's better-known bird species — the peregrine falcon.
Conservationists around the state are working to band newly hatched peregrine falcon chicks to further their restoration in a part of the country from which they were once nearly eradicated.
But they may have their work cut out for them this year. At the La Cygne nest, only three chicks hatched from a clutch of five eggs, and two of the babies are unlikely to survive their first year because of disease. Another regional nest, monitored on camera through Ameren Missouri and the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, lost the chicks that managed to hatch this spring when the adult female failed to return to feed them.
It's a pattern that Joe DeBold, an urban wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, has seen play out nearly everywhere this spring. Cold, rainy weather permeated the Midwest and persisted for weeks at a time, dampening nests of birds of all species and making it more difficult for them to successfully incubate their broods.
"Any bird was just in peril for nesting," he said. "It's just a terrible year because of the rainfall and the cold that goes along with it."
Recent research supports that claim. A study of insect-eating birds published in March suggests that rainy springs lead to poor growth of nestlings, revealing that the body mass of tree swallow chicks "declined substantially" as rainfall during the nesting period increased by nearly 10 millimeters. And a 2018 study of grassland birds found that wetter-than-normal conditions during the active breeding season reduced nesting success.
Jeff Meshach, a deputy director with the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, said it "has not been a great year" for his nests, either.
"If we had five chicks in every box, we'd be the happiest people in the world, but that's not the way nature works," he said.
Banding the chicks
DeBold, who helps lead Missouri's peregrine falcon conservation program, monitors 11 nests in western Missouri and eastern Kansas, and he'll band chicks at eight of those nests this spring. The nest at the La Cygne power plant, operated by Evergy Inc., was placed there in 2015 or 2016, and the mated pair raised four chicks last year.
He chooses to band at this nesting site, although it's located in Kansas, because of the ease with which adult falcons move throughout the Midwest. In other words, a falcon that's tagged in Kansas could well take up residence in Missouri and vice versa. In fact, one of the falcons he banded in 2015 in Kansas City is a confirmed resident of downtown Dallas, and two parents currently occupying nest boxes in Kansas City have tags from Omaha, Nebraska, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
This year's La Cygne chicks arrive in a ground-floor lunchroom inside the generating station, huddled together in a bucket. The first chick, a 25-day-old fluffball with eyes and talons, is lifted out and plopped onto a table, where it promptly begins squawking indignantly. The roomful of employees, gathered to watch the banding, lets out a collective "awww."
But it's clear that something's wrong with the remaining chicks. They sit quietly on the table, their beaks and eyes swollen. Whispers spread through the room: "What happened? Are they OK?"
DeBold says they appear to be suffering from an infection, perhaps from having eaten rancid meat. Without the fully developed immune system of an adult bird, there's little they can do to fight it. And it would be folly for a human to try to rehabilitate them because only the chicks' parents can teach them to hunt for prey from the air, a skill they would need in order to survive as adults.
"At this stage, all we can do is band them and let nature be nature," DeBold says. "I'd for sure give them a chance in nature before (humans got involved) because nature is majestic."
And so the banding begins. Each chick — one female named Bella and two males named Phoenix and Volt — get two bands, a federal tag for the right leg and a Midwest Peregrine Society tag for the left leg. The bands are sized differently according to the chicks' sex (female falcons have larger legs than males), and they'll stay on for life. Each tag is colored and numbered to help identify individual birds.
The entire process takes less than half an hour, and the chicks are taken back to their nest, which is in a smokestack at the La Cygne power plant. As the babies are returned, one of their parents watches nearby, glaring at the utility workers.
Preparing for falcons
Among the observers was Becky Heffren, environmental coordinator with Liberty Utilities-Empire District in Joplin. Liberty recently installed peregrine falcon nest boxes at its power plants on State Line Road and in La Russell, with plans for a third at its Riverton, Kansas, location.
No falcons have taken up residence at Liberty's boxes yet, but that's no cause for concern — MDC officials say it can take a year or two for nests to become established.
But Heffren wanted to see how the banding worked at La Cygne in anticipation of partnering with MDC for the same process when and if falcons arrive at Liberty's nests.
"I did want to see the process and get an understanding of how the banding worked," she said. "It was a good opportunity. If (falcons) do establish nests in our boxes, we will work closely with MDC to document when the eggs hatch and coordinate a banding event and naming ceremony."
Liberty likely will have to wait until next spring to see if that happens. Heffren said MDC has recommended that the utility wait at least a full year to see if a mated pair takes ownership of one of the nests before trying any baiting methods.
"From what we know, (the nests) are in a good shape, and MDC has indicated they're in good locations and in a good flyway," he said. "I'm assuming that we will just observe the nests next year, and then if nothing happens, we might think about some additional things."
As optimistic as Heffren is about the peregrine falcon in Southwest Missouri, another avian species that the utility has a vested interest in helping — the osprey — seemingly fell victim to many of the same weather-related issues that plagued the La Cygne falcons.
It was a difficult spring for the mated pair of osprey on Liberty's Osprey Cam, which gives viewers a glimpse of a nest box at Stockton Lake. After several seasons of successfully raising four chicks, the pair enters this summer without any chicks at all. Of the four eggs that were laid, two were displaced during a storm and rendered unviable, and a third disappeared. The remaining egg hatched a chick that apparently lived only a few days.
'They're coming back'
Despite the rough spring and the subsequent casualties, DeBold is generally hopeful for the future of the peregrine falcon in Missouri. The state launched its peregrine falcon recovery program in 1991, and now, less than three decades later, DeBold aims to get the bird delisted as an endangered species in Missouri next year.
"I think the trends are showing they're coming back and the population is growing all the time," he said.
Peregrines have historically nested in Missouri in the bluffs along the Mississippi, Missouri and Gasconade rivers, separating themselves from other avian species for their affinity for nesting in rocks rather than trees. They are the fastest living animal on the planet, flying at speeds of up to 200 mph in order to catch their prey, usually other birds, from the air.
The original falcon population in the Midwest and eastern U.S. was extirpated in the 1950s from the use of DDT and other pesticides. By 1973, the peregrine falcon was added to the U.S. list of endangered species.
Restoration efforts, including those in which MDC and several Missouri utility companies are involved, began soon thereafter. The Minnesota-based Midwest Peregrine Society, a coalition of state agencies and nonprofits, works to monitor known falcon nests and band chicks each year to track the birds' numbers and movement.
Peregrine falcons today still nest in cliffs and bluffs, but approximately two-thirds of the nests under observation by the Midwest Peregrine Society now are located on manmade structures such as buildings, smokestacks and bridges. That changes little from year to year, meaning that the birds are increasingly reliant on humans to survive, the society said in a 2015 report.
DeBold agrees, adding that it's proof of the "symbiotic relationship" that bird and man have formed.
"It is the human that's providing the habitat for the bird, and it's the bird that provides nuisance control for the human," he said.
'An incredible recovery'
Meshach has worked with peregrine falcons for more than 30 years, since he lucked into what was supposed to be a three-month internship at the World Bird Sanctuary in 1985. It was during that internship that the sanctuary hacked its first falcons, or released captive-born birds into the wild, and he was hooked.
Since then, he has watched the peregrine falcon population slowly but steadily return to St. Louis and the rest of the state. He now monitors eight pairs of adults in the greater St. Louis area, and he bands chicks each spring at most of those nests.
This spring, he's already banded eight, with an additional four slated for later this week. A few nests were unsuccessful, including one pair that had eggs but no chicks for the third consecutive year and another pair that disappeared after their nest was rendered uninhabitable by the owners of the building on which it resided.
But overall, Meshach is thrilled with the way the peregrine has returned to Missouri.
"The process of hacking is what brought the peregrine back from near-extinction in the U.S.," he said. "And they've made such an incredible recovery. We brought them close to extinction, but my gosh, we found the problem and brought them back."
Although it's still considered endangered in Missouri, the falcon was removed from the national endangered species list in 1999. In 2003, after 30 years of recovery work, 128 pairs were observed nesting in the Midwest, with another 33 pairs in the Lake Superior basin of Ontario, according to the Midwest Peregrine Society.
"What has emerged is a well-documented story of a population of peregrines that started at zero and now is close to carrying capacity," society leaders say on their website. "Productivity of young in the Midwest matches healthy populations elsewhere in the world. Life is good for Midwestern peregrines."