After years of helping the Stockton Lake area repopulate its osprey numbers by making nest boxes available for the large birds, Liberty Utilities-Empire District has turned its focus on another avian species in desperate need of assistance: the peregrine falcon.
The Joplin utility company has installed two peregrine falcon nesting boxes on stacks at its power plants on State Line Road and in La Russell, with a third box planned later this month at the plant in Riverton, Kansas. The project is a collaboration with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
"This is a story about peregrine falcons, but really, it goes beyond that," said Becky Heffren, environmental coordinator with Liberty.
Peregrines are native to Missouri, historically nesting in small numbers on bluffs along the Mississippi, Missouri and Gasconade rivers. By the late 1800s, only a few pairs remained in the state, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, and the species was nearly eradicated in the 1950s and '60s because of the use of DDT and other harmful pesticides.
Reintroduction projects have been relatively successful, but the species is still listed as endangered in Missouri, said Joe DeBold, an urban wildlife biologist with the department.
A 'perfect' solution
Peregrines are the fastest species on the planet with the ability to reach 200 mph in flight, DeBold said. They hunt starlings, pigeons and other city birds that many residents consider a nuisance, watching for their prey from high perches and attacking them at high speed with tucked wings to decrease their aerodynamic drag.
That was the problem at Liberty Utilities' plants, Heffren said. Flocks of pigeons nesting in the plants left behind lots of droppings, which can cause health and safety issues for employees, she said. Noisy bird cannons and roosting spikes didn't quite do the trick to get rid of them, so when the Missouri Department of Conservation last year pitched a collaboration with Liberty to attract a raptor to its plants, officials were quick to agree, she said.
"(The nesting boxes) are perfect," Heffren said. "MDC gets to re-establish an endangered species, and we get biological control of the pigeons."
Peregrines are rock dwellers, using cliffs and ledges in the wild and skyscrapers and other buildings in urban areas as the setting in which to raise their young. It's partly for that reason that the bird has been slower to recover in Missouri, as their natural nesting sites are limited, DeBold said.
"We know we continuously have new nests coming along," said DeBold, who has led Missouri's peregrine falcon recovery program since 2011. "But we still don't have a wild, naturally occurring nest. All the nests we have active in Missouri are through artificial nest boxes."
That's what makes Liberty Utilities' new boxes so important, he said. Most of his recovery efforts take place in the state's urban areas, and he has "high interest" in studying Southwest Missouri further.
"The Joplin and Springfield areas are where I really think we're missing something, so it's nice to hear some of these generating stations are (working) on this," he said. "When I get to build partnerships with someone like (Liberty), that's what makes this whole thing go round. Without those host sites, this would not be possible."
Falcons nesting in Missouri are expected to return from their winter migration in late March or early April, and Liberty employees are watching their boxes for any that decide to take up residence in them.
"We hope that they'll discover our sites," Heffren said.
Stockton Lake osprey
This isn't Liberty Utilities' first foray into the avian world. In 2015, it launched its successful Osprey Cam, taking viewers to a nesting box on Stockton Lake to watch the large raptor colloquially known as a "fish hawk" or "fish eagle" up close and personal. A mated pair of osprey has taken up residence in the nest every year since, raising three or four chicks each spring.
The osprey nesting box program began several years ago after a nest burned when it came in contact with an energized electric line, damaging an Empire transmission tower and interrupting electric service to customers. A nest was moved from the transmission tower and installed in a box at Stockton Lake. The company now has approximately a dozen osprey nest boxes around the lake, and all have been thought to have been occupied in years past.
As Osprey Cam viewers eagerly await the return of the pair that they affectionately call Mom and Dad, which could be as early as mid-March, experts say the birds' presence around Stockton Lake, and indeed around the rest of Missouri's waterways, is a good sign. Osprey, which had stopped breeding in Missouri before the DDT era, have made a "significant" comeback in the state in recent years, said Kyle Hedges, a wildlife management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
"About 30 or 40 years ago, I don't know that there were just a handful of nests in the state, if there were any, and now (at) just Stockton Lake alone I know of nine or 10 nests," he said. "They're just all over the place."
Osprey are important to the state's ecosystem because they can be regarded as a marker of healthy waterways, Hedges said. Fish are known to accumulate toxins from poor water quality, and the detrimental effects of those toxins can work up the food chain into the predators, such as osprey, that eat fish, he said.
"When we have thriving osprey populations, it shows we have, for the most part, good clean water," he said.