Peregrine Population Soars

Heinz Meng is a falconer's hero -- one of the first to breed and release a bird he describes as nature's example of perfection.

"Look at it," Meng tells CBS News Correspondent Lee Cowan as a peregrine falcon soars overhead. "How magnificent can you get? To have them almost extinct, we couldn't tolerate that."

DDT and other pesticides once pushed the world's fastest bird to near extinction in the United States. Now, the peregrine falcon has recovered enough to be taken off the endangered species list.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is formally removing the peregrine from the endangered in a Friday ceremony at a Boise, Idaho, center for breeding birds of prey.

"That is the message that comes at us at 200 miles per hour with the peregrine falcon," Babbitt said.

The peregrine is the first animal to be removed from the endangered species list since the gray whale in 1994.

"It is a very big deal," said Paul Kupchok, maser falconer. "We should all be proud of it."

At the falcon's low point in 1970, only 39 breeding pairs existed in the continental United States, all west of the Mississippi, said Jeff Cilek of The Peregrine Fund. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates more than 1,650 breeding pairs of peregrines live in North America.

The highest number are in the West, with 167 pairs in California, 164 in Utah and 159 in Arizona.

Dropping the peregrine from the list means it loses some of the strictest protections of federal law, such as shielding its habitat from development. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act still makes it illegal to kill the falcons or possess their feathers or body parts without a rare federal permit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to monitor peregrine populations for 13 years to ensure they don't get in trouble again.

While Babbitt cited the 1973 Endangered Species Act as a big factor in the peregrine's recovery, falcon experts say the key to saving the birds was the 1972 ban on DDT and later restrictions on the use of similar pesticides. Peregrines that accumulate DDT and its chemical cousins lay eggs with thin shells that often break, killing the chicks.

Protection under the law is only part of that success. Private groups like The Peregrine Fund have released more than 6,000 peregrines hatched in captivity.

Falconers prize the peregrine for its speed, which can reach more than 200 mph when diving to catch prey, Cade said.

Scientists, like Meng, had to figure out ways to breed falcons in captivity and release them into the wild. In this case, that meant the wilds of the city.

With their natural habitat in cliff walls threatened by hikers and construction, peregrines took to nesting in the skyscrapers and bridges of America's largest cities. It provided them the privacy to breed and a smorgasbord of city wildlife - from pigeons to rodent - to eat.

"To see a falcon cruising down Wall Street and looking for pigeons and moving in on them, as I have, is an amazing sight," Babbitt said.

The American peregrine falcon is the sixth U.S. species to recover enough to be removed from the endangered species list, which currently includes about 1,200 plants and animals in the United States. The other recovered species are the brown pelican, the American alligator, the Rydberg milk-vetch (a small plant in the pea family), the gray whale and the Arctic peregrine falcon.

Seven U.S. species on the list have become extinct, and another seven have been removed because scientists discovered they were variants of other species or were not endangered in the first place.