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Peregrines soar again, thanks in part to Xcel's curation

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Some 40 years ago, the Viking had a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than you did seeing a peregrine falcon flying over the Mississippi River in Minnesota.

Now the population of the peregrine has soared, bouncing back in Minnesota due to increase federal regulation or bans on chemicals such as DDT, captive-breeding programs and what may seem an unlikely source: Xcel Energy.

According to a story in the St. Cloud Times, Xcel began putting nest boxes on its power plant stacks about 25 years ago. The first nest box was installed in 1990 on the Allen S. King Plant in Oak Park Heights. Since then, the program has been copied by other power plants worldwide.

No one is going to say that Xcel single-handedly resurrected the bird, but there are now between 2,000 and 3,000 nesting pairs in North America, according to the story, which was picked up by the Star Tribune. Peregrine falcons made a dramatic recovery after DDT was banned in 1973, and they were removed from the endangered species list in 1999.

Earlier this month at the Sherco Power plant, a group of schoolchildren watched through a telescope as Brian Schmidt removed four fuzzy, whitish-gray chicks from a nest box 450 feet up the smokestack and brought them down to the ground to be banded.

"Just seeing four peregrines right now is a pretty big success story," said Schmidt, an environmental analyst with Xcel, which owns the Sherco plant.

The boxes are installed 300-600 feet above the ground to imitate the high cliffs where peregrine falcons prefer to nest and perch, according to the story. Webcams offer the public views of the eggs and, after about 33 days of incubation, the chicks hatched. Xcel has falcon cams on two other Minnesota power plants, including the King plant and Black Dog in Burnsville.

Xcel partners with the nonprofit Raptor Resource Project to place bands on the legs of the newly hatched chicks. Each band bears a number that can be spotted through binoculars, said Amy Ries, the project's administrator. The number can be used to track the bird's location and lineage.

The course of nature is sometimes tenuous, though, and cold, wet spring has been a difficult one for the falcons, and the number of surviving chicks was lower than usual, Ries tells the St. Cloud paper. An image from the Sherco webcam in April showed the female trying to keep her eggs from freezing in the snow. Some eggs at the other power plants didn't hatch, and some chicks at the Black Dog plant died from a parasite, Ries told the SC Times.

Still, she concluded, "This is real nice to see them looking so wonderfully healthy."

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