Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2014

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Peregrine falcons released atop Hilton

Four peregrine falcons were released Wednesday atop the Las Vegas Hilton as part of a U.S. Department of Wildlife program to reintroduce the birds-of-prey into the wild.

The birds are native to Southern Nevada but vanished from the area more than 20 years ago. The peregrine population dropped from 1,000 breeding pairs in the 1950s to less than 50 pairs in the early 1970s because of DDT and other pesticides that cause peregrine eggshells to be too fragile to protect the young birds. There are about 350 breeding pairs today.

U.S. Department of Wildlife officials hope at least one of the four falcons will return to the Las Vegas Valley to breed. Two pairs of mating falcons have returned to Southern Nevada in the past four years and there is a pair in Northern Nevada released by a similar program.

The Hilton program is Nevada's first attempt to release falcons in a populated area. Similar programs have been successful in other cities including Salt Lake City, New York and Minneapolis. The urban release program helps the birds' chances of survival because there are no golden eagles or owls to prey on the young falcons.

"Two years from now we will set up nests," said Geoff Schneider, conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. The falcons will take two years to reach sexual maturity. The department plans to release more falcons at the Hilton until they have a mating pair return.

The 5-week old birds were hatched at breeding facilities in Reno and Idaho and were flown to Las Vegas on Saturday. Wildlife officials hoped to release five birds but were only able to get four because of breeding problems.

For a week the birds will take 5- to 10-foot flights across the rooftop as they learn to fly. The birds will then engage in mock aerial combat with each other to sharpen their flying skills, according to Bob Turner, Nevada Department of Wildlife.

"After about a week they will start chasing other species," he said.

The birds will continue to be fed because they will not be successful when they first start to hunt. After four to siz weeks the birds will have refined their hunting and will leave the Hilton nesting site.

Schneider said the birds will probably migrate north to Tonopah of Ely for the rest of the summer and fly south to Mexico or as far as South America for the winter.

Schneider said he was happy there are three males because the males often return to their breeding site. He said he hoped one of the three would return to the Hilton and said the others might set up nests nearby. The female will follow her mate to his previous nesting place.

In February. Kathy Giovenco, wife of Nevada Hilton President John Giovenco, presented a check to the department for $10,000 to help cover the costs of raising the chicks.

"I'm very interested in the birds because they are endangered," giovenco said. "The wildlife commission asked us because we are the best site."

The Southern Nevada Hawking Association donated $520 to pay for food until they can hunt on their own.

The Las Vegas Hilton was chosen because it is close to good sources of food for the birds and because the building presents an artificial cliff face which simulates their preferred nesting areas.

"It was one of the nicest sites," Schneider said. "There is food for them on the golf courses."

He said the golf courses support many of the birds the falcons feed on. The falcons eat pigeons, swallows and grackle, as well as other birds. However, he said the Hilton ducks will be safe from the falcons.

UNLV students will monitor the birds through closed circuit television cameras in case the birds get sick or have problems with the heat. During their early flights the may misjudge distances and fly over the edge of the building. If that happens, attendants will retrieve the birds and return them to the roof.

The birds are fitted with radio transmitters so if the birds get lost or get into trouble, Wildlife Department officials can find the birds and help them. The transmitters will fall off after three weeks.

Guests and visitors will be able to watch the birds through a monitor in the hotel lobby.