Peregrine Falcons are Good Ecosystem Health Indicators

Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are the fastest bird on Earth, but even they cannot escape environmental toxins like mercury contamination. Peregrines hunt almost all birds, ranging in size from hummingbirds to Canada geese, which they dive on from above at speeds of more than 200 mph. Environmental toxins, like mercury, are a major concern for raptors, or predatory birds, because they have been known to considerably reduce their breeding success at high levels. These toxins are important to monitor in the environment, not just for raptor health, but for human health as well.

A recent article found that mercury contamination is showing up in the feathers of peregrine falcons throughout North America, from coast to coast. Even resident populations that live year-round in Lake Mead National Recreation Area have been found to have mercury contamination in their feathers. This recent finding by Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist Joe Barnes, has him turning to their prey species to determine where they are picking up these toxins. The exposure in Lake Mead peregrines was traced back to eared grebes as the most likely source they are picking up this contaminant from because they are the most common local prey species and they migrate through known contaminated areas.

Through this ongoing research, Barnes found that peregrines are a great indicator of ecosystem health because they are found on every continent except Antarctica and feed on a wide variety of species. Research on predator exposure to environmental toxins is important to monitor the overall health of the environment because they pick up toxins from their food that is exposed to it. Feathers are perfect for monitoring exposure because the toxins stay in the feathers after the bird dies. This research helps scientists identify what toxins are in the environment and trace it back to the source so that they can identify areas of concern and clean them up.

Jessica Whalen

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