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Flight Lines: Are your pets at risk with peregrins?

A merlin sits on a fencepost north of Fargo. This bird-eating falcon is one of a number of raptors which have taken to urban living over the past couple of decades. Keith Corliss / West Fargo Pioneer

If one is to believe the premise of a recent letter-to-the-editor in the Forum, there is a direct threat to the lives of pets everywhere in the metro area and it's coming from the sky. Even more alarming, your babies are at risk. Or so the letter claimed.

The author was attempting to paint the Fargo-nesting peregrine falcons as "vicious predators" of all you hold dear. Only problem is, it's mistaken, unless you are a small bird outside of town.

A person could make a reasonable argument against peregrines being within Fargo city limits given the fact the bird has no natural history here other than during the brief migratory periods of spring and fall. It's a cliff nesting bird, after all, and there are no natural cliffs in the Red River Valley.

But to make such a case on the basis of threats to leashed pets just doesn't hold water. Peregrines, you see, are almost exclusively bird-eaters. Usually the only time the birds eat something else - like rodents or fish - is when it's pirated from other predators. Oh, and peregrines are open-air hunters and are not seen with any regularity within residential areas.

That's not to say there aren't natural predators in neighborhoods. There are. But odds are it's one of the other raptors which have gained a foothold in urban areas.

Every time someone relates seeing a peregrine sitting on their back fence I smile. Then I try to explain the growing number of Cooper's hawks in town. As recently as 20 years ago, a sighting of a Cooper's hawk would generate a few excited phone calls to other birdwatchers. It was that uncommon. That is not the case anymore.

Cooper's hawks are widespread woodland hawks and will potentially nest in any group of trees; they don't mind residential neighborhoods at all. Today, the birds are found all over town during the nesting season. The diet of Cooper's hawks is not unlike that of peregrines: Mostly birds, but with a few more small mammals such as rabbits and squirrels. Quite commonly, these birds will sit on fences.

A different falcon which has come to outnumber peregrines in the city is yet another recent addition to the urban raptor roster: the merlin. Like Cooper's hawks, these medium-size falcons were darned hard to find a few years ago. A person would have been lucky to see one during fall or spring migration but that was about it. In 2005 Fargo's first merlin nest was recorded. Now there are many in the metro area including West Fargo. That's in keeping with Cornell University's All About Birds website which says, "It is becoming a regular breeder in urban areas." Merlins, like their larger cousins, are bird eaters.

Why these raptors have made the move into populated areas is largely a matter of opinion. Perhaps the best explanation comes from Bismarck birder and N.D. Birding Society's webmaster, Corey Ellingson. He points to the growing number of bird feeders with accompanying concentrations of songbirds.

More to the point is his take on habitat change, and this is where he nails it in my opinion. Ellingson said, "In Bismarck we've seen the expansion of homes into new areas. Now we have woodland habitat where there used to be treeless prairie."

The fact that homeowners see a fairly large bird sitting on a fence doesn't mean their pets are threatened. Even a bold swoop doesn't necessarily equate to a direct risk. More likely, the raptor is simply attempting to frighten dogs away from nest areas.

Despite all the urban legends depicting the slaughter of pets by hawks, eagles, owls, or falcons (such as the one about finding nests filled with collars), I've yet to hear a factual account of such events actually occurring.

Facts have a habit of getting in the way of a good story I suppose. It's so easy to make assumptions about critters like raptors. They look somewhat menacing, they come equipped with hooked beaks and sharp talons, and they can appear seemingly out of nowhere, often when we are outside walking pets. But to make the case such predators as peregrine falcons are responsible for Fifi's disappearance is simply erroneous.