Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2018 - 15
A popular North Georgia attraction is also a
little-known haven for peregrine falcons.
by Nancy Henderson
John Stokes opens the door of a towel-draped pet carrier and
retrieves Vika, a 3-year-old female peregrine falcon. Immediately, she perches on his thick glove in the small
amphitheater at Rock City Gardens on Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where she and other birds of prey entertain guests in summertime shows. When two visitors
wander into the outdoor space to snap photos, Stokes
can't resist lapsing into his role as show host.
"This is the fastest creature in the world when it's
diving," says Stokes, a former zookeeper who in 2005
co-founded the non-profit Wings to Soar, which manages Rock City's peregrine falcon restoration and education project under federal and state directives. "Dive
speeds are estimated to range from 150 to over 270
miles per hour. They've made quite a comeback from
just a couple pairs east of the Mississippi River in the
1970s and have recovered so well with captive breeding
release programs that in 2007 they were taken off the
Endangered Species list."
Currently the only peregrine release effort in the
Southeast, Wings to Soar has cared for and released 14
of the falcons from Rock City owner Bill Chapin's bluffside property on Lookout Mountain, plus one atop a
bank building in downtown Chattanooga. One of four
birds in the program right now, Vika was brought here
from Texas in early 2015 after she hit a telephone pole
and shattered her right wing. Her predecessors in the
program include Lookout, who was tracked all the
way to Honduras as the first peregrine from the South
equipped with a satellite telemetry device, and Fourscore, who was discovered in a flowerpot on a condominium balcony in Atlanta.
"His mother was a teenage mom and she wasn't very
responsible," says Stokes. "She didn't really know what
she was supposed to do. The male ended up doing the
bulk of the incubation. She wasn't bringing any food
back for her young."
Brothers Heckle and Jeckle, so named by their social
media followers, were released in 2017.
By the mid-1970s, overuse of pesticides had all but
wiped out the most imperiled peregrine subspecies,
Stokes says. Thanks to restoration efforts like the one
at Rock City (and until recently, Atlanta and Greenbrier
Pinnacle in the Smokies), the birds are slowly returning to the Blue Ridge. A few have been spotted at Tennessee's Mount LeConte, Chimney Rock State Park and
Highlands in North Carolina, and Georgia's Tallulah
Gorge. Others occasionally show up on skyscrapers and
other manmade nesting sites in urban areas. No one
knows how many pairs there are, says Stokes, since most
are not monitored.
So far, most of the peregrines in the Wings to SoarRock City program have been males, because they are
the ones who find and anchor the territories and are
more likely to return to their release sites with mates. In
2018, Stokes and his colleagues will attempt to release at
least one female. They will also be testing a GPS locator
called Ping that can be used with a smart phone and is
much less expensive then traditional satellite telemetry,
which can cost up to $4,000.
When asked to describe the importance of this project, Stokes is both scientific and spiritual. "Their job as
a predator is to keep the balance in nature," he says.
"When you lose an essential predator, the prey species
becomes out of balance and that causes problems on
down. The peregrine is an essential part of the ecosystem to keep that balance.
"Some of it is deeper. It's in your soul," he adds, nodding toward Vika. "My life isn't any more important
than hers in the natural scheme of things."
January/February 2018 15