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Falcon chicks with ice cream-inspired names highlight Wisconsin’s raptor reboot

June 14, 2018

An excited group of onlookers gathered at Madison Gas & Electric’s Blount Street power plant Tuesday to watch as Greg Septon snapped ID bracelets onto an equally excited, or maybe just perturbed, nest of falcon chicks.

This marks Septon’s 10th year partnering with MGE, a collaboration in which the company names and stewards the birds while he outfits the resident peregrine falcons with state and federal identification bands that help track their lifespans, travel patterns and more. As he crimped the bands onto the chicks’ ankles, MGE director of energy production Steve Schultz announced their new names, all inspired by Babcock ice cream flavors.

The naming ceremony highlighted the success of the peregrines in recent years. After the species was rendered extinct in Wisconsin due to pesticide use in the 1960s, conservationists rallied and reintroduced a handful of falcons into the state in 1980.

Since then the work that Septon and his peers conduct has helped to grow the population. Today the falcons are flourishing thanks to support from their human cohabitants and their ability to adapt to living atop steam stacks, the towering pipes used to vent gases produced by factories.

Septon said the birds have adapted so well to their new habitat that the banding season has become an “enjoyable nightmare” with all the new chicks. “We could end up having more peregrines in the state now or in the future than we did historically,” he said.)

While the falcons are thriving now, Septon said the birds still require the work and foresight of humans. As more power plants close down, the steam stacks peregrines have settled into are disappearing, which would leave the falcons homeless if conservationists weren’t avidly overseeing their relocation. This year alone, Septon said he plans to relocate nest boxes in Green Bay, Kenosha and Marquette.

Most falcons will relocate happily from steam stacks to grain towers, which provide a similar habitat, but the birds rely on humans to move their nest boxes. Septon said this physical relocation is simple, but he needs approval and support from the new residences.

The most important factor in peregrines’ continued success, Septon said, is good relationships with the human community.

“Either we want peregrines in our world or we don’t,” he said. “If we want them, then we do what we need to do. If we don’t want them, then we just stand back.”

It’s hard to interest new generations in the protection of endangered birds, but when companies take ownership of them, the public becomes more interested in falcons’ well-being and are more likely to protect them, he said.

Take the Schultz family, who installed MGE’s nest box almost 20 years ago. Arlana Schultz said when her husband, Steve, MGE’s director of energy production, helped his son build the box for a service project, the family didn’t have much interest in raptors.

Things have changed. Now, they call the new hatchlings their “great grand chicks” and monitor their growth via webcam. Arlana even nicknames the last egg to hatch every year, even though she knows they’ll be renamed, so she can cheer them on come hatching time: “Hatch, Herbert, Hatch!”

This year, “Herbert” was renamed Babcock in honor of UW Food Scientist and Babcock Hall namesake Stephen Babcock. His brother was named Crazylegs, after a vanilla-marshmallow swirl ice cream topped with chocolate footballs, inspired by the UW football player Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch.

Schultz announced Babcock’s sisters’ names to be Neutrino and Berry, after Blue Neutrino ice cream, a vanilla-blue marshmallow swirl ice cream stuffed with Sixlets, and Berry Alvarez ice cream, a strawberry, raspberry and blueberry ice cream with fruit chunks, which commemorates UW football coach Barry Alvarez.