Wildlife commission conducts annual cliff closings to protect falcons

Peregrine falcons mate for life and return to the same site each year to nest.

Deena C. Bouknight –

Peregrine falcons are considered the fastest animals on the planet and can reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour.

Contributing Writer

Each year, measures are taken in Western North Carolina to protect peregrine falcons. While no longer on the Endangered Species List, the falcons are still considered sensitive to environmental toxins, and annual area temporary cliff closures are necessary to ensure nesting habitats are undisturbed so that the population of peregrine falcons continues to thrive, according to Chris Kelly, a mountain wildlife diversity biologist at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) . 

Peregrine falcons mate for life and return to the same site each year to nest.  Disturbances early in the season could result in abandonment, while disturbances later in the cycle may interfere with the adults tending to the nestlings, informed Kelly. 

While several cliff closings occur in surrounding counties, the main one of importance to Macon County is at Pickens Nose. Kelly explained that a cliff closure does not mean the entire hiking area is closed, just one area is off limits temporarily to climbers so that the falcons can lay their eggs and raise their offspring. 

“Whiteside Mountain in Jackson County, very near the Macon County line, also has a partial closure,” said Kelly.

Typically, the U.S. Forest Service closes protected cliffs each year between Jan. 15 and Aug. 15. However, “Some cliffs on other properties are closed to climbing year round, such as at Chimney Rock State Park, Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mountain, and others,”  Kelly said.

Besides rock climbing, other activities prohibited during cliff closures are rappelling, ice climbing, bouldering, hang gliding, and slacklining.

To monitor area cliffs and ensure falcons are protected, NCWRC staff and volunteers “check sites throughout the nesting season to see if a pair is on territory; determine what ledge they are using for their nest (they don’t build a stick nest; rather, they lay their eggs on the flat rock surface); when incubation begins; when they have young; how many young they have; disturbances; and whether the nest attempt was successful or not,” said Kelly. “This involves long hours (usually four-hour blocks early in the morning) looking through binoculars or a spotting scope, and becoming familiar with peregrine falcon identification, vocalizations and behaviors that reveal what is going on at the nest site. They can be very difficult to observe as they blend in well with rock and are secretive. It is not like watching an eagle nest because we don’t always know immediately which ledge they’ve selected for nesting. At Pickens Nose, there is no clear view of the nest ledge. We watch from very far away at all sites. But at Pickens Nose we watch through the trees from below or observe from above, waiting for a vocalization or flyby to clue us in.”

Peregrine falcons, deemed the fastest animals on the planet, can reach speeds of more than 200 miles per hour. And even though they are skilled hunters, the birds have never been very abundant, cited U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, because their offspring often cannot replace quickly enough the death rates of adults due to accidents and environmental factors. 

NCWRC reported that in 2020, across Western North Carolina, 16 sites were occupied by peregrine falcon pairs and four successfully reproduced with a total of seven offspring.

To learn specifics about where and when to avoid activities at Western North Carolina rock cliffs, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/ and search “Temporary rock cliff closures to protect peregrine falcons.”