When you look to the sky in Rapid City this summer, Athena may be looking back.

But don’t worry — Athena is a peregrine falcon, not a Greek goddess.

She is one of about 18 of the endangered birds that Birds of Prey Northwest is releasing this summer to Rapid City in connection with South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.

On Wednesday, her first day of freedom, Athena surveyed Rapid City from a ledge atop the Black Hills Corporation in downtown Rapid City. Then she spread her wings, flapped them, and turned back to peck at a dead quail. The bird will eventually take off from the building on her first-ever flight, but it can take two days or longer for that to happen, said Blake Schioberg, an intern with Birds of Prey Northwest.

Meanwhile, the bird will eat and explore the roof and the Astroturf-lined cage she has called home this summer, open to the outdoors for the first time.

Hopefully, by the time the bird finally swoops off the rooftop, the process of feeding and maturing on top of the Black Hills Corporation will imprint Rapid City as “home” in her brain, said Janie Fink, a raptor biologist and president of Birds of Prey Northwest. Even after the birds take off on 3,000-mile and longer flights to Central and South America, they should remember Rapid City and return when it’s time to mate and raise young, said Mary Ann Pembroke, a Rapid City resident who volunteers with the organization.

Pembroke started volunteering with Birds of Prey last summer when Fink and Blake Schioberg, an intern, released a first round of falcons to the city. Pembroke said she loves wildlife and her favorite childhood job was working at Bear Country USA.

“It just became infectious,” Pembroke said of the volunteer work. “Once you get involved with it, if you like wildlife, you’re going to stick with it.”

Schioberg, 25, began interning with Fink four years ago and decided to work with Birds of Prey rather than going to veterinary school.

“These little birds just change your mind and change your heart pretty quickly,” she said.

Peregrine falcons were last sighted in the wild in the Black Hills area in the 1940s or 1950s. They were listed as a federal endangered species until 1999 and are still endangered in South Dakota. The peregrine falcon is one of four birds on South Dakota’s endangered species list, along with the whooping crane, the Interior least tern and the Eskimo curlew, according to Game, Fish & Parks.

A handful of peregrine falcons have been released in the state in reintroduction attempts since the 1970s, but none have known nests in South Dakota. Experts hope the birds released last year and this year have a better chance at survival, both because they have been raised and released by trained biologists and because so many have been released, Fink said.

It takes $100,000 and the whole summer from May to September for Fink and Schioberg to obtain, raise and release the young falcons. They paid $25,000 for the birds, which were purchased from private breeders around the country, Fink said.

Though peregrine falcons originally nested in cliff faces, modern cities make great substitute environments and are much easier places to reintroduce the birds, Fink said. Rapid City’s ledges, light poles and pigeons all imitate natural cliffs and help make this a great environment for the birds to thrive, Fink said. Plus, it’s easier for Fink and Schioberg to raise young birds on the roof of a building rather than climbing up and down a cliff face to reach the animals.

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“The goal of this project is to get (peregrine falcons) back in the state,” Schioberg said. “Ultimately, we don’t mind whether they’re here or in the Hills.”

The birds face a challenging future. Of the 18 birds the team will release this summer, they hope one male-female pair survives to maturity to mate in Rapid City.

The youngsters learn to navigate by trial and error. Wednesday morning, Fink watched through the window as a recently released falcon struggled to fly off a balcony at Turnac Towers. The bird flapped its wings and took off but flew straight into the thick wire railing surrounding the balcony. That kind of mistake is what helps the birds learn their way around, Fink said.

After releasing this summer’s birds, Fink and Schioberg will head to Game, Fish & Parks’ Outdoor Campus West in mid-August to give demonstrations with a tame falcon. Then they will pack up for Idaho.

Next summer, they will prepare for another summer trip to release more peregrine falcons in Sioux Falls — hopefully for the last time, if the birds return to South Dakota to nest and flourish as the scientists hope.

[This story has been changed to reflect a correction. Janie Fink and Blake Schioberg are from Idaho.]

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Contact Ruth Moon at 394-8415 or ruth.moon@rapidcityjournal.com

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