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The passions of peregrines

Reality television has come to Red Wing, and the show's star -- a flighty female from Nebraska known only as Husker -- is taking it in stride.

The fact that a television camera is aimed at her 24/7, in the style of that other reality TV show, "Big Brother," has no noticeable effect on Husker.

Under that camera's watchful eye, the peregrine falcon has laid three of an expected four eggs. She and her mate are calmly sharing parenting duties in their nest box home on top of Red Wing Grain's tallest building overlooking the Mississippi River.

Husker is part of a grand success story, according to Robert Anderson of Decorah, Iowa, director of the Raptor Resource Project. The falcons, which were nearly wiped out in the 1960s by exposure to the insecticide DDT, have made a remarkable recovery since the Environmental Protection Agency imposed a nationwide ban on DDT in 1973.

Red Wing is among the river towns where the nonprofit Raptor Resource Project established a nesting site. Husker moved into the nest in 2000 and hatched a family with her mate, Prescott.

She has returned annually and has fledged 18 youngsters at the rate of three or four a year. This spring, Husker has a different mate -- an unbanded male who appears to be new to Red Wing.

The Red Wing Grain birdcam also is new this year. The camera, which supplies a steady stream of images to the company's office and several Web sites, is bolted to the side of the nest box.

The birdcam images can be seen on the Red Wing Grain and Raptor Project Web sites, and in the lobby of the Depot at 418 Levee St. that houses the Red Wing Arts Association and the Visitors and Convention Bureau.

The equipment was donated by StarTech Computing of Red Wing, said Dan Guida, arts director. He said if you stand outside the Depot and look toward Red Wing Grain, the nesting box is visible on the roof, 213 feet above ground.

Anderson put up the 2- by 3- by 2-foot-tall nesting box. He manages about two dozen falcon, eagle and owl nesting sites in the region. The raptor project has two main programs:

• The Mississippi River Recovery Program began with the release of falcons that were bred in captivity. Now that so many of them are back, the project monitors existing and probable nest sites, improves sites where necessary, bands young, and collects data and blood samples.

The goal of getting falcons to return to the Mississippi River cliffs is succeeding. Nesting pairs can be found today on bluffs in the Maiden Rock and Alma areas.

• The Peregrine Utility Program was begun by the group in 1990 at Xcel Energy's Alan King Plant in Bayport, Minn., and has expanded throughout the United States and worldwide.

"Since 1990, over 300 falcons have fledged from power plants along the Mississippi and its tributaries. Xcel Energy, Dairyland Power, Minnesota Power, Alliant Energy, and other utility partners played a crucial role in returning the peregrine to the river valley," according to the project's Web site.

Husker laid her first egg this year on April 10; there are three eggs now, and she is expected to lay a fourth. After the third egg, she began to incubate. Her mate helps out; his tasks include providing food to Husker during incubation.

"The male will bring her food twice a day. She'll get off and go eat," taking a 10- to 60-minute break, while he keeps the eggs warm," Anderson said.

The eggs usually hatch 33 1/2 days after incubation begins, and the babies -- called eyasses -- will remain in the nest until they are 40 to 45 days old.

During that time, however, they may be seen flying around, taking small jumps to buildings and poles, and being fed by their parents. They eat primarily birds.

Anderson and a crew will band the young in June.