Rural Missouri Magazine
Where eagles dare
Power plants offer habitat for threatened eagles, falcons and osprey

by Jim McCarty

Bill Ramsey and Kim Dickerson, employees of Associated Electric Cooperative's Thomas Hill Power Plant, prepare to release a peregrine falcon into the wild. The birds were initially released at the power plant to control the pigeon population but now are establishing a home at Thomas Hill, near Moberly.

Several years ago, Dave Childers had a problem.

Pigeons were bombarding equipment at the New Madrid Power Plant owned by Associated Electric Cooperative. His boss suggested he try recruiting falcons to take care of the pigeons.
One of the favorite foods of falcons is pigeons.

The only problem, David discovered, was that peregrine falcons were just coming off the endangered species list. Undaunted, he got permission to join other Midwest power plants in launching a falcon restoration project at the Bootheel plant.

Four years later, David can’t say the project was a success from a pigeon-free standpoint. But the efforts of Associated’s employees have helped bring the birds back from the brink. And the success of this project is just the latest in a string of similar stories at Associated’s two coal-fired power plants.

In 2004, New Madrid Power Plant employees mounted a plywood box on the roof of th eemissions equipment. Into the box went four falcon chicks. Employees fed the birds until they were old enough to begin flying. At that point, the bars on the front of the box were removed and the birds tapped into their natural instincts.

Peregrine falcons, known as the cheetahs of the sky for their incredible speed, nearly vanished due to poisoning from pesticides.

Bessie, a chick raised at the New Madrid plant, successfully nested.

As scientists worked to reestablish the species, they discovered the birds liked to hang out at power plants, preying on the ever-present nuisance birds like pigeons. Key to the restoration efforts was getting the birds to imprint a location and return to it after finding a mate.

“That’s not quite as easy as we thought in the beginning,” Childers says. “Mates would have to be very scarce. The experts tell us it may take 16 to 20 birds for one male to locate a mate and return. They have a 50 percent mortality rate.”

After three years of hacking four chicks a year, Childers and his team had no idea whether their efforts would work. Then he received a call from Mike Cook, who coordinates the falcon efforts of the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis.

Cook told him that one of the birds released from the power plant in 2005 had mated and taken over an existing nest site on an office building in Clayton, a St. Louis suburb.
“It just happened that the male that had been nesting in Clayton had lost its longtime mate,” Childers says. “He was searching around and along came our female.”

That bird, named Bessie after a bend in the Mississippi River, laid three eggs and succeeded in hatching one of them, even though she was considered too young.

Learning Bessie was not only alive and thriving but had hatched a chick was welcome news to Childers and the other New Madrid employees. “It’s almost like your children,” he says. “You send them off and you just have to keep hoping they are succeeding. We often talked about Bessie. We wondered what she was doing.”

While the New Madrid project has yet to bring a mated pair back to the plant site, Bessie’s success prompted a similar project at the Thomas Hill Energy Center, another power plant owned by Associated. Together the two plants provide most of the electricity used by electric cooperative members in Missouri and parts of Iowa and Oklahoma.

Associated employees get to know the falcon chicks delivered to the Thomas Hill Energy Center in May. From left are Bill Ramsey, Bob Hutchison and Kim Dickerson.

Thomas Hill, located near Moberly, had already done its part to restore osprey to the state. In 1995 employees built a hacking tower on the shore of Thomas Hill Lake, a project originally built to provide cooling water for the plant. Its warm water offered year-round feeding grounds for the fish-eating osprey.

For more than 100 years, no osprey could be found in Missouri. Today it’s a common site to see them snatching fish from Thomas Hill Lake or roosting in one of the surrounding trees.

This year Childers offered his falcon experience to his counterparts at the Thomas Hil power plant, and in May Cook delivered three falcon chicks to the north-central Missouri site.

Thomas Hill employees took turns feeding dead quail to the falcons. Those chicks were released on June 1, and certainly livened up the work day for the dozen or so employees on the Thomas Hill Falcon team.

“It’s really rewarding just to see them develop,” says Kim Dickerson, principal environmental coordinator at the plant. “To look into their eyes, they are just so intense and alive. It’s really neat to be able to help restore them here.”

Meanwhile, Kim is watching another set of babies. Less than a half mile from the plant, a pair of bald eagles hatched two birds this year. “The babies are 3 feet tall and brown,” Kim says. “They are flying too. They are developing about the same as the falcons.”

Falcons, osprey and eagles are just a few of the many species that are benefiting from the careful environmental stewardship Associated has brought to the area. Until 1993, coal was mined nearby. When Associated closed the coal mine due to concern over the high sulfur content of Missouri coal, the land was painstakingly restored.

A bald eagle takes flight at the Thomas Hill plant. The land around the plant, once a coal mine, has been painstakingly restored.

Those efforts were recognized this spring when the Missouri Department of Natural Resources nominated Associated for a national award, which it later won, for its reclamation of the strip-mined land.

“When you walk the reclaimed fields, woods and wetlands of the Bee Veer mine, you simply can’t imagine it was ever a strip mine,” says Mike Giovanini, revegetation supervisor for Associated. “The grass is high for cattle grazing, turkey and deer are back, the fishing is good.”

In addition, the two coal-fired power plants Associated owns have seen significant reductions in emissions. Sulfur dioxide has been reduced 90 percent since 1994 and nitrogen oxide emissions have been reduced 77 percent. Further reductions will occur when the $330 million emission-control project at Thomas Hill is completed.

Dickerson says environmental stewardship is very much a part of day-to-day business at the cooperative-owned power plants. “There’s more of an awareness here for how we are a part of the environment, and not a negative part,” she says.

For example, Associated worked with the Department of Conservation to stock hybrid striped bass on the lake to eat gizzard shad that were clogging water intake structures at the plant. Now the shad runs are a thing of the past, and anglers have a great new fishing resource. “Our shad problems, we just almost don’t have them,” Dickerson says.

“That’s reduced our workload and improved the efficiency of the plant.”

The Associated employees are excited to be part of these and other projects. Says New Madrid Power Plant’s Childers, “It’s been neat to know you work for a company that goes beyond the megawatts and the dollars.”

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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