Peregrine Falcon – Canada’s Warrior — Wilderness North

Celebrating 30 Years of Wilderness North  –          

Peregrine Falcon – Canada’s Warrior

The recovery of the peregrine falcon population in Canada may be the endangered species success story of all time. The post-second-war use of the pesticide DDT to control insects on crops decimated the peregrine population clear across North America. The cumulative effect of this chemical in the food chain resulted in peregrines having critically thin eggshells, which ultimately led to their near extinction. It seemed the fate of the peregrine was sealed, and only humans – the same species responsible for their plight – could turn this mortal chain of events around.

Fortunately the use of DDT was discontinued in North America and in the late 70’s young peregrines were introduced to former nesting sites (a process known as “hacking”). Where I live on the north shore of Superior – an area indigenous to peregrine falcons – hacking efforts began in 1989 with the commencement of “Project Peregrine”, a program spearheaded by The Thunder Bay Field Naturalists. Today peregrines are flourishing along the shore, nesting and breeding naturally in their original range.

I had a hands-on opportunity to help with Project Peregrine in June of 2001, when I was invited to accompany a team of local biologists and members of the Thunder Bay chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada in a peregrine chick-banding mission. Biologist and project coordinator, Brian Ratcliff, would oversee the tagging operation. Two of my children, Erin and Timothy, joined the expedition as “Shirpa-guides”, carrying necessary gear on our 60-minute hike up a local mountain. Accessing and safely removing the chicks from the nest would be the responsibility of the rock climbers, while banding the chicks would be the responsibility of the biologists. My role would be to photograph the process without getting in the way (or falling off the edge).

While climbers secured their ropes at the edge of the ominous 350-foot sheer cliff and prepared for the 120-foot descent to the nest site, the rest of our team took turns watching the nest through a telescope from a nearby pinnacle. The vigilant peregrine parents soon appeared on scene and once the descent to the nest-site began, these frantic parents constantly swooped and buzzed like crop-dusters over the climbers’ heads. Three, very nervous, peregrine chicks were located at the nest site, placed into a compartmentalized packsack and then hoisted to the top of the cliff where they were equipped with leg bands. While the whole process proved quite unnerving for the fluffy white chicks, Ratcliff, a peregrine specialist, explained that the banding process does not harm the chicks. “The chicks are accepted by the parents without incident, and the notion that birds will reject a chick because of human handling is a fallacy. The banding process is necessary for tracking their movements and population status.”

The letters and numbers on the bands denote individual identity and allow biologists to track peregrine movements across the continent. Canadian peregrines have been reported in far off places such as Brazil, Cuba, and islands in the Gulf of Mexico during the winter months.

Although peregrines can live 12 years or more, only 25% of the chicks reach the breeding age of 3 years. Although this sounds tragic, this is a normal survival rate for a bird that thrives in such extreme elements. Peregrines do not make traditional nests with twigs and branches, but simply lay their eggs on a rock ledge high above the ground. Some chicks fall out of the nest competing for food with their siblings, while high winds and hail occasionally wipe out families altogether.

However, by the time a peregrine reaches adulthood it is a formidable hunter. Soaring a kilometre or more above ground, peregrines will identify a prey bird – such as a pigeon, gull, or even a bat – flying below. The peregrine will go into a stoop reaching speeds well in excess of 200 km/h and strafe the prey with their talons killing it instantly. Amazingly, the peregrine then comes out of its dive, turns and picks up its tumbling prey before it hits the ground.

Although the demise of the peregrine was due to the ignorance of man, we owe its recovery in Canada to the volunteers that make efforts like “Project Peregrine” successful.

Author: Scott Earl Smith

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