Meet Kikki, a gyrfalcon biologists found injured in a field near Beaumont on April 1, 2016.
One year after she was found, Kikki was released back to the wild thanks to the work of Steve Schwartze, who worked with the falcon to get it to peak physical fitness before releasing it in March 2017.
“To hunt successfully, a bird of prey needs to be firing on all 12 cylinders,” Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist Gordon Court says. “And this is why when injured falcons are helped by wildlife rescue organizations, there can be a lot of work to be done before they can be released back into the wild.”
For a bird of prey recovering from an injury, the first steps to returning to the wild involve getting the muscles and reflexes back into condition through exercises and training. This usually involves the volunteer work of one of Alberta’s few licenced falconry practitioners.
The same quad-copters that can be used for falconry training can also be used for rehabilitation. Because the drones are completely controllable, the rehabilitation falconer can start the bird with a prey target that’s just 10 feet off the ground, and incrementally increase the height and difficulty. Over the matter of a few weeks, they can get the birds flying like they should.
While rehabilitating injured wildlife doesn’t have a measurable effect on the populations of many of the more abundant species in Alberta, when dealing with species at risk, like the peregrine falcon, even one or two individual animal lives can make a difference.
While some birds are success stories, others cannot be released. These birds are taken to Southern Alberta’s captive breeding program.
Peregrine falcons and other birds of prey experienced significant declines in population in the 1950s and 1960s due to organochorine pesticide use. At one point in the 1970s, the population dropped down to a single breeding pair of peregrine falcons in Alberta.
“Each year, we get about 10 injured peregrines into our wildlife rehabilitation societies, and of those about half are able to be released,” Court says. “Every little bit helps, especially when saving adult birds in the breeding population. We’re hoping that within the next few years, we’ll be able to take peregrine falcons off the threatened species list in Alberta.”
A significant problem with the recovery program for peregrines is the number of the birds who choose to make their homes in urban environments. Peregrines run into trouble in urban centres, while birds who nest in their natural habitat of cliffs don’t run into the same problems.
“That’s why when we release birds from the captive breeding program and the rehabilitation program, we attempt to release them in as natural a setting as possible,” Court says. “We’ve gone from fewer than half a dozen breeding pairs in the province to more than 60. With luck and hard work, we may be able to remove them from the endangered species list.”