Peregrine Falcon Recovery Taking Flight in Alberta

Peregrine falcon – taken by Gordon Court

Did you know that in Alberta, we are successfully recovering peregrine falcons, a predatory bird at the brink of extinction?

Species at risk recovery is not easy – but it is possible – and very rewarding for all involved.

In the late 1960s, the pesticide DDT had devastating impacts on a number of organisms, including predatory birds like peregrine falcons. The pesticide caused peregrine eggshells to be thinner than normal. The egg shell broke before the baby birds could be born. As a result, the population declined significantly; almost wiping out peregrine falcons across the world. By 1970, only one pair of peregrines existed in Alberta and by 1975, they were considered extinct locally in Canada south of the boreal forest and east of the Rocky Mountains.

“I was only 12 or 13 years-old when they announced the disappearance of the last pair peregrines to nest in the prairies in Canada” says Gordon Court, Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist with Alberta Environment and Parks. Gordon is now one of the provincial leads on peregrine falcon recovery in the province.

DDT was banned in Canada in 1969 and in the early 1970s, provincial and federal governments started the peregrine falcon recovery program. They took every pair of peregrine falcons they could find and brought them to Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, Alberta. At the Base, they started a captive breeding program. The peregrines were bred and held at the Canadian Forces Base until the pesticides disappeared enough from the landscape to re-introduce the birds. Peregrine falcons were slowly introduced back into their habitats starting in 1976 until the mid 90s.

More recently, Gordon and his colleagues are continuing the work on peregrine falcon recovery – and they are seeing success.

“We have seen tremendous success” said Gordon “There are now over 500 pairs that have been re-established across southern Canada.”

The City of Edmonton has nine peregrine falcon pairs. They sometimes like to nest on industrial buildings and wildlife biologists keep a close eye on those pairs. For example, one adult female laid five eggs on top of the Bell Tower in Edmonton. She successfully laid and hatched all five – something that would never have been recorded during the DDT era in southern Canada.

A brood of peregrine falcon young on the Bell Tower in downtown Edmonton.

Peregrines seem to be making themselves right at home across their former habitats. “We hear of so many interesting peregrine stories,” says Gordon. “This year, we had peregrines return to nest sites they haven’t occupied in over 60 years and came back to nest within metres of where their ancestors nested.”

Even though these birds never nested in these sites themselves, whatever attracted them to the cliffs in the 1950s still attracts them to the same cliffs today.  

One of the more interesting facts about peregrine falcons is they have a fantastic flying ability. “Peregrines were recognized as the fastest thing that ever lived – before airplanes were invented” said Gordon. “Nowadays, people go skydiving with them. One skydiver took a GPS with him and recorded a peregrine diving at 389 kilometres per hour!”

When asked what a typical day of peregrine falcon recovery looks like, Gordon said “we make sure as many young peregrines that are born every year fledge successfully from their nests.” Fledging is the stage in a flying animal’s life between hatching or birth and becoming capable of flight – the more young birds fledged, the faster the recovery.

“In nests that show high mortality, we take them out and move them to release sites where they are more likely to survive. We do lab work – measuring peregrine residues and tissues to make sure the species is doing well – and we have the best peregrine tissue studies in Canada. It really explains why the bird is recovering so well now.”

A technician prepares peregrine falcon eggs for analysis.

The biggest task though is the peregrine population survey, which happens every five years – and the next step for peregrine falcon recovery in Alberta is to count them one more time.

“We had three recovery goals for peregrine falcons in Alberta. Two of them have been met already and the third is to count more than 70 pairs in Alberta. If we meet the final recovery goal, the species could be re-listed from Threatened to a species of special concern” said Gordon.

The next provincial survey is scheduled for 2020-21.

This is great news for the species – and for Alberta. Peregrine falcon recovery has given us important information about species recovery in general. “As a young person, the sense of doom that we had regarding peregrine falcons was very present. We got the sense that the issue was way bigger than we could control. What we learned though, is that the world is remarkably resilient. Who would have thought we could recover these birds in less than 50 years? It’s very encouraging.”

When asked what advice Gordon would have for younger generations, he said “what this teaches us is that no issue is too big to tackle. If you have the right momentum, you can turn things around. This is a story I like to tell young people who are facing similar concerns in the world right now.”

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