...and how the ecologically sustainable use of Falconry techniques can play a valuable role...
Please note: There are gaps in the text when viewing on your mobile device, please scroll down.
'Lucky' is a juvenile female Peregrine Falcon, potentially the swiftest creature the animal kingdom has ever known. She, along with her two siblings were denied the chance of a normal beginning to life by a freak storm which hit the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Aged just 5 weeks, they were rescued in the aftermath of the storm and phones across Australia started ringing. Within 36 hours, after great work by our associates and supporters in Kalgoorlie, all three were in the care of one of the members of RFAWA after being transported overnight to Perth, thanks to a friendly trucking company and Renae Downer getting up in the middle of the night to receive and transfer them.
They were placed in a nest box inside a 'skylight and seclusion' aviary with two adult Peregrines who happily took on the task of feeding them the fresh food placed into the aviary via a food chute.
There was much discussion between a few of the active members of RFAWA with regard to the best course of action available to us that may provide the very best chances of these birds successfully reintegrating into the wild environment when the time was right. An almost assured and successful method is that of each bird (separately from each other) being trained and free exercise flown up to proven and consistent hunting ability. This, in the case of a juvenile Peregrine, is no simple matter and requires expert knowledge as well as access to large open spaces and costly equipment such as radio-telemetry and/or GPS tracking systems. We simply didn't have the resources to manage all three birds in this way so we quickly ruled out that option.
Another option, and one that is far more successful when the full brood is still together, rather than in the case of a singleton, is the 'hacking' method.....if only we had access to a hack tower in a suitable and convenient location. Being a pro-active group with a 'can do' attitude, a few of us soon hatched a plan which would include the construction and erection of a purpose built hack tower on Gina and Danny's small hobby farm near Boddington. Timing was critical and we didn't have much of it left because the birds have to be out there on the hack tower a few days before they would naturally fledge in the wild, which would be upon us in no time....we had one spare weekend but we managed to procure funding, partly from RFAWA, and a small working party gathered together to build and erect the hack tower.
At the end of an exhausting day, all three birds were placed up on the tower with copious amounts of food and they took to it like a duck takes to water.....to begin with at least.
On the evening of day two, and after the young falcons had been observed up to that point to be doing everything we'd have expected, inexplicably and at least 3-5 days before they were due, they took their first flight and spent the night at the mercy of the wild.
I'd like to be able to report a happy ending to all this, but I can't. Two of the young falcons were never seen again but one turned up in the paddock late in the afternoon of the following day and settled on a fallen tree branch for the night. Gina called Michael and over the next two hours there were many conversations about 'what should we do now?'
The falcon was at a relatively safe height from ground predators but could easily be dislodged and fall to the ground if caught by a strong gust of wind, where Mr Fox would have very little trouble in finding her. If the falcon could make it through the night she'd be hungry enough to try for the elevated hack board by morning where fresh food had now been placed in such a way that she'd be able to see it without too much difficulty. The other option was to try to stalk and catch her, but if she took fright and flew off into the darkness we'd likely never see her again. If she could make it back to the hack box and start to feed, that would anchor her and very likely bring in the other by now hungry young falcons (if they were still alive) and we'd be back on track.....but why did they leave early? This was puzzling us, and we wouldn't get the answer for a few more days. There had been no alarm calls which would certainly have been the case had a marauding eagle been responsible. Something just didn't fit.
So, what to do? Leave her on her high perch and risk the dangers of the night in the hope that normality would resume tomorrow, or go catch her up which would risk the whole project? It came down to nothing more than a gut feeling....she looked settled for the night and the branch upon which she was perched was merely throwing distance from Gina's back porch. It was decided to leave her there and hope for the best.
Now then, this is where real dedication to the cause comes in, because Gina, despite having an 18 month old baby boy to look after, several times throughout the night got up (I reckon she may have even slept on the porch!) to check on the young falcon and each time all was well, until just before daybreak....
Gina was rudely awoken from her half slumber by the urgent screaming of the young falcon and in a flash, and before she was fully awake, she's running into the paddock shouting and screaming and flailing her arms this way and that in an attempt to get Mr Fox to release his grip on the young falcon. Reynard can't have been so hungry, and perhaps the feel of one or more falcon talons in the side of his face and the imminent danger posed by the fast approaching woman from the house made him think twice and he dropped his next meal and scarpered into the dim light of the new morning. Just a moment later Gina has the young falcon and although a bit shook up and with one or two teeth marks, one of which was somewhat concerning, she seems to be largely unscathed and is returned to the safety of the house as the lone survivor.
The young falcon was given a course of antibiotics as a precaution and fully recovered from her minor brush with death for the second time around, and was back in the aviary with the adult falcons soon enough to continue on her journey....but what would that be and what could we do now? The rest of this page is dedicated to exactly that subject, and why.
Oh, the reason the young falcons all fledged far too early? Well, it's something we overlooked to be honest. Although the three legs of the hack tower were liberally coated in a tar based substance to protect them and which we'd hoped would be a sufficient barrier, thousands of bull ants had crawled up the legs and onto the ledge and from there, into the box. They must have driven the young falcons mad! No one that I know who has had extensive hacking experience warned us that this may be a problem. But we live and learn, and it won't happen again!
'Lucky' hasn't got many options left open to her now. Hacking back, on her own as a singleton, is highly unlikely to work and the chances are that she'd leave the hack site and not return well before she's capable of looking after herself. That would mean certain death. A full brood keeps each other together and would have been much more likely to work.
Typically, Peregrine Falcons stay together as a family group, loosely centred on the nest site, for several months after first fledging, which happens at roughly 42 days of age. The males or 'tiercels' as they are otherwise known, often plucking up the courage take the first flights, are quickly followed by their sisters. They stay together to develop their flying skills, to learn to recognise all manner of dangers and crucially, to learn to hunt their natural prey in the wild environment. The parents teach them this, they have survived to this point and have been naturally selected to pass on their genes, they are superb and deadly hunters. They slowly and by degrees introduce their young to appropriate prey items by bringing them whole and dropping them where the young must retrieve them, and later they release live prey for them to catch. Eventually, and this can take months in some cases, the young falcons join in with the hunts and they naturally, as their skills become ever more refined, begin successfully hunting for themselves but the safety net of parental guidance and the provision of food may still go on for a significant time after these first successful kills.
Eventually, if they make it thus far, they reach the time and level of hunting proficiency when they must go it alone and enter into the next phase of their lives, that of a 'passager', ('on passage', on their travels, their 'peregrinations'), a phase which will ordinarily take up the next two years (at least) of their lives. But in time, if they too pass the natural selection test, they will return to the original nest site or find a similar one of their own with a suitable partner, and they will then pass on their own genes and continue this circle of life.
But what are the chances of this for the average young wild Peregrine? Well, a lot less likely than most people might first think! To look at a fully fledged young Peregrine Falcon that is taking it's first flights, or one that may have been raised within the confines of a rehabilitation aviary and has never successfully hunted for itself in the wild environment, why would anyone draw any conclusion but to assume that it can look after itself and survive without any guidance or tuition? It looks to be a magnificent predatory creature, all it has to do is go catch a few things. Easy....right?
No, actually. Take the case of the young falcons which have been dealt the best of hands and were lucky enough to benefit from the entire process of learning from the very best of tutors...their parents. Despite all this learning, and only dispersing naturally once every box has been ticked, only about 30% of them will survive long enough to see out their first winter and only one in ten will go on to successfully breed. So, what chance of survival has one that is denied the opportunity to thoroughly learn from its parents before it is cast to the wind to take it's chances? Virtually no chance, is the reality, and ordinarily they become just another statistic, one of the 70% that don't make it.
These survival/natural attrition statistics, by the way, are not something that we should feel sad about. It's not at all 'unfortunate' that survival is so low, and that so few get to the point of successfully raising chicks of their own. It's exactly as nature requires and dictates, no less. Only the best and the very lucky survive, it has to be that way or the numbers would increase exponentially and the natural balance would soon be out of kilter. That's not sustainable in a healthy wild environment where the number of the available prey items control the number of natural predators...not the other way around. Think of it this way, as far as peregrines are concerned anyway, and then simply apply this to any other predators that you may care to think about...each adult breeding pair, during their whole lives as viable breeders, only have to replace themselves (two of their offspring to also become successful breeders) for the population to remain roughly the same.
So getting back to the rather ironically named 'Lucky', if she is to go back to the wild environment with any realistic hope of surviving even the short term, she must learn to recognise appropriate prey items and to be able to successfully and consistently hunt them, in her own natural environment. Any less than this, and she will die. There is but one method that will reasonably achieve what is required, that of course is Falconry techniques.
"Good Falconry is a special link with, and a love of nature, the very thing from which we all came, upon which we all depend, and to which we shall all return....lose those
links and humanity loses it's roots. It needs to be fostered, not blocked."
Prof Dr Matt Gage, January 2018.
But wait, this is Australia, falconry is illegal isn't it? Well actually no, it isn't....or at least not here in Western Australia where recently a much more objective view has been taken where these techniques of the highest standards can be applied when it's appropriate in the particular circumstances by skilled and experienced individuals, to the rehabilitation of raptors which find themselves in the care system.
High standard and ethical falconry techniques may be applied by qualified and experienced people transparently and with accountability, who may also happily educate and help to 'connect' an ever growing urbanised population to the wild environment, and contribute to the scientific study of these methods and to raptors in the wild. The problem is that there aren't enough of us, and are never likely to be.
Falconry, which in 2010 was inscribed by UNESCO as an 'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' (Australia is a signatory of UNESCO but not the intangible heritage section) uses techniques which are many thousands of years old, but which are constantly advancing and developing, most recently to include the latest technology such as live-stream GPS tracking and data feedback. The global organisation the International Association of Falconry and Conservation of Birds of Prey (IAF see www.iaf.org), which now has over 100 associate member organisations in over 80 countries around the World, continues to lead the way, not only in the use of the most ethical and sustainable use of raptors in Falconry, but also in the conservation of raptors in the wild environment. The IAF supports the ethical and ecologically sustainable use of falconry techniques in Australia.
So, back to young Lucky. Here's exactly what I will be doing with this otherwise 'lost' raptor, at zero cost to the taxpayer but with undeniable educational and environmental benefits. You can safely assume that I am well qualified, experienced and appropriately skilled to carry out this task, evidenced by the fact that I have been working with raptors in a free flying capacity for the greater part of 40 years. It may also be worth considering that the use of falconry techniques in these circumstances and for these particular purposes, done to the highest possible standards, if in any way is not legal, not accepted, not included in rehabilitation 'guidelines', or not allowed for any other reason anywhere in Australia, then perhaps it's those rules or systems that are inadequate and/or incomplete and need to be urgently and objectively reviewed in consultation with those who may have appropriate knowledge and skill, and to do so without bias or prejudice.
The falcon will first of all be very gently tamed which will facilitate a relatively stress free experience for the bird, which it deserves, throughout all of it's rehabilitation which will likely take at least a few months given optimal conditions and normal progression. It's important to understand that the taming process that will be used is not at all the same as 'imprinting', even though the body language of the raptor with regard to it's tolerance of all manner of things which would ordinarily upset or scare most wild Birds of Prey, outwardly may appear to be very similar to the untrained eye. The crucial difference being that taming is totally reversible and has no negative long-term effect whereas 'imprinting', which occurs as a natural survival and pro-creation mechanism, is often set for life. There is no place for 'mal-imprinting' in the case of any raptor that is intended to be released back to the wild and in Lucky's case this is not a concern.
One tamed, she will then be free exercise flown to build up her fitness and cardio-vascular capacity, initially using artificial remote controlled prey, namely the 'Rocrow' (see www.rofalconry.com) and a drone to raise a lure high aloft to encourage and develop hard chasing, mounting and attacking flight strategies in the raptor. During this whole process every flight will be tracked, monitored and the data stored which will show maximum distances flown, heights and top speeds attained, as well as other useful data. Once she becomes appropriately fit the artificial lures will be withheld during these periods of liberty to encourage her to go off and hopefully make opportunistic (and initially very speculative) attacks on naturally occurring prey items.
As and when she eventually becomes successful in these hunting forays the tracker will allow me to quickly go to her location. She will be left to feed up on whatever she wants to eat from the carcass. The remains of any carcass will not be touched or removed by me, in any circumstance. Any of these 'natural' kills by the developing raptor will be recorded detailing the date, time, location and species taken, which I will happily submit to any interested person or authority.
Once I believe that the falcon has become consistently capable as a hunter she will be released, free of all equipment and tracking gear, to continue on her journey alone in the wild environment.
Also, depending on any new policy or ethos within the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), I would also like to take the bird to at least one local school to educate and connect kids (via contact with this falcon) to environmental issues and to how they can play a valuable role with regard to the environment as well as learn about food chains, raptors and other animals and birds. Also how they can make very small but beneficial changes such as through limiting water and other resource use, and the impact and avoidance of littering. These talks will include to a greater or lesser degree several elements of the national curriculum such as literacy, numeracy, science, art, geography, language, environment and social, and will be delivered in such a way that allows them to understand and take an interest, not just in our precious flora and fauna, but in the environment at large, and hopefully may leave a lasting impression and a greater appreciation of the wild environment and the need to conserve and protect it.
In short, I will be using falconry techniques to the very highest ethical standards, which will have positive benefits for education, rehabilitation, conservation and scientific study. I will be doing this with a raptor that is already in the care system, which has no other realistic opportunity to get back to the wild with any reasonable chance of longer term survival and I'll be doing it with transparency, accountability and in a way which is perfectly ecologically sustainable.
That is the very best of falconry and with the introduction of the new Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, Western Australia has an opportunity to not only lead the rest of Australia, but the rest of the World, and we should seize this opportunity.
How will I (and other members of RFAWA inc) ensure these high standards, transparency and accountability? Well, hard working members of RFAWA have, over several years, formulated a set of ethics, reporting systems and protocols, and now have a small but significant recorded history of successful rehabilitation of raptors which is of such a high standard that we have received commendations from around the World. We are a small but friendly and inclusive group with a diverse membership which includes people who are considered World experts in their field. The sole purpose of the formation of the group initially was to share knowledge and experience in the captive management and care of raptors, and specifically those aspects which focus on the free exercise flying of raptors.
Our written systems are designed to set and maintain high standards and include a Constitution, Code of Ethics, a thorough application process and forms, Raptor Reporting Forms 1 and 2, an Apprentice Workbook and mentoring systems, various policy statements and our own website. All of our standards and requirements are at least in line with the International Association of Avian Trainers and the WA Guidelines but also provide the only available structured learning programme on the management, training and free exercise flying of Birds of Prey Australia-wide.
The Association's first inception was in 2012 but it wasn't until 2014 that RRAWA was officially formed and it would be another year before we gained Incorporated status. Our active membership has grown only very slightly in all that time with two members working through the two-year Apprentice Workbook and being elevated to full member status. However, our facebook support and interest group is now close to 100 strong and includes renowned experts in the captive management, training and free flying of raptors plus those from associated fields such as ecologists, raptor biologists and veterinarians.
All of the above was written in the early part of 2018, now, fast forward to September of the same year.....
'Lucky' has made it through an extensive free-exercise flying rehabilitation programme that went roughly to plan, but took slightly longer than I'd first envisioned...they are all different. Throughout this process she has spent hundreds of hours on the wing, in her own environment, with no physical barriers. She has flown over 3000km as recorded by the Marshall GPS tracker, she has reached heights of over 1km high and has stooped in prospective, and now a few successful, hunting dives or 'stoops', to call them by their proper name. She has learned about wind and weather, how to use thermals and the value of height. She has had a few scares along the way from other aerial predators with deadly intent, but her supreme fitness levels enabled her to escape unharmed, and she can add those experiences to her arsenal.
Until just a few weeks ago, although we know for sure from our saved GPS flight tracks that she had tried many times, she had not actually taken any prey items. Recently however, she has begun to piece everything together and on four occasions she has been successful in taking her natural quarry, entirely opportunistically, whilst at liberty to make these choices herself. The predator has awoken and I can do no more for her. Today, after cropping up on her kill, I was able to carefully approach her and pick her up on the glove, hood her and take her to the paddock where she first learned how to fly, and to where she returned to be fed having spent most of her time on the wing in the skies above.
This is familiar ground for her now, and as it's fairly close and easily accessible for me, I can go there each day to check on her progress and to be there for her if she needs me, which hopefully she wont. Should it be required, I can supplement feed her by means of deploying an RC flying wing or the drone which can carry a ready meal high aloft for her to chase and 'capture', without her having to be called in...in fact without her even realising that I have anything to do with the whole thing. This safety net will allow her to stay out there and continue to go, quite literally, wild again.
This has been another incredible experience for me personally, but none of it would have been possible without the huge investment of time, effort, personal expense and support of so many people. Thanks to each and every one of you!
Lucky, thank you for coming to me, and for allowing me to share this journey with you. Good Luck my friend, and may you always stay 'Lucky'.
Author's note: A short documentary film of Lucky's Journey through the rehabilitation process is currently being pieced together and will be added here in due course.