The need for, and use of, falconry techniques in the rehabilitation of raptors.
For the purposes of this article I will concentrate primarily on peregrines. However, many elements of it can and are applied to other raptors, particularly those whose exceptional flying capabilities are key to their survival.
Anyone with even the most basic of insights into the lifestyles, risks and requirements of young raptors will appreciate the workload carried out by the parents. In the case of peregrines this will include lots of provision of opportunity to practice and learn footing skills, powers of flight, positions of attack, and control of captured quarry – all of which extends many months into the first year of the bird’s life.
This aspect is what we, as falconers, aspire to replicate and develop in our training. It can make you appreciate what an onerous task we face with captive bred eyasses in comparison to say hunting with a passage or haggard that will already have the benefit of these skills. Luckily and often frustratingly, we get to witness this progress or lack of it, close up! Not only do we have to get them to the highest levels of fitness, but we also need to provide the constant opportunities to succeed in capturing quarry and the obedience and will from the bird to stick around us whilst we do so. As those who fly gamehawks know well, this process can often take far more than a single season and naturally improves commensurate to the amount of time flown and the number of opportunities presented.
Over many years I have been appalled to see young eyasses taken into well-meaning rescue centres and placed in a pen (which is sadly often unsuitable for the purpose) where feather damage occurs or is exacerbated. They are then released, usually to a fanfare of applause some weeks later, unfit and thoroughly lacking any skills necessary for survival. The poor bird flies off into the sunset to face slow starvation and death.
For many years a falconer offering advice, guidance or hands on help on such matters would be typically construed as having self-interest or nefarious intentions and in many ways we still are. Those who observed or dealt with some of the fallout of the application in 2019 to take wild birds for DNA purposes only, will recall the vitriol that greeted that decision. The hope to reintroduce wild take for falconry purposes, whilst historically admirable, is now very hard to justify - particularly given the numbers of easily produced captive bred falcons available and often shockingly low prices for tiercels.
Utilising our skills in rehabilitating wild birds allows us to conduct falconry of the highest standards, whilst simultaneously appealing to conservation groups and the many organisations or members of the public out there in the modern media driven world, from all with a vested interest it’s a “win win” situation.
I’m pleased to say the tide of opinion is slowly beginning to turn and quite rightly falconers are becoming recognised for what they can bring to the party and how they can assist in getting our raptors back to where they belong. How has this come about you may ask?
Communication Is Key
In my own case, over a decade ago, I was visited by a ‘wildlife crime team’ as they were back in those days, to investigate a sparrowhawk in my care. The bird in question was a mal imprint brought to me by a lady who had found it tweeting in her garden. A mischievous chap in the falconry community thought he might get me in a bit of trouble by reporting me, but instead he actually did me a favour!
Once the police saw the care provided, the condition of my other birds and the plan I had in place, they were more than happy with my intentions and we clarified the paperwork necessities. I agreed to work with them in any further cases of recovery or rescue they were dealing with thereafter. Over the years I continued and built upon this relationship with them by inviting them or new team members to my property to learn about the different species and their requirements - with them either informing me of birds needing recovery or me informing them when I had a bird in my care.
I always involve them in the releases of the birds where possible. I engaged with the regional BTO officer so we could get the birds banded prior to release. This avenue of engagement meant that I became part of their network of rehabilitators and raptor rescues. Be in no doubt there are some among such organisations who still hold misguided entrenched views on falconers. Sadly these views are often compounded by media driven rhetoric about ridiculous prices paid for falcons. I find the simple statement of current prices and ease of availability of falcons proves an eye opener to many. However, it is also why it is imperative that you must ensure you are legally covered in all aspects and obtain the correct paperwork from APHA within the time constraints. To use a boxing term, protect yourself at all times.
Shaun working directly with the
police rural crime team
Female peregrine in training with Shaun
L-R Steve Binney (BTO) & falconer Scott Irwin returning a female to the nest site
The Challenges Of Urban Peregrines
In recent years I and a few of my fellow falconers, including Scott Irwin, Dr Karl Jennings and Gemma Jennings, have been involved with a number of peregrine sites over the North West area. With the population expansion of urban peregrines we have seen the falcons are under pressure to take sites that are often unsuitable for breeding. The end result is fledging peregrines often have a single chance to get their first flight right. If they fail then they are at great risk of death and injury. One site in particular has a 200ft tower. The next highest point below are the house roof tops and every one contains a herring gull nest with ultra-aggressive parents that are only too happy to drive young peregrines down into the busy traffic below and death.
Sadly several at this site have been struck by traffic and a number have been picked up out of the road never to be seen again. What we have found with this site is the tiercels have a far better chance of being returned immediately. My colleague and fellow falconer Scott is a roofer and can often get them onto a roof ridge, but even then they do not go unmolested by the gulls. The tiercels usually attempt their first flights around 40 days, and their quicker wingbeat and flight style at this young age generally gives them more impetuous to get back to height. The females seldom do and come down constantly.
We have rehabilitated three females and two tiercels from this site who failed to get back to height after numerous attempts or were picked up only to be found a number of weeks later with the RSPCA or at a rescue centre. Usually the worst aspect of this, aside from feather damage, is a degree of imprinting in some individuals which can limit their ability to be returned to the wild in the long term. The big positive about the site is that is surrounded by genuinely interested locals who were previously highly suspicious of falconers. Now they monitor and assist where they can throughout the fledging period. It’s vital we provide feedback throughout the rehabilitation period to these interested parties.
Another aspect that causes issues for urban peregrines (given their primary diet of feral pigeon) is the high rate of frounce found in many of the birds, and this requires treatment. In some cases it’s already too late, and at one site we dealt with the adult female had died. Remarkably she was replaced by another female within two weeks, just at the start of the egg laying period, and the pair went on to raise a clutch.
Working with bodies such as the RSPB can require a large degree of patience but by offering clear, constructive advice based on the unique experience we have as falconers and important hands on assistance when required has gone a long way to opening their eyes as to what we can do for the benefit of the birds. Once a bird comes in to be rehabilitated the interested bodies must be informed if they are not already aware. I make a habit of sending emails as a paper trail confirmation of discussions.
A Falconer's Approach To Raptor Rehab
Rehabs fall into a number of camps - immediate return or return within a short period is the ideal outcome. A fortnight is the general rule of thumb depending on the age of the youngster. If it is left too late the parents and siblings can drive them off. If the birds are young enough then a foster nest is an another option we carried out last year which worked well. With far more demands, is a ‘wild hack’ but the birds must be young enough to fixate on the hacking site and suitable hack areas obtained.
If none of these choices are an option then we adopt a modified falconry training regime and hunting season, followed by a tame return hack. Training can then be undertaken. I avoid the use of drones unless there is a specific need to use them, such as an unexpected delay in training like when Avian Flu or Covid restrictions came into force, or a bird that does not respond to traditional training methods. The logic for this is to avoid a previously released bird coming to look at someone flying a drone!
When dealing with falcons I prefer to use gamehawking principles and techniques for a number of reasons. It allows me to assess fitness levels, footing skills and hunting ability, and it allows me to engineer successful kills for the bird in the crucial early training period whilst retaining control. There will be times, with tiercels in particular, when their ability to take whatever offers itself up happens and that is fine, unlike with one’s own bird, this is not a potential disaster and gives reassurance for the tame hack aspect at a suitable time.
Assuming we have achieved a fit successful hunting bird at the end of the season, we can begin to vary the hunting style by offering other opportunities such as slipping at suitable quarry out of the hood, flying at higher or lower weights and preparing the bird for release slightly earlier than the fledging time of the wild birds. This final phase is conducted as a tame hack - the bird is left out for longer and longer periods with a daily feed at a fixed time, until such times as the bird moves on of its own accord.
Weather watching is one of the factors that must be taken into consideration along with awareness of other species nesting in the area (i.e. crows or kestrels are particularly defensive at this time), and a wide-ranging quarry base with plenty of opportunities. Normal equipment and telemetry are used throughout the training phase. Once the bird enters the tame hack phase, prior to return, then backpacks (for telemetry) need to be removed along with permanent anklets. I prefer to use an anklet secured by cable tie for rehabbed wild birds - when the bird is on the block the anklets are perfectly suitable and safe, but if the bird were to fly off wearing them they will eventually fall off. No birds are flown with field jesses at any time. The birds start off with full telemetry, minus bell(s), which is then reduced to a small micro transmitter on a tail crimp. When the bird has been flying and responding well to the tame hack and showing up on time for its rations, then the equipment can be removed altogether whilst feeding up.
If the bird has been drone trained it can be called in to a drone which of course has a number of advantages. The bird can see the drone at far greater distances but as yet I’ve not had any issues of the bird not showing up at feeding time. It’s soon evident when the bird begins to feed itself and no longer requires your assistance and many a pleasant hour can be spent watching the bird working. Once the bird stops coming back after a few days then it's to be assumed the bird has moved on to pastures new and you’ve done the best you can in assisting that.
Some Final Thoughts
Rehabilitation is performed under a general license, and you must fulfil the terms of the license that you are either a veterinary surgeon or have documentary evidence of at least 3 rehabilitation and release cases. In every case of a wild bird being brought into captivity it is always recommended to get a statement from a veterinary surgeon (preferably avian) who has assessed it to say it is unsuitable for release (or at least immediate release), inform your local wildlife crime team/officer and inform Natural England by email. If the bird is not releasable in 6 weeks under a general license, or the general license does not apply, then you need to register the bird with APHA on a UR license.
Rehabilitating falcons is time consuming, not without costs, and requires a longer period of commitment into the months when one’s own birds are settling ready to start the moult. It is often a bittersweet moment when they begin to ignore you and go on their way to seek their fortune but overall very satisfying.
Tiercel gets a tame hack meal
Juvenile tiercels return
Back she goes into the nest