THE PEREGRINE FALCON:
Humans have long admired the beauty and prowess of the peregrine falcon. Several thousands of years ago the sport of falconry had its origins in China, as evidenced through depictions of peregrines together with humans. Also in ancient times, the Egyptians worshiped falcons, ascribing falcon heads to some of their most revered deities, including Horus and Qetesh. As falconry reached the peak of its popularity in Europe in the middle ages, peregrines maintained a special status, with only the nobility allowed to own them. Although the sport of falconry has waned somewhat since, it continues to be practiced around the world, and most falconers still hold the peregrine in high esteem.
The peregrine falcon is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, occurring over large portions of each continent except Antarctica. That being said, due to its preference for large territories, it was never a particularly common bird anywhere. However, populations historically remained quite stable, until a sudden and severe decline began in the 1950s. Within less than twenty years, the peregrine became extirpated from much of its range, and was barely clinging to existence in most of the remainder.
Research consistently indicated that the culprit was DDT, a pesticide introduced following World War II which was used worldwide to kill both crop pests and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. It affected the peregrine (and other birds of prey such as the osprey and bald eagle) by disrupting the process through which the female transfers calcium from her body into new eggshells, and thus any eggs which were produced were too thin to sustain the weight of the adults during incubation. More recently, studies have shown that DDT is also a human carcinogen. The peregrine effectively acted as an environmental indicator, alerting us to the fact that we were poisoning our environment - and ourselves. By the early 1970s, Canada, the United States, and most European countries had banned the use of DDT. Sadly, many tropical countries continue to apply tremendous quantities of DDT each year, threatening local wildlife, as well as migrants from North America such as the peregrine which may spend more than half of each year in Central and South American countries.
Once DDT had been banned in North America, efforts began to initiate peregrine recovery programs. Falconers came to the rescue by donating numerous adults to a captive breeding program operated by the Canadian Wildlife Service in Wainwright, Alberta. Over the course of twenty years, this program involved the release of more than four thousand young peregrines at sites all across Canada where the species had once thrived. Peregrines, like many predators, have a high rate of juvenile mortality (approximately 80% die before turning one year old), and thus success was slow in coming. However, the efforts put into this release program have indeed paid off with a small but growing wild peregrine population. Numbers are highest in the northwest reaches of Canada, where a remnant population persisted even at the worst of times, and lowest on the east coast, where peregrines are still a rare sight. In the interior, peregrines have settled and nested successfully in many cities in recent years, including Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, and Montreal. Ontario currently has urban peregrine pairs in London, Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa, plus close to two dozen pairs at wild sites, mostly near Lake Superior and elsewhere in the north. The Quebec population is estimated to be around fifteen pairs.
THE CANADIAN PEREGRINE FOUNDATION:
Although the peregrine is no longer at immediate risk of extinction, neither is its recovery advanced enough yet to leave it to fend entirely for itself. When the national breeding program was shut down in 1996, and government funding was curtailed, it fell to local volunteers to pick up the slack. A pair of peregrines arrived in downtown Toronto in 1995, becoming the first pair to nest successfully in southern Ontario in over thirty years. They drew a lot of attention from the public, especially from a dedicated group of volunteers who banded together to rescue the fledglings when they got into trouble (which happened repeatedly). From among this group, several individuals joined forces to launch the Canadian Peregrine Foundation (CPF) and in late 1997 CPF officially became incorporated as a national charity dedicated to assisting and documenting the recovery of the peregrine falcon and other raptors at risk across Canada.
In its first full year of operation, 1998, CPF put the focus on southern Ontario’s nesting peregrines and attempted to promote local stewardship of the birds at each site. Video cameras were purchased and placed overlooking the Etobicoke, Toronto, and Hamilton nests. A public information centre was opened at each location, where visitors could drop in to watch the local peregrines raise their families live on large television monitors. Each of the cameras also broadcast directly to the CPF website (www.peregrine-foundation.ca), enabling people from around the world to share in the experience (by the end of the year, visits from 117 countries had been recorded). Encouraged by the success of these "Falcon Watch Centres" in raising awareness about peregrines and endangered species in general, CPF opened a fourth location in Ottawa in 1999, again accompanied by a nest camera. In the second year of operation, the Falcon Watch Centres collectively registered more than 50,000 visitors, and the CPF website received over seven million hits. More importantly, with every month that passed, additional people were learning about the plight of the peregrine and offering to help with its recovery.
In addition to continued monitoring of the Toronto, Etobicoke, and Hamilton nest sites, the Canadian Peregrine Foundation took on several additional projects in 1999. In May, the Canadian Peregrine Foundation made history by fostering two 19-day old chicks into the Hamilton nest, where the eggs had failed to hatch. Similarly, our new Ottawa camera allowed us to observe that there too the four eggs were infertile, and we conducted a second successful foster there in mid-June. On top of this, we operated our hacking program as planned, releasing a further six peregrines from boxes in Richmond Hill and Guelph. Four of these birds were fitted with lightweight backpack satellite transmitters which will permit us to track their movements for up to 12 months. This groundbreaking research is being undertaken in collaboration with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and will allow us to gain valuable insights into the migratory routes and wintering grounds of eastern anatum peregrines.
In 2000, the Canadian Peregrine Foundation expanded its mandate to address all threatened and endangered raptors in Canada. Since that time, the Canadian Peregrine Foundation has continued to expand its operations considerably, focusing primarily on research, education, and population recovery efforts. To learn more about the Foundation's activities in these and other areas, explore the links on our Programs page
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