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April 11, 2005

Peregrine falcons released to the wild at Long Marine Laboratory

By Tim Stephens

For the next few weeks, visitors to UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory will have the rare opportunity to see young peregrine falcons learning to fly and hunt in the wild.

Photo: falcons

These young peregrine falcons were released at Long Marine Laboratory in April 2003.
Photo: Howard "Boots" McGhee

The six-week-old falcons were raised in a captive breeding program and are now being released to the wild by the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group (SCPBRG), which is affiliated with the Institute of Marine Sciences and based at Long Marine Lab.

Glenn Stewart, SCPBRG program manager, said the release is a six- to eight-week process during which the group's staff and volunteers will be keeping an eye on the birds and providing them with food at the release site until they are able to capture prey on their own. In the wild, peregrine falcon parents provide food for their young during this stage, but the young birds do not learn their hunting skills from their parents, Stewart said.

"It's a completely instinctive activity. They will soon be dominating the air space around the lab and chasing other birds as they begin to learn pursuit skills--it's quite an impressive aerial display to observe," he said. The three falcon siblings, two males and a female, were five weeks old when Stewart brought them to Long Marine Lab last week and put them in a specially-built box (called a "hack box") set up on a third-floor landing of the Center for Ocean Health building. Today (Monday), Stewart will open the box to allow the birds to take their first flights (known as fledging).

The fledglings can be a bit clumsy at first and often land on the ground after their first flight. This is the most dangerous time for the birds, but Long Marine Lab is a very forgiving location, Stewart said.

"In other locations, we have to worry about coyotes or bobcats getting them when they land on the ground. But even here we need to make sure they get back to a safe perch before nightfall, so we'll have people out there every daylight hour to monitor them for the next two months," he said.

The birds have been outfitted with small radio transmitters to enable the researchers to keep track of them during the release process. The volunteers helping to monitor the birds at Long Marine Lab include six student interns from UCSC and Cabrillo College who are receiving course credits for their work with SCPBRG.

This is the third year in a row that Long Marine Lab has served as a release site for peregrine falcons. Stewart said the falcons typically use the whole lab area as a home base and can often be seen perching on the roofs of the buildings and flying overhead. Until they begin catching their own prey, the falcons usually return to the hack box once a day to eat the fresh quail the attendants leave there.

SCPBRG biologists have released more than 1,000 peregrine falcons into the wild since the 1970s, helping to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Their release method, known as "hacking," is based on an old falconry technique. A detailed description can be found on the group's web site.

The releases at Long Marine Lab are being carried out under a contract with Caltrans as mitigation for the potential disturbance of nesting peregrines during seismic retrofitting work on the San Francisco Bay Bridge and other bridges.

The SCPBRG is dedicated to the recovery of endangered predatory birds and applies its expertise to a wide range of bird species. The organization's work is entirely supported by foundation grants, gifts from individuals, and contracts awarded by state and federal agencies.

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