Ants Put a Hitch in Falcon Placement
Evelyn Cronce— 11 July 2007 — in Aplomado Falcon Restoration ShareThousands of harvester ants were swarming in the desert July 6, when members of the Aplomado Falcon Project arrived to put the birds in their hack boxes. The ants apparently were looking for higher ground. They found it, not only on the blooming yuccas, but also all over the three hack boxes that had been built to house the 11 young falcons scheduled for release July 13. This was not business as usual.
The Aplomado project is administered by the Peregrine Fund. The young birds were hatched in captivity in Boise, Idaho. When they are about 40 days old, they are brought to a release site chosen by the fund under a special provision of the Endangered Species Act.
The day-to-day field preparations and care of the young birds falls on three young men who call themselves "The Nature Nerds." Sean Sanders and Caleb Osborn are summer student workers with the Peregrine Fund and will be returning to college in about four weeks. Jeremy Plauger, who graduated in June, said, "I'll be staying here as long as the birds need me."
All three men have majors in various aspects of wildlife management and were kind enough to give this reporter a ride out to the release site.
According to my guides, the site in Socorro County, about 25 miles southeast of Socorro, was chosen because it was a Chihuahuan desert with no owls living near enough to threaten the young birds. There are three hack boxes at the site. One is on Bureau of Land Management property, one is on New Mexico Land Office property and one is on the White Sands Missile Range.
The birds are normally put into the hack boxes a week before they are released to adapt to their new surroundings.
The three men will provide food and water to the boxes through tubes so the birds will not see the humans and will not identify the humans as a source of food.
Once the birds are released the falcons will return to he boxes each day to feed. The young falcons are fed quail.
Eventually, the falcons will begin chasing prey, making their own kills, and spending more and more time away from the hack site.
When these 11 falcons leave the box permanently, the process will be repeated two more times in succession for a total of three releases from the Socorro County sites.
"The birds learn to hunt instinctively. They are not taught to hunt by their parents," said Osborn.
The falcons hunt cooperatively in pairs, feeding on medium-sized birds, insects and bats.
A falcon is considered successfully released when it is no longer dependent on food provided at the hack site. The process generally takes from three to six weeks.
On July 6, Angel Montoya, a research biologist working on the Peregrine Fund, initially thought the young birds would have to wait a day or two until they could be put into the hack boxes because of the number of ants. He thought the sheer number of ants could stress and possibly damage the young birds that would be confined inside the boxes for a week.
Montoya and Brian Millsap, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, climbed onto the tower to assess the situation. They first tried chasing the ants away. This resulted in flying ants everywhere including on themselves and on the assembled agency and press representatives on the ground below. Fortunately the flying ants were not biting.
"They're just males waiting to die," said Matt Mitchell, local landowner and falconer. "There's no queen up there."
Mitchell showed Montoya and Millsap where the establishing colony was in the shade under the hack box. Those ants did bite.
The men tried putting a dead quail on the box to see if the ants would attack it. Although they were not particularly aggressive, they did seem to be drawn to the breast meat.
Insecticide was out of the question as it would not be good for the birds.
The men put a pan of water on the top of the box to see it the ants would drown themselves. They did, but more just flew in.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you all," said Montoya, "but we just can't risk putting the birds in the boxes."
Montoya and his crew put their heads together while those of us assembled left. They talked about taking one of the boxes off the platform, taking it off-site and putting all the birds into it. They noticed the ants were also pollinating the yucca flowers and did not want to upset the ecological balance of the area by destroying the ants. They talked about the possibility of putting 8-foot boards at each corner to get the ants to congregate at the tops of the boards.
Finally, they decided to screen in the caged side of each of the boxes so that the ants could not get to the birds. Several hours later, after the screens were added to the boxes, the birds were put in and kept the project on schedule for a Friday, July 13, release.
The Aplomado falcon formerly ranged throughout the southwestern United States, and Mexico. It has rarely been seen in the U.S. and northern Mexico since the 1940s.
It is considered to be a medium-sized, steel-gray falcon. "Aplomado" is Spanish for dark gray. Males average about 15 inches in length and weigh about 9 ounces.
Females are slightly larger, about 17 inches in length and weigh about 14.5 ounces.
A distinguishing field characteristic of this falcon is the white dash above each eye and along the trailing edge of their secondary feathers.
The birds live in the Chihuahuan Desert where there are tall cacti and tree yuccas. They do not build there own nests, but use old stick nests of hawks and other species that share the same range and habitat. They eat small birds and insects they catch in the air and live between 15 and 30 years.
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