Looking Back: Release Day
Marta Curti— 14 September 2010 — in Orange-breasted Falcon Project Share
I opened the release box door to see several tiny feathered faces staring up at me, patches of down in varying degrees sticking up from the tops of their heads like many tiny white dandelion seeds. I grabbed a small piece of meat from the plate I had carried up with me to the release tower, held it on the edge of my finger, and reached toward D2, the falcon closest to me. He stretched his neck, made a soft cacking noise, and greedily pulled the meat into his beak and swallowed.I offered a few more pieces to the other falcons and they all ate happily. I didn’t want to feed them too much. Today was the day they were going to be released for the first time, and we wanted them to come out of the box and eat on their own, which would help them continue to associate the platform and the box with safety.
My co-worker, Yeray Seminario and I placed food on the platform and secured the hack box door open. We then descended the ladder and walked the short distance to our observation blind where our volunteers Carlos Cruz and Camille Meyers were waiting. Minutes later, one of the falcons peeked its head out of the open door and looked around. Within seconds, he was out on the platform, flapping his wings and enjoying the breeze. The other falcons soon followed. As if on cue, the project’s release coordinator, Angel Muela, called from Panama to see how things were going. I was glad that we were able to give him good news.
Almost since its inception The Peregrine Fund has been using hacking techniques to release captive-bred raptors. The Peregrine Falcon, the Harpy Eagle, and the California Condor are just some of the species whose populations have benefitted from this release technique. Several years ago, Tom Cade conducted an experimental “tame hack” with several captive-bred Aplomado Falcons. As the name suggests, the birds were raised to be comfortable around people and were additionally trained to return to the box in the evening, which they did for the first two weeks after release. This allowed them to improve their flight skills during the day, but kept them safe at night from nocturnal predators such as the Great-horned Owl.
Due to the success of this initial experiment, we have adopted and adapted this release technique for use with Orange-breasted Falcons. Though raising all birds slated for release as tame birds would be impractical both time-wise and financially, it works wonderfully for our Orange-breasted Falcon project. Because we release only a small number of falcons a year (up to seven so far, compared to the almost 150 Aplomado Falcons released each season) and because the birds we release vary dramatically in age, this method of raising the chicks as tame helps makes the entire release process run much more smoothly. During the week or so they spend in the hack box, we hand feed them small amounts up to three times a day to make sure they continue to be accustomed to our presence. Amazingly, though, only a short time after being released and flying free, and being exposed to the very real dangers of the natural world, they become wary of us very quickly and lose their tameness almost immediately.
It has been three months since we released this year’s group of five falcons in the Mountain Pine Ridge of Belize. To date, they are still returning to the hack box almost daily, though they are starting to show signs that they will begin to disperse soon. They have become amazing aerial acrobats and we have seen them catch insects on numerous occasions. Once they disperse from the release site, they will be on their own and will have to use the skills they learned during these first few months to last them a life time. In upcoming years, we will keep our eyes open in the hopes of seeing them again, to know they are doing well and hopefully breeding and producing young on their own - the ultimate goal of this release program.
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