Canada’s peregrine falcon recovery: An inspirational return from devastation

February 8, 2018 Marcel Gahbauer

After 40 years, the bird of prey was removed from the endangered list; here’s one bird lover’s first-person account of how it happened

 

In early December 2017, there was a rare bit of good news concerning species at risk—the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) announced that it had reassessed the peregrine falcon as “not at risk” in most of the country (the exception being the pealei subspecies along the Pacific coast, which remains “special concern”). This represented a significant recovery for a bird that was among the first species to be listed as endangered in Canada (in 1978). It was also a very meaningful moment for me, after 20 years of involvement with peregrine falcons.

Despite growing up in suburban Toronto, I developed an early fascination with birds, fueled by family camping trips and extensive exploration of the city’s ravines and lakeshore parks. I was particularly fascinated by songbirds. But, aside from owls, I didn’t pay all that much attention to birds of prey.

 

The author's view of an adult female peregrine falcon on the 33rd floor nest ledge of Place Victoria in downtown Montreal. The falcon's chicks were being banded.

 

All that started to change in 1997, when I stumbled across a motley crew of volunteer “falcon watchers” running around the streets of downtown Toronto. Peregrine falcons were decimated by DDT contamination in the middle of the 20th century, but recovery efforts _q_tweetable: The population trajectory of the peregrine falcon remains atypical. It has recovered well but only after decades of effort involving thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars._q_were starting to pay off by the mid-1990s, with the first-ever successful nests in southern Ontario in Toronto and Hamilton. While the urban environment offers good shelter, protection from predators, and abundant prey, it can be hazardous for young peregrine falcons, which tend to be poor fliers when they first leave the nest. In a big city, this often means that they quickly lose altitude and end up landing on a busy street and needing rescue.

I quickly became a regular member of the team—and the next spring, after I wrapped up my final exams at the University of Toronto, I started working as the coordinator at the Etobicoke nest site, where I recruited and trained new falcon watchers and operated a visitor’s center for the public to watch and learn about the local peregrine falcons. Although it was the birds that hooked me, the job ended up being more public education than biology—not at all what I had in mind at the time but ultimately a foreshadowing of my future! 

Although I have many great memories from my three years there, one stands out above all others. One peregrine falcon chick named Windwhistler (all the chicks were named through a community contest) had crashed on his first flight, and it was my responsibility to rescue him.  After eluding us for most of a day, I was able to catch him with a towel, just metres from heavy traffic on Bloor Street. As exciting as it was then, the rescue became more meaningful over time, since Windwhistler went on to raise more than 40 offspring of his own in Toronto over the course of a decade—the most prolific peregrine falcon ever recorded in Ontario!

 

Windwhistler, the fledgling peregrine falcon that Marcel Gahbauer rescued from near street level in Etobicoke, Ontario.

 

As my involvement with peregrine falcons deepened, I realized there were bigger questions yet to be investigated. To get answers, I enrolled in graduate studies at McGill University. What started off as a relatively modest satellite telemetry research project kept expanding, to the point that my supervisor rolled me over into a PhD program. By the time I submitted my dissertation, I had already been working with peregrine falcons for more than a decade and figured it was time for me to turn my attention back to my other long-standing conservation research interest, the short-eared owl.

Over time, I came to realize how many other species at risk were in need of attention—and to appreciate the role of COSEWIC in assessing the status of those species. When an opening on COSEWIC’s Birds Specialist Subcommittee was advertised in 2010, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I was delighted to be accepted, and even more so, to be selected as the subcommittee’s co-chair in 2015. In that role, I (and the other co-chair) oversee all bird status reports that are produced for COSEWIC. 

And that’s how the peregrine falcon came back into my life. All species listed under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) are to be reassessed every 10 years, and the peregrine falcon had last been looked at in 2007. Given my history with the species, I was assigned to chaperone it through the assessment process. The updated status report makes evident just how substantially peregrine falcons have rebounded across most of Canada—in some areas, they are even exceeding historical numbers, especially through colonization of cities. With a widespread and ever-increasing population, the peregrine falcon no longer meets any of the criteria for being a species at risk.

 

Nate, a peregrine falcon that Marcel Gahbauer twice tracked with satellite telemetry to Colombia and back, at his nesting territory in Mississauga, Ontario.

 

Unfortunately, the population trajectory of the peregrine falcon remains atypical. It has recovered well but only after decades of effort involving thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars. That level of effort simply is not feasible for each of the many hundreds of species listed under SARA. For that reason, one of the most satisfying aspects of my role with COSEWIC is to identify “candidate species” that are in decline but not yet assessed but that, with proactive response, we might be able to prevent from ever reaching endangered status.

Of course, my interest in species at risk also carries over to my work at Stantec. As a senior wildlife biologist, almost every project I work on involves potential effects on one or more species at risk. Being intimately familiar with so many status reports and recovery strategies makes it easier to recognize possible concerns and develop appropriate recommendations. While there is often considerable public opposition to major projects on the basis of anticipated environmental effects, such projects can actually provide great opportunities for research and conservation—if given good guidance. That’s why I’m always looking for opportunities to apply my knowledge of species at risk to enable clients to advance their projects while integrating a positive influence on conservation and management into their design.

Considering how bleak the outlook was for the peregrine falcon less than 50 years ago, its recovery provides inspiration for tackling the many wildlife conservation challenges that remain.

About the Author

Marcel Gahbauer

Dr. Marcel Gahbauer is a senior wildlife biologist with over 16 years of field and reporting experience involving species at risk, population monitoring, and environmental assessments. He has worked on projects all over Canada focusing on power generation and distribution including multiple large transmission lines, major hydroelectric generation projects, and wind turbine installations.

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