Behind the falcon release is U of M student Isabel Martinez-Welgan, who, in partnership with the department Department of Environment and Geography, is conducting a study on juvenile peregrine falcons as part of her Ph.D. project.
Initially making the proposal to do the study about one-and-a-half years ago, and subsequent to considerable planning and research, she was given the nod to go ahead with the project only this past spring.
Although considerable amounts of information have in the past been collected on adult peregrine falcons, little is known about movement patterns of the fledgling young after leaving the nest, and this is one of the reasons why the project was approved.
In consultation with a professional falconer on the project, along with Brandon biologist Dan Chranowski and a Winnipeg endangered species biologist, Martinez-Welgan indicated that a total of seven falcons had subsequently been released last July, four in Neepawa from parents raised in captivity, while another three falcons from wild nests in Brandon and Winnipeg were also involved in the study.
Their nests contained in blue barrels within large wooden boxes, the 'hacked' birds (falcons that were released) were hatched in captivity and raised by their own parents, while denied human interaction for one month afterward.
Raised on a diet of primarily dead Japanese quail, it was noted that when released the birds were immediately able to fly, but not able to hunt well enough on their own to sustain themselves, no matter how many insects the young falcons caught; consequently, supplementing their diet was necessary for some time after release.
Eventually their diet of dead quail was replaced with live Japanese quail, this aimed at teaching the raptors to hunt prey which would simulate their natural diet in the wild. However, before given freedom the fledglings were fitted with GPS enabled transmitters to facilitate satellite tracking, these devices capable of accuracy to within 18 meters.
"These transmitters are capable of determining vertical positioning as well as horizontal," the PhD student explained, "So we can also determine how high they fly."
Interestingly, the student reported that although average altitude of the birds in flight was not somewhere out in the next galaxy, some of the falcons had on occasion been monitored reaching heights exceeding one kilometre above sea level.
As of last week Martinez-Welgan said that the raptors were no longer in the Neepawa area, and that some had been tracked east into northwest Ontario, while others had ventured north and west in the vicinity of the Saskatchewan border. Despite these distant wanderings, she related having tracked movement of over 500 km in four days with one of the birds, so it could conceivably head to the Oak Hammock Marsh for breakfast and be comfortably back in Neepawa around suppertime.
The student, who did a similar project on the Owl Lake herd of caribou in the past to receive her Masters degree in Natural Resources Management, said that the current project is part of a three year study on young falcons, and expects to release five additional specimens next year (the remaining five from wild nests).
With data from the tracking system carefully assessed every three days and each bird monitored over a two year period, Martinez-Welgan does not know if the falcons will return to Neepawa after migrating south for the winter – a behavior pattern observed in some adults - but certainly expects to have the answer next spring.
"It will be interesting to see how many will follow that pattern," she said.
U of M PhD student Isabel Martinez-Welgan equips a month-old peregrine falcon with a GPS enabled transmitter at the Brandon hack site last August; a similar project involving the study of four juvenile falcons was initiated by the student in Neepawa this past summer, which included tracking the raptors' movements by satellite.