L.Large and powerful with a wingspan of over a meter, the saker falcon is one of the fastest birds in the world. They fly high in the air before diving up to 200 mph to catch small mammals and birds.
These predators used to be abundant, from the grasslands and forest steppes of central and eastern Europe to the semi-desert and mountain plateau regions of eastern Asia, but in recent decades human activities have devastated many. The world population decreased for almost half between 1993 and 2012 and saker falcons are now listed as in danger of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with only about 10,500 breeding pairs in the wild.
As threats to these birds increase, so do efforts to save them, with some success.
In Bulgaria, a five-year conservation plan led by the Green balkans Wildlife Rehabilitation and Reproduction Center published results in May showing that a pair of captive-bred birds released into the wild had been breeding.
Saker falcons were considered extinct as a breeding species in Bulgaria for more than 20 years. Multiple factors contributed to its decline, including loss of habitat as Bulgarian agriculture became more intensive starting in the 1950s, electrocution of power lines, pesticides in the food chain, and poaching to meet the demand. demand for falconry, especially in the Middle East.
“At the end of the century, we did not have any breeding pairs in the country,” says Yana Andonova of Green Balkans.
For the past decade, Green Balkans, based in Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria, has been running a breeding program with the aim of restoring saker falcon populations. In 2015, it launched its five-year reintroduction project, importing birds from European countries, including Hungary and Poland, to breed in aviaries.
The organization installed “hacks” high up in the oaks to house the young hawks once they were 30 days old. thesis specially adapted aviariesMade of steel mesh and equipped with cameras, they allow young birds to flap their wings and get used to their environment safe from predators.
The birds were fed twice a day using a pulley system to avoid human contact. Slowly, the team lifted the top of the stunt and began putting food on an outdoor table to encourage the birds to explore. Food was provided for two to three months. “After a while they started hunting alone,” Andonova says.
Between 2015 and 2020, the Green Balkan program released 80 saker falcons into the wild. But tracking them to monitor survival and reproduction rates has been difficult. They were not equipped with satellite trackers, as previous experiments had shown that they were harmful to birds.
A breakthrough came in 2018, when a group from Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) monitoring imperial eagles in the southeast of the country found an active saker falcon nest. The birds had identification tags from the Green Balkan breeding program. The discovery was incredibly exciting, Andonova says. “It showed that all the efforts had paid off.”
This pair was bred for two years and then in 2020, Andonova’s team discovered that the couple’s female had been replaced by another female, also from the breeding program. “This was also very good news because it shows that even if something happens to a bird, there are other saker falcons in the country, so they can easily form a new pair,” she says. The new couple had chicks last year.
Green Balkans continues the breeding project for another five years and aims to release 100 birds and have six breeding pairs in the wild by 2024, says Andonova, “which will be the beginning of a self-sustaining population in Bulgaria.”
Saker falcons are a benchmark for the health of broader ecosystems, says Campbell Murn, chief conservation officer for the Hawk Conservancy Trust. “If you have a healthy population of predators, in general, the ecosystem that supports them will also be healthy.”
That’s why reintroduction programs alone, positive as they are, are unlikely to solve the population decline, he says. “We need to handle well the threats that caused that species to decline or become extinct in the first place.”
In Bulgaria, they have been doing just that. The BSPB has purchased 640 hectares (1,600 acres) of land to restore grassland habitats for birds. It has also isolated more than 4,600 power lines in Bulgaria in an effort to reduce deaths from electrocution. “One of our main activities is focused on habitat management and restoration,” says Svetoslav Spasov, project manager at BSPB.
BSPB is also working with law enforcement and border agencies to try to crack down on poaching. Tackling the illegal wildlife trade is critical. “It’s probably one of the biggest threats saker falcons face,” says Murn. The resurgence of falconry in recent decades has led to increased demand for wild birds, which can reach tens of thousands of dollars in illicit markets.
More than 3,000 miles from Bulgaria, in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, researchers at the Altai Hawk Nursery are testing a novel method to deter poachers.
Saker falcons used to be widespread in this region, but now there are only two or three pairs that nest in the wild, according to Sergey Snigirev, a professor at Altai State University. The university has been running saker falcon breeding and reintroduction programs for decades, but in May they tried something new. Each of the 10 birds they released has the letters SOS tattooed on her cere, the wax-like skin on their beaks, and the number 22 inked on their leg. The tattoo takes just five to 10 minutes, Snigirev says, and it’s painless for birds.
Tattoos render hawks worthless to poaching gangs who appreciate unmarked wild birds. “This is the first time the technique has been used in Russia to exclude reintroduced birds from illegal commercial trade,” says Snigirev. If the plan works, he adds, more extensive use will be recommended.
For now, the global fate of the saker falcon still remains in the balance. “It’s an iconic species,” says Stoycho Stoychev, BSPB’s director of conservation. Saker falcons are not only a vital part of the ecosystem, they are embedded in the national culture of many countries, including Bulgaria, where they have even been immortalized in poetry.
“We are losing one of our natural assets,” he says. “The intrinsic value of losing such a bird, which is so beautiful, would be a great loss.”