For many years, the Game Commission has contributed to monitoring and evaluation studies of Pennsylvania's peregrine falcon population. Banding has been a primary tool for tracking the movements and life expectancy of these birds. This simple tool, applied to young, has told us much of the life and death struggles of these wild falcons. Young falcons released from Pennsylvania have been found nesting in Toronto, Canada, in Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan. Young also have been found dead; killed by cars, airplanes, and electrocution. While banding has enable us to determine the conclusion of their journeys either by death or settling into a territory, we have only the slightest hint of how they arrived at these destinations. Telemetry will enable us to follow the movements of these birds several times per week for up to a year during their fall migration, winter residence, and return north to establish a permanent territory. This will tell us where our young falcons go, and how they got there! It is a cutting-edge extension of the banding process that will give us correspondingly much more information on movements and threats!
The first hints of what to expect have come from partners in Virginia and Canada, who pioneered this technology and are assisting our efforts. Young from Canada unexpectedly went to South America one year, and wintered along the Atlantic coast in the southeastern United States on another occasion. Six of 19 young birds carrying telemetry from Virginia spent a considerable time in Pennsylvania last year, traveling through the Susquehanna Valley and spending time in the Harrisburg and Philadelphia areas. These brought to light the considerable movements of young birds prior to their southward 'migration.' Within weeks of learning to fly, young peregrines were traveling hundreds of miles, apparently wandering aimlessly across the environment. Something was surely happening in those birds' brains!
Telemetry will provide several specific benefits, beyond the basic question of where they go. With the continuous monitoring provided by telemetry, we have the potential to rescue a bird trapped in an unsafe situation, or to investigate causes of death. A better assessment of risks will be determined by evaluating winter residence, including exposure to toxins and direct persecution potential in Latin America.
As the peregrine population expands, interactions between established pairs - even life-and-death fights for territories, are resulting in deaths and disruption to nest sites. By tracking the birds both during the summer movements, and during establishment of territories the following spring, we can evaluate interactions between established birds and birds looking for a territory. Our greatest hope is to identify more breeding territory sites, particularly sites at historic, wild locations!
A huge benefit of this study is the increased educational opportunities for students in the field of conservation biology and environmental studies. Using the World Wide Web, students can use the information for school projects. Following and charting the flight of the peregrines will increase awareness and could stimulate a desire for knowledge and activity on conservation and environmental fronts among student groups worldwide. This will contribute significantly to the public's interest in peregrines, extending the already intense period of web-based observation beyond the nesting season through the fall dispersal and winter residence seasons. Mapping the movements of these birds, and displaying those maps, reinforces to the public the remarkable journeys, and associated hazards, faced by these wild birds.
The transmitters attached will provide data for one year or longer. We plan to trap the young to remove their transmitters either during summer 2003 or 2004, depending on the information we want. Allowing the birds to carry the solar telemetry for two full years would track them through two migrations and help identify their adult territories. Great information, but this effort will generate significant data costs, and additional funding will be needed.
Satellite tracking of peregrine falcons is not new. The Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho, widely recognized as the leader of North America's peregrine recovery effort, has studied hundreds of peregrines in this manner over the years, including many juveniles. Previous experience with satellite telemetry by the Peregrine Fund in central and western North America has demonstrated that satellite transmitters have no bearing on the flying and hunting behavior of the birds, or the reproductive success of the peregrines wearing them.
Solar-powered satellite transmitters were obtained through the Canadian Peregrine Foundation for deployment on peregrines in this project. These units have been found to be more reliable than battery-powered transmitters and can transmit signals more frequently and for a longer duration. Canadian Peregrine Foundation personnel and Game Commission wildlife biologists will attach transmitters to those birds captured for the study. The 18-gram transmitter (less than 3 percent of a male's body weight) will be attached with a snug, but comfortable neoprene harness that wraps around the body. The harness will be attached to the transmitter and fitted on the bird in a process that takes about one hour. The young birds are hooded and kept as comfortable as possible during the fitting. They usually adapt quickly to their new backpacks.
Radio transmitter signals are received on the France/NASA ARGOS Satellite and relayed to the Canadian Peregrine Foundation via the Internet. The data collected from all transmitters will then be converted to latitude and longitude for posting on the website and relayed to all partners. Location coordinates will be recorded and entered into an Arc Info compatible database. Once entered, the data will be plotted on a corresponding digital map of Pennsylvania, and later on maps of eastern North America, the Caribbean, and, if necessary, South America. These maps will be posted on this website.
Funding for this program is provided currently by the federal Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program and from the state Department of Environmental Protection. The Game Commission administers the funds and provides logistical support and coordination. Many volunteer hours, by falcon watchers, and supporting roles, including webmasters and GIS expertise, are essential to make this process a success and make the information available to you.