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October 14, 2019

Expert: What I Know about … Falcons

Falcons have been around for centuries but there’s still lots to learn about these majestic creatures.

Dr. Gordon Court with Peregrine Falcon for Avenue Magazine - June 2013 "Expert" feature

Photography by Richard Siemens

Who: Gordon Court

Age: 53

Job: Provincial Wildlife Status Biologist

Experience: Five different species of falcon exist in Alberta, and Gordon Court has a stuffed example of each of them in his office. But if it hadn’t been for the actions of biologists like Court back in the ’70s, the stuffed peregrine would only serve as a reminder of an extinct species. DDT, a compound then found in pesticides, caused peregrine eggs to crack prematurely, killing the young. Court had just graduated from high school and was already fascinated by the birds; in 1977 he was hired to help monitor and manage the last peregrines in the province.

Court worked as an undergraduate summer student with a successful federal government breeding program, then went on to do a masters on peregrine falcons in the Arctic. He received his PhD from the University of Otago in New Zealand while doing field work in the Antarctic, studying the effects of global pollutants on seabirds. Next, he held a post-doctorate position at the University of Alberta, looking at the effects of industrial forestry on owls. But for the past 17 years, he’s been responsible for determining the well-being of all the species of animals and plants in the province. “Might sound lofty; but in order to see threatened species, you need to look at everything. You don’t want to see anything fall in the cracks,” says Court.   

– “Recently, people have started skydiving with falcons to monitor the speeds of their dives. Now we know they can travel almost 400 kilometres an hour. Peregrines are the fastest things that have ever lived. It’s remarkable how they dive; they actually become asymmetrical. They’ll bring one wrist of the wing up to the cheek, and will dive straight down, and drop the other wing down; so they’re streamlined.

– “When diving for prey, they can change from going straight down to horizontal flight in a second. So, if you have a duck that can travel at 60 miles per hour and the falcon overtakes it at 200 miles per hour, they just have to tap it and they could kill it. 

– “Falcons are now wearing these tiny satellite transmitters. Space and time means nothing to them. We had one who travelled from Edmonton to Mazatlan in eight days. Some that migrate to Central and Southern America in the winter are travelling more than 1,000 kilometres in a day.

– “I always thought since I was a kid that falcons would be closely related to hawks. But recent genetics studies place them more closely related to parrots. We always wondered why falcons didn’t build their own nests. When they molt, their feathers come off starting from the centre outwards, which is totally different from hawks but similar to parrots.

– “Falconry is probably well over 4,000 years old. It met its heyday in medieval times. Before the invention of the shotgun, it was the main way of hunting grouse. So, you’ll see portraits of many of the British kings with falcons on the wrist and, if you read Shakespeare, it’s full of falconry references.

– “Training a raptor for falconry is completely different than training any other animal. They’re always one meal away from saying bye to you. But if they’re too fat, they don’t do what you want them to. So, there’s a great expression: Fat falcons make for skinny falconers because you’re chasing them all over the place. It’s all about the food.

– “Virtually all the peregrines we now have in Alberta are related to the birds that came out of the breeding program from the ’70s. Some of the techniques that are still used to breed falcons internationally were started in Alberta.

– “This is the kinky end of wildlife biology: We were having trouble getting the falcons to copulate in captivity. So, we deliberately imprinted male peregrines on people. Imprinting means that when most birds hatch, they relate to the first animal they see. So if they see a person, they’ll think they’re a person. They’ll be sexually attracted to people. So, we imprinted these male peregrines on people; they’d court the people, bring them food and copulate on a special hat. The bird jumps on the hat, leaves a deposit – and boom – it works very well. We’d collect the sperm and artificially inseminate the female.”

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