Lanner Falcon rescue.
15th May 2008.
I have not been able to access the blog for some months now, and apologise to those that have been kind enough to read it. I have been advised to keep my blogs short, but that won’t happen. Daily snippets are boring, but put end to end they end up make up a story.
On Friday the 28th March 2008 I went to the Animal orphanage at Kenya Wildlife Service to talk to the Veterinary Department regarding the issues of Furudan poisoning, dichlofenec use in wildlife, Newcastle’s disease in doves, rehabbing cheetah and if they had any raptors brought in for veterinary care. The last list on the agenda is usually the first reason why I visit! But importantly Dr Thomas Munyimbe had sent a memo to the KWS Director regarding new evidence of the mis-use of Carbofuran, and there was evident progress within KWS regarding this terrible poison.(see poison blog).
As I exited the Dept I bumped into Matuku who works at the adjacent Animal Orphanage and he surprised me by saying he had what he thought was a Peregrine Falcon. This news put a lively new energy into my step, and an urgency. I knew they have only cage management facilities to house raptors and this invariably leads to severe often irreparable damage. I am sure Matuku knew this and that is why he wanted me to see it. What transpired is very typical in raptor rehabilitation everywhere in the world. But here in Kenya I feel a few principles that have much to do with “hands off management” may encourage minimal handling and cage management to the detriment of all. There is some small deviation of thought that might lead people with the best of intentions, to inadvertently set in motion a process that leads to the loss of the subject they are trying to protect. I wish I knew how to better describe this frame of mind; for it often divides people with similar good intentions. Trouble is usually only one side, the least controversial side, wins
In December 2007 I had visited the orphanage and saw a few Black Kites and an Augur Buzzard sharing the same cage. The cage was generous, if too low and constructed to keep tortoises. Spanning some 15m by 8m and 2m high it is constructed of two layers of fine gauge chicken wire, on all four sides. On one side the public can pass by within 6m. Throughout the day some hundreds of people make their rounds to look at the adjacent lions and leopards and cheetah. The result for a new wild bird is of course complete panic. Within similar cages they fly as hard as they can to escape, and hit the end of the flight cage with such a high velocity that it is not unknown to break their necks. Such was the death of a fine wild Peregrine Falcon many years ago at our old Nairobi Snake Park. The falcon was seen to be only slightly damaged and because it was such a fine bird, rare and very fast, people thought it best to allow it as much room as possible with a clear unobstructed view. Those experienced wild animal rehabilitation will now begin to cringe in expectation of the following………for it is inevitable. After much head scratching to locate the biggest enclosure of all in the country the falcon, with the admiring attending party standing by in innocent awe, released the falcon. She flew once.to the other side of the cage, hit the wire head on and died instantly. Everyone was mortified. “We did our best” was the outcry. “What could we have done instead?”. “Maybe a bigger cage?”.
It was probably best that she did die immediately, for if she hadn’t she would have slowly battered herself to death. Worse she could have beaten herself to such a state that release into the wild would have left her flightless and damaged and she would have starved to death. Cage sores, especially to the feet and bill become infected and can lie dormant for months even after a successful release. The condition steadily gets worse and will one day not allow the bird to stand or eat. It is such a pity that so many people think an open wire cage is good for birds, when it is the worse possible thing. Globally such avoidable tragic events must number in their thousands. I remember writing to a friend Nick Mooney some 15 years ago, then head of some big Dept in the Australian parks regarding the insanity of couping up raptors in small wire “flight sheds”. He was of a different opinion because he said so few knew anything better, but after a few years he changed his mind. Things have greatly improved in Australia I hear, if a little slow off the mark.
Cage management of wild raptors is possible. But it needs a lot of forethought, so long as it isn’t a “cage” and is a “shed”. The shed should be secluded, that is to say it that a bird inside it cannot see out, see no disturbing humans or animals and not have any reason to fly and hit the cage wall. The only thing that stops a bird from stupidly hitting a cage wall is if it is solid and an obvious obstruction. The sheds therefore are constructed of boards or planking and to a lay person look much crueler, because it denies them a view. These sheds, to have any hope of maintaining good physical condition of the bird need to be very large. For some eagles or falcons, their minimum turning radius is about the size of a basket ball pitch, for others the size of a cricket pitch, and few have the resources to build such an enclosure. But it must be done if there is any genuine attempt to rehabilitate a raptor to good physical fitness within an enclosure. If it can’t then there remains one and in my mind, very good option which I’ll explain shortly.
Sometimes people put many raptors all together in one pen and hope for the best. This may be a result of lack of alternative accommodation, but it isn’t logical. Or, as I have seen, it is because the owners are pleased that the “Lion is resting with the lamb”. I was struck dumb with amazement when shown owls and kites, hawks and buzzards, together with parrots, doves and rabbits. The owner was so pleased that they all got on. They should not, and they do not. But because the owner was seen to be kindly and caring few understood just how absurd this was and no action would be considered against them.
Raptors are big and powerful and will kill or intimidate any others smaller or less agile than they. I remember seeing a sick adult male Peregrine stuck in an old lavatory with 2 very large Spotted Eagle Owls. I was assured by the person “caring” for them that they “all got on fine”. They didn’t and the falcon died, and was eaten. Imagine what went through the falcon’s mind at night? Mixed species in cages will establish a pecking order. The one at the bottom of the social ladder will often have to sit in the corner and have its food stolen from it. Stress of this kind is lethal. Even if released such a socially demoralised bird stands little hope. Only very rarely is it possible to put more than one bird in one cage with another species. Even same species can have problems. Females of some species are notorious for eating males of their own species!
Inside a pen a raptor will spend much more time perched than usual. When they land they will have to do so abruptly and without a gentle stall that would soften the blow of impact. The perching surfaces must therefore be soft. Bumble-foot, the bane of ancient falconers was an insidious condition that begins slowly and simply won’t go away. A small pressure sore, becomes infected. Once the infection is in the foot it will get worse unless it is treated with antibiotics, surgery and a regime of soft perches and care for the rest of its life. After a few thousand years of captive raptor management we know how to avoid and cure it and modern day rehabers have little excuse. It is an ailment that applies to most medium and large birds in captivity. Without providing these soft perches most hawks and especially large falcons will get bumble-foot.
My heart fell to my sandals as I turned the corner and saw the falcon hanging on the side of the cage with a massive cage sore on its bill. She was a young female Lanner Falcon, brought in sometime around December last year. She had as company three black kites and the Augur Buzzard. Among these she had survived 3 months. A well behaved group of school children filed by and she and the others all flew up and hit the cage. Less well behaved kids lagged behind and the birds again did a few more circuits.
Matuku said I should see an old friend Richard Obanda, now in education at KWS head quarters. Richard immediately understood the situation and asked that I go and pick her up on the following Monday, after conferring with Dr Kariuki. All knew that she was too valuable to loose. On Monday I quickly caught her as she tried climbing the chicken wire wall rubbing her face, thankfully for the last time, on the cage wall. I hooded her and put her in a box and soon was driving back through horrendous traffic on our way home. 3 hours later within minutes of getting back I jessed her and examined her smashed face. The soft fleshy part of her cere (or nose) had been scrapped away down to the bone (see photo). But it had not cut through the bone and she could breath through the nostrils. The keratin part of the bill grows from this soft cere. The bill is like our fingernails. Imagine if you removed the fleshy part of the skin at the root (or “quick”) of the fingernail. You’d still have a fingernail, but not for long. In time the nail would fall off, or grow through misshaped and crooked. Right now she has a bill, (which is also split up the centre from impact injury), but it is questionable if she can grow the bill. I have seen bills fall off, and once tried coating the underlining bone with dental plastic. These false teeth, were only a stop gap and later the bird was unable to eat and died. That bird came from a different caring-for-animal institution, who were very reticent about given the bird over to a falconer lest it be flown free and hunted at wild animals. Well it stood no chance of it thanks to the cage “care” and rest assured if it had been released in would have died much sooner.
Note that the soft part of the cere is cut away to the bone and that the left nostril is deformed. The bill tip is also split, and this can, on its own destroy the bill.
The Lanner also has Bumble-foot, but it isn’t irreversible with treatment.
Tim, the now errant and hardly-at-home male Lanner is of course too young to recognise the fact that this new lanner is a lady, with whom, if he plays his cards right, could be his mate! At the end of my bed I put up two perches for them to spend the night in close proximity. On the second morning Tim jumped over to the new female’s perch and nibbled her face. There is mutual affection here and I would be keen to see where it goes. Tim is releasable. He already spends many nights out on his own and is being more and more cheeky in refusing to come back to my call. This new lady may not be releasable, but she could breed with Tim in the next few years. I will not hold Tim back if he wishes to leave. He is a proficient hunter now, and is moulting into a fine second year adult. If things work well I would like to fly the new lady with Tim and together they can make a territory above my house.
Tim (on right) and his new lady friend in their night quarters.
Richard Obanda asked that I write a protocol for KWS to use in the event of getting new raptors. With luck I hope that they will adopt a different approach that will benefit the birds. It is justified to keep some raptors, in particular those with no chance of release as exhibits for the visitors. It is easy to build a proper semi-enclosed shed that will allow visitors a chance to see a raptor. It will take resources to do so and hopefully we can raise this within the orphanage.
The above was written a few days after I got her. She was flying free to the glove and lure in 7 days. By 10 days she was flying together with Tim. I named her “Lucy”. Originally she was low in weight and had ossified scar tissue on her keel (the result of the cage). This damage, unnoticed at first examination was quite debilitating, as she took much longer than usual to get fit. Although she was successful in catching a lark with Tim after her first month it has only been in the last 2 weeks were she has been able to keep up with Tim. Flying falcons together is termed a “cast”. Flying male and female together is not usual. To see two very different sized falcons, fly and hunt together has allowed a new appreciation and insight into the seemingly odd reversed sexual dimorphism of raptors. They compliment each other, as they fly differently and can cover different ground, airspace and strategies. If they were the same, they would have a more limited scope with less opportunities. Poor Tim, fromerly master of the skies around my desolate house now has to concede dominion to his larger partner. When he catches the lure when flying, she invariably lands and bullies him off it. Not accepting his servant role he gets very upset and with a cackle of annoyance puffs out his feathers and jumps in top of Lucy in full battle mode. But she doesn’t even know he is there, and Tim gets shrugged off ignominiously. Slowly they are forming a routine and there is a definite bond growing. When Tim zooms off on his own mission, she follows as fast as she can. Although it looks like he does not give a damn where she is, if she doesn’t turn up for a while he goes off to look. Once found he ignores her. Often when they are out flying I walk up the hill to the windmill by which stands a horrible out-of-place exotic Pepper Tree that thrives on the overspill. They beat me to it, and I can see them at a distance sitting quite close together in the lower part of the tree, just as mates would do. Again I am allowed a peek into what presumably must be the pair bonding of wild falcons. Is naive youngsters they are making many mistakes that are painful to watch. But I am very happy that these falcons, who alone and released in the wild stand so poor a chance, may be able to survive together and stand a much better chance. I was able to do this with Crowned Eagles before. Two is always better than one. So far they have short circuited the difficult to achieve needs of territory and mate. Now they need a place to nest and the skills to provide their own food. I am grateful to KWS for giving me to take Lucy home. It hasn’t been hard work, it has been great fun.
Lucy flying free. Her cere and bill are noticeably damaged but it looks like she might recover.