Once near extinction, peregrine's comeback revives ancient pursuit of falconry

The ancient pursuit of falconry is making a comeback. Once an endangered species, peregrine falcons are doing so well that people are buying the birds for hunting and business.

Biologist who helped save species now breeds the birds for sport, business

Moxie, a 45-day-old peregrine falcon bred and trained by Phil Trefry at his facility near Tofield, Alberta. Four decades ago, Trefry was part of small group of Canadians that helped bring the falcon back from the brink of extinction so that modern-day falconers can employ the birds in sport, in conservation and even in public safety. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Phil Trefry loads a chunk of dead, raw quail onto a long pole while Moxie, a 45-day-old peregrine falcon, watches with an intense glare. She opens her beak and lets out a loud, shrill skree, skree, skree.

Trefry holds the pole out toward Moxie's perch on the rooftop, and the falcon spreads her wings and dives for her meal. With a thickly gloved hand, the falconer reaches up and takes the bird by its legs, and places her on his arm. Settled, Moxie ties into a meal of quail meat and bone. Trefry calls this day two of flight school.

The pole, the meat, the molding of a bird's avian instincts to suit the needs of its handler are part of the ancient craft of falconry. Trefry is one of a small group of Canadians that helped bring the falcon back from the brink of extinction so that modern-day falconers can employ the birds in sport, in conservation and even in public safety.

Back from the brink

Before there was gunpowder there were birds of prey, and the peregrine falcon was the fastest bullet in the sky. Capable of an airspeed exceeding 320 km/h it can take down anything else that flies.

Trefry feeds Moxie a meal of raw quail. He describes the process of training the bird as 'flight school.' (Terry Reith/CBC)

Falconing had its peak in the medieval period, when hunting with peregrines was a sport enjoyed by noblemen and aristocrats. It nearly died out in the 1960s, not for lack of enthusiasts but because of the rapid disappearance of the birds. Widespread use of the pesticide DDT has been blamed for very nearly wiping out the entire species. By the mid 1970s it's estimated there were fewer than 10 peregrine falcons left in Canada.


Trefry was part of a small team of bird biologists brought together in 1975 to try and save the species. The idea was to use the birds that remained to repopulate Canada. It was a bold and risky move at the time. But Trefry and the team hunkered down at a makeshift facility on a Canadian Forces base near Wainwright, Alberta, and began making it up as they went along, using the traditional knowledge of falconry, basic biological science and a lot of hope.

When the program was declared a success 21 years later, Trefry set up what he first imagined as a retirement home for birds that had been part of the breeding stock. Today he is a pioneer in an ancient pursuit, hunting waterfowl with falcons, just as medieval princes did a thousand years ago. He's still breeding the birds for release into the wild, but now he's also selling them to fellow falconers who use them for sport or in commercial operations.


The business of falconry

Steve Schwartze is one of the customers who buys and trains falcons bred by Trefry. As a commercial falconer, he works with the Alberta government helping to repopulate parts of the province where falcons once lived before their near-demise. One of those places is along the rugged cliffs overlooking the Pembina River, near Entwistle. 

Peregrine falcons soar above the Pembina River in Alberta, where they have been re-established in the wild through a provincial captive breeding program. (Terry Reith/CBC)

"They're slowly beginning to trickle back into these wild places and be what peregrines really should be, which is wild birds on cliffs in the wilderness, " he explains.

Biologists have placed a box at the top of the cliffs, and in it Schwartze placed a young bird that's almost ready for a return to the wild. Birds will spend several days in the box, eating food delivered to them and staring out into the vast wilderness beyond. When the grate is opened, they will have imprinted on these river valley cliffs, and set off to nest on their own. Birds released from this site have been found nesting on cliffs 135 kilometres away.

Falconer Steve Schwartze holds a 40-day-old falcon that will eventually be released along the banks of the Pembina River. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Schwartze also operates Falcon Ecosystem Solutions, which uses trained peregrines to patrol industrial installations like oil and gas plants, landfills and berry farms. Falcons chase away the gulls and pigeons that often gather at these sorts of sites and leave behind a mess of droppings or, in the case of farms, feast on the fruit. Falcons also being used extensively around airports, says Schwartze.

"Probably most popular around the world are airport bird abatement programs using falconry, where there's a risk of catastrophic injury or death. You can use a falcon to mitigate a very significant threat to human safety," he says.


Falcons for sport

For most people, the term falconry conjures images of a hooded bird perched on the glove of its master, awaiting commands to commence the hunt. And for Trefry, Schwartze and a few dozen Canadians who have taken up the sport that is still the most exciting aspect of the peregrine's return.

The eight falcon pairs at Trefry's breeding facility produce between six and 25 offspring each year. (Terry Reith/CBC)

It's not for everyone, says Trefry. To become good at the sport, falconers spend hours each day training and working with their birds. He has turned away some would-be buyers: "If a person doesn't have the time or if they have really unrealistic expectations about what the bird can do.... You have to have some sort of empathy, I think, to keep any animal." 


But for those who have the time, space and patience to work with a peregrine falcon, there are rewards.

"It's a very primal way to enjoy one of nature's most incredible animals," says Schwartze. "In the wild its very difficult to observe but with the trained bird you get to see some pretty incredible things."


With files from Raffy Boudjikanian















Terry Reith

Network News Producer

Terry Reith is CBC's network news producer based in Edmonton. He's also served as the network's medical reporter, and senior writer for the consumer section of cbc.ca. Reith joined the CBC in 1992 as a local radio and television reporter.