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Falcon study hits the mark
Rare to find change in hunting habits and have Inuk coauthor

Darrell Greer
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, October 3, 2013

A study on peregrine falcons near Rankin Inlet has produced impressive results on two fronts.

NNSL photo/graphic

Vincent L'Herault and Poisy (Adam) Alogut, right, work with a pair of young peregrine falcons on the land near Rankin Inlet this past month. - photo courtesy Bernadette Alogut

The study was done during the summers of 2007-09, as part of Vincent L'Herault's master for the University of Quebec in Rimouski, Que., with the help of Inuit guide Poisy (Adam) Alogut and project leader Alastair Franke of the Canadian Circumpolar Institute.

L'Herault said the goal of the study was to monitor the falcons to better understand what they eat and their reproductive outputs during those years.

He said Alogut did an amazing job and became much more than just a guide.

"He really became a leader and influenced the way we viewed the tundra and the birds," said L'Herault.

"We had a paper published in the internationally known journal, Ecology and Evolution.

"I had Poisy listed as one of the authors, and it's very rare for scientific research to acknowledge a local person.

"But I had a strong argument that his contribution was unique, particularly his willingness to share his knowledge of the land."

L'Herault said the study discovered peregrine falcons eating a great deal of ground animals, such as lemmings and ground squirrels.

He said it was always thought, from studies in other systems, falcons only fed on small birds such as snow buntings, passerines and shorebirds.

"We were very, very amazed to discover the falcons were preying on lemmings.

"We had inland nests up to nine km in length, and others covering up to four km of shore on small islands, and all of these nesting birds were feeding their young a huge proportion of lemmings and ground squirrels.

"That was a spectacular result, based on the fact previous literature has always documented falcons hunting bird prey only."

L'Herault said about 30 pairs of adult falcons come to Rankin every spring.

He said each pair tries to lay eggs and hatch young.

"Depending on local meteorological conditions and food availability, about 20 pairs will successfully fledge their young to the pint where they can fly and hunt themselves.

"One year, we only had three successful pairs produce young, while other years saw as many as 30 pairs produce chicks.

"So it can be extremely variable, depending on local conditions."

Franke tracked the Rankin falcons back to their wintering grounds in South America at Peru, Chile and Argentina.

The falcons fly across the North, South America and Central America to breed in the Arctic every summer before returning south.

The falcons spend about three months in the Rankin area, which is enough time for the chicks to be ready to head south with the adults.

L'Herault said fluctuating meteorological conditions due to climate change have become a problem to the migrating birds recently.

He said some conditions may influence the young falcons' ability to learn to hunt before fall arrives.

"If the fall comes sooner and their adults are already gone, the young chicks could have a problem getting their food until the end of their growing season.

"We're just starting to see evidence the variable meteorological conditions may influence the capacity of the birds to survive and leave on time."

A falcon egg and/or chick has its share of enemies around Rankin, including the Arctic fox, ermine (short-tailed weasel), wolverine and a very rare polar bear attack.

L'Herault said the adult falcons dive bomb the predators to scare them away.

But, he said, just about any predator would be interested in an egg or a chick if the chance presented itself.

"It's rare for any young falcon to be attacked in the air here, because the only predator with that capacity is the snowy owl.

"It's really the only winged predator that will bother the falcons.

"We don't know too much about when they're migrating, but the great horned owl would be a great threat to them in the temperate forest.

"So as far as winged predators, the owl is the falcon's main enemy."

Alogut said he totally enjoyed working on the study with L'Herault and his group.

He said he became deeply interested in the falcons as the study went on and found himself wanting to do more.

"I developed a real interest in the birds," said Alogut.

"The falcons are all over the place here, and I enjoyed showing the group where the birds nest and hunt.

"Most of them are on the cliffs or high grounds, but some prefer a little lower, just out of reach of the foxes."

Originally from Coral Harbour, Alogut is highly skilled on the land.

He said it was fun to be part of a project where his knowledge was valued and he also learned a lot.

"I never thought of getting my name on the paper that was published, but I was excited to find out it is.

"I was told the door is open for me to do more work like this.

"But while I do enjoy it, I have other priorities now."

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