Ensure conservation of the small and isolated Orange-breasted Falcon (OBF) population in Belize and Guatemala, with the following objectives: survey known territories for occupancy and productivity and locate new territorial pairs in Middle America; establish a self-sustaining captive OBF colony; focus efforts with captive-bred birds on genetic restoration of the Belize population with unrelated captive progeny in Belize; promote partnerships with other NGOs to help identify and monitor OBF populations throughout Latin America and for other scientific purposes; and use the Orange-breasted Falcon as an icon to help promote Neotropical conservation.
The Orange-breasted Falcon is a brilliantly colored, medium-sized tropical counterpart of the cosmopolitan Peregrine Falcon. Probably always rare and sparsely distributed throughout Middle America because of its low reproductive rate and specialized habitat needs of towering cliffs and large forested areas, the species’ range in Central America is now limited to the Maya Mountains of Belize and the nearby Mirador Cordillera of Guatemala with a population thought to be about 30 pairs. Confirmed records in South America since 1970 also suggest declines and we are expanding our knowledge there with the help of partner organizations and citizen science. We believe the major drivers for the falcon’s decline are habitat alteration and associated human activities such as logging, agriculture, and development. A growing population of Black Vultures which usurp nesting cliffs and probably consume falcon eggs and young exacerbates the problem.
Captive Propagation: We have produced 30 Orange-breasted Falcons in our Wyoming facilities since 2006. Nine were retained for propagation and 21 were released in Belize. The captive colony now includes nine potential breeding pairs, an imprint male and a female, and two juvenile males. Unlike other falcons, including tropical species such as the closely related Bat Falcon, Orange-breasted Falcons are difficult to breed in captivity. All propagation has been accomplished by artificial insemination. New strategies with imprints are being explored, but because of the species’ unique biology, propagation in large numbers seems unlikely at this time.
Releases: Five captive-bred chicks between 20 and 40 days old were transported directly to Belize in June 2010 by the environmental flying service LightHawk. The releases are necessary to add diversity to the small genetically impoverished population. The chicks are group-raised by hand to maintain tameness as an aid in management and retrieval from the forest during their initial flights.
Our current hack site is located at the end and highest point of a steep ridgeline with a shear 600-meter drop on three sides to the river below in the Mountain Pine Ridge of Belize’s Maya Mountains. The site was chosen to facilitate the falcon’s escape from predatory Black-and-White Hawk-eagles, which are thought to have killed five of 11 falcons hacked in prior years.
In addition to record survival of hacked birds in 2010, we confirmed our hypothesis that large numbers of migrating swallows in the fall enable the juveniles to hone hunting skills and become independent of parental care and feeding. Only one of our released falcons has returned to the hack site the following year and based upon Peregrine demographics, juvenile mortality may reach 70%. We eagerly await each season’s surveys with high hopes of finding a blue color-banded male or red color-banded female (with bright white numerals) in residence at a local cliff.
Field Surveys: We have conducted aerial surveys for falcons by fixed wing aircraft for many years, mostly to identify suitable territories as opposed to confirming resident falcons and productivity. In 2009, we conducted our first helicopter survey in Belize and were successful in locating four new pairs of falcons in the rugged and remote central and southern Maya Mountains. We conducted three helicopter surveys during the 2010 breeding season, and one reconnaissance flight later in the summer. The surveys confirmed five more occupied eyries, for a total of 24 known territories in Belize; 16 were active in 2009 or 2010.
Surveys in southern Guatemala and Honduras located only Bat Falcons, helping to confirm this species’ isolation from the larger South American population. An additional six territories were active in Guatemala. In the last three decades, we have identified 31 historical territories, 22 are currently active and produced fewer than 17 fledglings in 2010. Finding this many territories is an incredible feat unimaginable a decade ago, representing years of hard work by a few dedicated biologists in steep, rugged jungle terrain amid rain, mud, sweat, and biting insects.
Because Orange-breasted Falcons choose the largest and most precipitous escarpments upon which to nest, the likelihood of finding many more pairs in the region is slim even though there appears to be available habitat. Only one new nesting site (2009) has been discovered since the mid-1990s in our core study population in the Maya Mountains of Belize and the Mirador Cordillera of Guatemala, bringing the total known territories to 20, and at least six historic sites have been abandoned.
Analysis: The Peregrine Fund is partnering with University of Wyoming scientists who are evaluating the viability of our Orange-breasted Falcon study population. Using both demographic and occupancy data, this modeling confirms that the population is in decline and suggests that the observed reductions in reproductive success may alone be enough to drive these declines. The study concludes that our work with the current population in Mesoamerica may be critical to its survival.
The Peregrine Fund maintains an Orange-breasted Falcon Database jointly with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Information Science Program, eBird. Our database includes confirmed records of the species from over 200 unique locations with more than 500 sightings. All records are confirmed by The Peregrine Fund after receipt of a detailed questionnaire and/or photo. Well over 100 records were submitted in 2010 with about 70 confirmations, but the overwhelming majority come from our well-known study locations in Belize and Guatemala. Nonetheless, eBird’s outreach to amateur and professional ornithologists alike is rapidly expanding our knowledge about the species’ distribution.
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