Gyrfalcon

A raptor of extremes
Like polar bears and harp seals, Gyrfalcons can only survive in cold climates. Against a backdrop of shifting prey availability, fluctuating weather, and competition from other species moving northward, the Gyrfalcon’s survival is uncertain. Knowing that intervention may be necessary someday, we are learning all we can now…

TO CHANGE THE FUTURE

An adult gyrfalcon feeds nestlings

Nick Dunlop

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Not only is the Gyrfalcon the largest falcon on Earth, it’s also one of the few animals adapted to harsh Arctic winters. Unfortunately, it is also considered the North American bird species most vulnerable to climate change.

Fascination with Gyrfalcons is deeply rooted in The Peregrine Fund’s history: Tom Cade, our founder, was among the first to publish research about them. Later, our long-term studies in Greenland revealed new information about the species. As climate change concerns began to mount, we already had the unique expertise, partnerships, and data to address the unknown. We hosted an international conference in 2011, then convened the Tundra Conservation Network to connect partners from all eight Arctic countries and multiple disciplines.

Threats to Gyrfalcons

Climate Change
Climate Change
Invasive Species
Invasive Species
biologists band a Gyrfalcon nestling in Alaska
our impact

In 2017 we published Applied Raptor Ecology: Essentials from Gyrfalcon Research to train future generations of raptor biologists and to standardize methods for gathering data. Not only does this simplify comparison of results across borders, it applies universally to any raptor study—not just Gyrfalcons. 

Applied Raptor Ecology
Student checks a camera as a Gyrfalcon nestling watches

Neil Paprocki

our impact
Over five years, our cameras at Gyrfalcon nests amassed a collection of 1.5 million photos—the largest photo data set of any raptor study. 

We added another graduate student at our field site to increase our knowledge and data on breeding Gyrfalcons, and work closely with Alaska Department of Fish and Game to improve our equipment and enable large-scale prey surveys.

Collaboration is vital for saving this species, which has been studied in isolated pockets for centuries thanks in part to the Gyrfalcon’s popularity with falconers. We launched the Polar Raptor Databank in 2017 to collect historical and new data in a secure repository, and concurrently published Applied Raptor Ecology, a manual that sets standards for gathering comparable, high-quality data. From anywhere in the world, researchers can now record unlimited observations and access real-time analysis tools. As data are accumulated and shared, ecologists can then answer questions about global population trends and identify factors that have the greatest impact on Arctic raptors.

Our fieldwork is contributing surprising findings to this body of work using motion-activated cameras at Gyrfalcon nests on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. Observing prey items in the photos, we have found that Gyrfalcons rely heavily on ptarmigan, but also adapt their diet when ptarmigan numbers decrease. Cameras documented one female Gyrfalcon moving her young out of a falling nest and carrying it to a new location. We also met some “visitors” to the nests, including grizzly bear, red fox, wolverine, and ravens.

Our fieldwork will continue long-term, as will collaboration with researchers worldwide who are invited to a Symposium on Arctic Raptors at our headquarters in 2020. Ultimately, we will synthesize all shared knowledge about Gyrfalcons into an adaptive management plan to energize conservation action around the world. Acting on sound science, together we will be the difference between survival and extinction for this icon of the Arctic.

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