Sadness hits Hungarian Red footed Falcons

The Red Footed Falcon is a very small bird of prey. It is 30-35.5 cm long (or 12-14 inches) with a wingspan of 26-30 cm (or 10.32 – 12 inches). These small falcons breed during the summer in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They migrate to South Africa for the winter. It is an intensive and long journey. The falcons eat insects and sometimes take small birds, snakes, lizards, and small rodents. They are ‘Near Threatened’. Their populations are in steep decline in Eastern Europe because of a loss of habitat (their numbers are said to be stable in Asia). Two causes not mentioned but ones that can be significant are secondary poisoning such as eating a rodent that has recently consumed rodenticide. The other is predation (or the killing and eating of another) by other raptors such as owls.

The Red-footed Falcons are quite striking. I find it interesting that the female has such striking plumage compared to that of the male. In the image below you can see that he is a beautiful slate blue-grey colour. Notice the orange-red of the area around the eye, the cere, and the legs and feet. That is where they get their name.

“File:Male Red-footed Falcon and Lunch (19368098472).jpg” by Andy Morffew from Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, UK is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There were two Red Footed Falcon nesting boxes on the same tree in Polgar, Hungary. A small owl killed and ate the two chicks at the first nest. At the second nest, four eggs were laid. The first chick partially hatched on 22 July but died on 23 July. The second egg hatched on 24 July. The other two eggs were laid on the 24 and 26th of June. They have not hatched and are considered unviable.

This is that beautiful healthy eyas that hatched on 23 July. It was 8 days old today. Cute little pink beak and legs and feet with the soft furry white down and piercing dark eyes.

The eyas is 8 days old.

The adult female’s crown and back of the neck plus the chest and under parts are a beautiful copper red colour. Her cheeks are white and the bill and the surrounding eye lid are a deep red-orange along with her legs and feet. The wings are a slate blue-grey alternating dark and light. Flight feathers and tail feathers are the dark grey with dark grey tips. There are white bands on the underneath of the flight feathers.

“Female red-footed falcon preening” by Andy Morffew is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You can see that beautiful plumage on the female brooding her chick in the second nesting box.

Here is the female brooding the chick several hours later when it is dark.

At 23:37 a small owl flies right into the nesting box.

The female goes into the corner her wings spread. The eyas is flat down as mum alarms.

In seven minutes the owl has entered the nesting box, fought with the formel (female falcon), and has killed the eyas.

The owl takes the body of the chick and flies out of the nesting box. The formel chases it away from the box.

When she returns to the nest, her instincts kick in. She is still in incubation and brooding mode and immediately begins to incubate the two unviable eggs. How sad for this little mother. Her baby was so healthy. We need to find a solution to overcome the owl attacks.

The known owl strikes in the past year are in the thousands. Great Horned Owls have struck Harriet and M15 at their Bald Eagle nest in Fort Myers, Florida repeatedly while the tiny Boo Book Owl in Australia made several nightly attacks on the White Bellied Sea Eagle Nest in Sydney. On more than once occasion, Lady had an injury to her eye. Others have taken over Bald Eagle nests while many have killed chicks. In this tree alone, the small owl has killed and eaten three thriving eyases. The question is how to prevent, if we can, owl attacks and killings.

Owls hunt at night. That is when their eyesight is clearly focused. The other raptors are asleep. Owls also fly in ‘stealth’ or silent mode due to the design of their feathers and wings. In other words, they can sneak up on the sleeping raptors and either be an annoying presence or a lethal one.

While this blog deals specifically with the Red-footed falcons and the anguish that the loss of the eyases in Polgar, Hungary has caused, this problem persists with other small raptors around the world. Attacks by owls also happen to other larger raptors such as Bald Eagles, as mentioned earlier. The gnawing question is how to eliminate both the nuisance and deadly attacks of the owls.

The design of the nesting or scrape box could be one way to try and stifle the owl. The owl that killed the eyases in Hungary appears to be short but, a little broader than the falcon. Would a much smaller opening help if the falcon were able to block the owl’s entry? Do you recall seeing the Kestral female that successfully defended her brood from an owl attack? She had her eyases in a tree and the falcon blocked the entrance and thwarted the owl. If the falcons refused an enclosed space, what about the use of lights? Could the use of bright lights or flashing bright lights keep the owls away from the nesting boxes? Any solutions need to take into account owls ranging in size from the smallest to the largest, the GHOW.

It could be prudent to hold a contest locally for designs for both nesting or scrape boxes as well as lighting designs. This could be publicized at local colleges and universities where there are design or engineering programmes. Students are always eager to set their talents to solving problems. Clearly explaining the issues in the information sheet might get some enthusiastic and useful designs that could help increase the population of falcons around the world. I urge communities to seek the talents of local building and engineering firms who might want to donate their time to help such a good cause. Have an open discussion with coffee and treats in the community. Invite people to come forward with potential solutions. It might not be a contest but perhaps trained specialists could examine the submissions for those that might potentially thwart the owls.

It is always difficult to bring bad news. As a community of bird lovers, we need, however, to come to terms with the problems and then set out energized to find solutions. My sympathies go to all those that love the Red footed Falcon families in Polgar, Hungary. I am so very sorry for the loss of these beautiful eyases. My hope is that someone reading this might offer to work with the birding community in Polgar to find a solution for next year or will pass along the challenge to someone who might be able to help.

Thank you to the Hungarian Bird Cams and the Red-footed Falcon Streaming Cam #2 in Polgar, Hungary where I took my screen shots.

1 Comment

  1. Linda Kontol says:

    Oh Mary Ann this is such sad news.
    I was watching sometime and thinking what a cutie it is. I knew it would make it as mom loves this baby so much. I really am saddened to hear this news this morning. God Bless the mom as she broods her other eggs. Only God could make a miracle happen for her eggs which would seem impossible to us to hatch. May His Will be done . Prayers going up for this mother. They are very attractive birds indeed.
    Thanks Mary Ann for this update.
    Have a Blessed Sunday.
    Linda

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