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July 6, 2012

Aplomado Falcon Chicks Released at Mustang Island State Park

The colorful Aplomado Falcon is regaining a foothold in parts of Texas where they disappeared more than a half-century ago. On July 1, biologists began releasing captive-bred Aplomado Falcons to the wild for the first time at Mustang Island State Park to take advantage of additional habitat that the endangered birds of prey need to survive.

“We are delighted to have Mustang Island State Park as a partner in this recovery effort,” said Bill Heinrich of The Peregrine Fund, an Idaho-based conservation organization focused on birds of prey. “The park helps fill in a gap in habitat between falcon populations that are already well-established and self-sustaining in South Texas.”

Since 1984, The Peregrine Fund has released Aplomado Falcons in wide-open grassland areas that provide native food and shelter. They are raised in captivity at The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.

When chicks are about a month old, they are flown to the release sites by LightHawk, a volunteer aviation group that donates flights for conservation projects. Fast flights on private aircraft are the best way to ensure that the chicks arrive with little stress and in good overall health, Heinrich said.

Over the last three years, LightHawk volunteer pilots have transported more than 200 Aplomado Falcon chicks to support the reintroduction effort. This latest flight to Texas is being donated by Carl Mattson and Julie Boyd, of Denver, Colo., who will be piloting their Cessna 210 turbo.

When the chicks reach Mustang Island State Park, they will be placed at newly constructed “hack sites.” Each site consists of a large wooden box atop a platform raised 10-12 feet off the ground for protection from predators. The birds will be fed while they become accustomed to their new surroundings. A few days later, the door will be opened and the birds will be able to fly freely. They will continue to be fed and monitored at the hack site for about two months while they hone their flying and hunting skills and are able to survive on their own.

Currently there are about 34 nesting pairs in South Texas, spread to the north and south of Mustang Island, including the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.  Aplomado Falcons were widespread in the American Southwest until the 1950s when their range was restricted to a few areas in Mexico, most likely due to the combined effects of habitat changes, pesticides and human persecution.

For the recovery effort, the falcons have been released on both private and public lands. The Peregrine Fund has enrolled more than 2 million acres of private Texas ranchland in the Safe Harbor Program, which was developed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce landowner concerns over endangered species on their property and to provide access to habitat for the falcon.

Aplomado Falcon recovery is a cooperative program with federal, state, and private partners, including The Peregrine Fund, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program.

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