Interview with Péter Palatitz about the conservation of the Red-footed Falcon in Hungary and other countries

Date of the interview: 10 November 2009

The Red-footed Falcon is an endangered Falcon which occurs in eastern Europe. In this interview, Péter Palatitz talks about the current situation of this species in Hungary and other countries.

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

Péter Palatitz ringing Red-footed Falcon (ad. male)
© Bence Máté

Markus Jais: What is the current population of Red-footed Falcons in Hungary and Europe?
Péter Palatitz: In 2009 we knew more than 950 active nests in Hungary. We estimate the total population to 1000-1100 pairs. The current estimate for Europe is 25-36000 pairs including European Russia. While we have reliable and recent data for most of the European range countries, we still don’t have good quality estimates from Russia. As this country holds itself approx. 20-30000 pairs, the lack of recent information makes it difficult to estimate a precise population size.

Markus Jais: Are populations decreasing at the moment or are they stable?
Péter Palatitz: In local populations as in Hungary, western-Romania, Italy, Austria, -especially where active conservation projects are running- there has been a recent incerease in population numbers!
In Hungary, the situation is exactly the opposite as the Ukraine, Eastern Romania and Bulgaria. These populations seem to show a steady decline in the last 20 years. In Ukraine the breeding population of Red-footed Falcons decreased from 5100 pairs to 2700 pairs, in Bulgaria only few known pairs remain.

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

When chicks are young, usually the male brings the
food to the female which stays close to the nest
and feed the young
© Péter Palatitz

Markus Jais: What are the main threats the birds are facing?
Péter Palatitz: Degradation and loss of nest sites. One of the most important and most complex threats, is intimately linked to the welfare of the Rook Corvus frugilegus. This often-persecuted Corvid species provides the most important fundaments for Red-footed Falcon breeding through building aggregated nest colonies or rookeries which the falcons occupy for breeding.
Habitat loss and degradation within the breeding range is also a threatening factor as agricultural intensification alters habitat-use towards grassland conversion and reduces the proportion of traditional livestock husbandry.
Red-footed Falcons are also exposed to indirect human induced mortality factors, namely electrocution on 20Kv power-lines and locally to collision with vehicles.
Shooting occurs in parts of the breeding range and during migration. This threat is emphasized by the bias in national legal protection status in countries holding the majority of the breeding population, ranging from strictly protected to unprotected. Poaching, even within the EU, is a major threatening factor as migrant birds have been shot in large numbers lately.

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

Release of radio tagged Red-footed Falcon (ad. female).
© Bence Máté

Markus Jais: Are many birds electrocuted?
Péter Palatitz: Electrocution is a real threat, causing several death or injuries every year in Hungary. Is it hard to estimate correctly the extent of the problem. Red-footed Falcons use electric wires more than poles to roost and therefore they are less affected by electrocution than other medium and large size raptors.

Markus Jais: Agricultural changes can be a serious problem for many raptors. How is the current European farming policy affecting Red-footed Falcons?
Péter Palatitz: In the case of the Red-footed Falcon, habitat loss is primarily linked to the conversion of grasslands into arable fields, thus homogenizing habitats into large monocultures. Where grasslands have not been transformed to agricultural fields, habitat degradation may have played an important role in the reduction of overall reproduction and survival rate. The development of intensive agricultural techniques pushed back extensive farming resulting in the decrease in traditional livestock husbandry (especially extensive grazing) which is presumed to be one of the key elements in Red-footed Falcons’ habitat choice. For example, while the proportion of grasslands has not changed significantly in the past decades in Hungary, the extent of traditional livestock grazing has generally declined. Sheep numbers decreased by 65% during the fifty years preceding 1990, while another two-fold decrease was documented since 1991.
Red-footed Falcons may suffer from habitat loss even if seemingly minor or no land use change has been carried out. If the percentage of intertilled and industrial crops (e.g. maize, sunflower, sugar beet etc.) increases in the arable fields surrounding the colony, the birds may loose potential foraging habitats thus lowering the number of breeding birds and/or reproductive success.
The general prey depleting effects of the increasing usage of pesticides is probably also influencing the overall population and may partly be linked to the overall decline in world population.

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

Female Red-footed Falcon with satellite PPT
© Péter Palatitz

Markus Jais: How important are Rooks for the Red-footed Falcon and why?
Péter Palatitz: Red-footed Falcons don’t build nests, they primarily utilize rookeries for colonial breeding throughout their breeding range. In natural circumstances dense and big colonies can’t form without rookeries. At least in certain years, breeding success is better in colonies than in solitary nests, suggesting that large colonies are very important for conservation.

Markus Jais: What is the scope of the current LIFE project?
Péter Palatitz: Our actions are taking places in all of the important breeding sites in Hungary and in Western Romania. Altogether our project area covers 1,8 million hectares in the Pannonian -Basin.

Markus Jais: You are tracking Red-footed Falcons with satellite transmitters. What transmitters do you use (how large and how heavy)? What should other researchers keep in mind when using such transmitters with small raptors like Red-footed Falcons?
Péter Palatitz: We use 5 gram solar PTTs manufactured by Microwave Telemetry Inc. The size of the devices is like a small stamp. The transmitters are working well, everybody can check the journey of the birds in realtime at www.falcoproject.hu.
If somebody wants to use any telemetry equipment there are general recommendations like maximal weight in proportion of the bird body mass, behavioural assumptions etc. Apart from this, I suggest to also keep in mind the ethic side of the question: are the expected data valuable enough to fit any device to a wild animal, even if it’s meets the requirements?

Markus Jais: Can Red-footed Falcons be supported with artificial nest boxes like Saker Falcons?
Péter Palatitz: Yes, within the frame of the LIFE project we put out 3300 nest boxes. The results indicate that the lack of rookeries in adequate habitats limited the breeding population of Red-footed Falcons. The number of known breeding pairs increased from 558 to 958 in four years!

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

49 adult birds were catched and radio
tagged for the assessment of habitat
use of Red-footed Falcons.
Szabolcs Solt raptor expert in work
© Bence Máté

Markus Jais: Large insects are the most important prey for Red-footed Falcons. What can be done to maintain healthy populations of large insects for Red-footed Falcons and other birds like Hobbies or European Rollers?
Péter Palatitz: Decreasing the insecticide use, increasing the percentage of fallow lands and creating “reservoir habitats” for invertebrates in mowed grasslands are well known solutions. For the aerial biomass like dragonflies the presence of surface water is also essential. In case of the Red-footed Falcon, our recent findings show that the species’ hunting efficiency is largely influenced by prey detectability and less by prey availability at least in our study site. Certain landscape scale cropping schemes and grassland management techniques may interact and result in temporal shortage of foraging patches with high prey detectability (e.g. delayed mowing, low percentage of grazed pastures, intensive cereal fields) in critical stages of breeding, thus lowering breeding success. In Hungary we managed to design and implement a falcon-friendly agricultural subsidy package for farmers, promoting the cultivation and mosaic mowing of alfalfa and fallow lands.

Markus Jais: What other bird species will benefit from the conservation project for the Red-footed Falcon?
Péter Palatitz: Currently half of our nest boxes are occupied by Common Kestrels and the colonies give place for a good number of Jackdaws and Long-eared Owls also. With the insulation of power lines and the agricultural subsidy system, other raptors and insect-eating birds will also benefit similarly to our target species.

Markus Jais: What is known about the situation during migration and in the wintering quarters? Are you working with people from other countries, for example in Africa?
Péter Palatitz: We are in daily contact with people working with Red-footed Falcons in all European countries (except Russia) holding relevant breeding or migratory populations. In 2009 a workshop was held to collect population data and discuss the conservation issues of Red-footed Falcons.
From Africa, our only contact is Anthony Van Zyl, the coordinator of kestreling.com project in SA. We try our bests to find people from Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Angola where our satellite tracked birds are nowadays.

Saker Falcon Conservation Hungary

Nest boxes are marked with id. number before installation for
the easier identification during the monitoring
© Péter Palatitz

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Red-footed Falcons?
Péter Palatitz: I met my girlfriend during a ringing Red-footed Falcon nestlings in 2007. She’s amazing.:-)
Seriously speaking, I caught this summer by hand (!) the same falcon (when incubating on his small chicks) which was ringed on the first rendez-vous in 2007 as nestling.

Markus Jais: Péter, thank you very much for the interview.

Further Information

www.falcoproject.hu - Conservation of Falco vespertinus in the Pannonian Region