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SOS tattoos on rare Saker falcons saved birds’ lives

07 october 2022
Catchers in Mongolia caught falcons from Siberia for sale to Arab falconers released the birds because they were unsellable

Ornithologists tattooed the letters S.O.S. onto the base of birds’ beak cere and paw. It is a new scheme to try and save the rare birds from poachers. These chicks hatched this spring in Vitasphere, Moscow birds’ nursery. In June ornithologists brought Saker Falcons to South Siberia and placed them in the nests of wild Saker Falcons with native chicks. This way, the conservationists have been reviving the population of the Altai saker falcon since 2017. 

Chicks of saker falcons from captivity got tattoos and ready to be realesed into the wild
(c) WWF / Yury Kurochka

Ornithologists know that catchers and poachers that hunt rare saker falcons can easily remove metal ID ring and sell the birds. However, tattoos cannot be removed and the birds’ appearance of a beautiful bird of prey spoiled by a tattoo would prevent sakers and poachers from selling the bird to falconers in the Arab countries.

Volunteers making tattoos on birds' paw

“We made the decision being desperate. Russian Conservation Raptor Centre has been working on Altai Saker falcon conservation since 2017. We placed the chicks from the nursery into the nests of wild Saker falcons to be raised in the wild and better adapt to living in nature. A pair of wild Saker falcons feed chicks as native ones, the birds successfully grow, learn to fly and in Autumn start migrating to warmer countries. And here the tragedy comes. We’ve placed about 70 chickens from captivity in the nests of wild birds and lost every bird tagged with GPS/GSM trackers. Attractive black Altai Saker Falcons are the first to be caught for sale to the Arab countries. For a beautiful wild bird, buyers are ready to give a good price. And then we came across the idea of birds’ tattoos of the Altai colleagues. The idea was that no one would need birds with tattoos, because it is obvious that this is not a wild bird, people have worked with it. So the price of such a Saker Falcon will be low, and even the costs of catching and transporting will not pay off. And it worked perfectly,” says Elena Schneider, coordinator of the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network, project implementer.

This Autumn, the ornithological team received two messages from Saker falconers in Mongolia. The Arabs caught birds with a ring on their paw and tattoos in Mongolia, they catchers were very surprised and emailed scientists through the contact form on the website of the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network, which address was engraved in ID ornithological metal rings of Saker falcons. 

A couple of saker falcons caught in Mongolia when they were young
(c) WWF / Yury Kurochka
“Saker falcon hunters caught three of our birds who already migrated to Mongolia. Surprisingly, one falcon was caught by the same Arabian catcher who had already caught one of our project’s chicks named Mityunya last year. After exchanging messages with us the catchers released all three birds into the wild. So the idea works, tattoos literally saved the lives of Saker falcons. Now there is hope that the birds will return to their native lands in the spring,” says Igor Karyakin, head of the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network.

This year, WWF Russia filmed the series Adventures of Birds in Russia about the tattoos’ story, chicks being placed in the nests, trekking birds and other episodes of the project. The series will premiere on October 8 on the YouTube channel of WWF Russia:

Yuri Kurochka, a famous director from the Republic of Khakassia, became the film director. He joined the summer expeditions of ornithologists and employees of the WWF Russia. Seven episodes about the saker falcon and steppe eagle conservation project as well as the work of ornithologists will be released on YouTube in October, one series a week. 

Adventure of Birds' in Russia Teaser Trailer , Russian

“This project has become very special for me. If our Altai falcons are of a special color, then ornithologists are people of a special breed. When ornithologist Elena Schneider talks to the chicks, it fascinates, the birds are like children for her, and they understand her perfectly. The heroes of the film are special people, experts of the highest class. Now, when I look up into the sky and see birds, I smile and remember our project. I hope that with my work I helped ornithologists a little with birds, these celestial creatures! ”, Says Yuri Kurochka, director of the series.
Steppe eagle
Steppe eagle
Saker falcon and steppe eagle conservation project
(c) WWF / Юрий Курочка

The heroes of the series, both birds and people, are participants of the conservation project to Altai Saker Falcon and the Steppe Eagle that have nesting places in Altai-Sayan ecoregion (Southern Siberia). The project has been implemented since 2017 by the WWF-Russia, the World Around You Foundation of Siberian Wellness, the Russian Raptor Research and Conservation Network with the participation of volunteers from the Novosibirsk Wild Animal Rehabilitation Center.

Khakassky Nature Reserve, Ubsunur Hollow Nature Reserve, Sailyugemsky national Park Nature Reserve joined the project as partners. 

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