Kira: Peregrine falcon in passing

Juneau Raptor Center trainer pays tribute to the organization's first educational bird

Posted: Sunday, January 18, 2009

In the fall of 1990, a young peregrine falcon began her first migration south, leaving the bluffs that overlook the Yukon River to escape the harsh Arctic winter. The waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds that are her prey are departing, and instinct is urging her to do the same.

Courtesy Of Kathy Benner
Courtesy Of Kathy Benner

The long and arduous journey south would normally take her to wintering areas in Central and South America, but unforeseen events are about to intervene. She stops in Juneau for a quick meal, catching a duck along Egan Highway, but this side trip has a price. Sitting by the side of the road, she is hit by several cars. A passing motorist rescues the young bird, and she is brought to a local veterinary clinic, which contacts the Juneau Raptor Center.

This peregrine, named Kira after the Inupiat word for peregrine falcon (kirgavik), had severe injuries. She was treated for several lost talons and a serious head injury, but other problems persisted. Her coordination seemed impaired, and during the following summer, she did not grow a new set of feathers.

Over time, Kira's condition stabilized. By the second summer, she had completed a full molt and was behaving less like a patient and more like a falcon.

In spite of these improvements, Kira presented a number of challenges. Many of the birds treated by the JRC, such as eagles and ravens, scavenge as well as hunt for their food, but peregrines are in a special class.

Primarily avian predators, peregrines make a living by out-flying and out-maneuvering other birds. Touted as the fastest birds in the world, their high-speed dives can exceed 250 miles per hour. Because of this rather demanding lifestyle, it is essential to be in prime physical condition in order to survive.

Special steps were needed to determine if Kira could be rehabilitated and released. A training schedule was developed using falconry techniques. She was taught to fly back and forth to her trainer, so her condition and flying abilities could be evaluated. A variety of steps also were taken to increase Kira's strength and endurance.

After several months, Kira was flying strongly, and it was time for the real test - could she hunt successfully on her own? For more than a year, she was taken out and flown free. Domestic quail were released, and her ability to "catch her own supper" was evaluated, but the results were mixed. There was the occasional success, but most of the time, Kira was not up to the challenge. The chances of her catching wild prey were not encouraging, and the decision was finally made that she couldn't be released.

At that time, the JRC was still a relatively new organization. Developing facilities and raising funds to care for injured birds was an ongoing struggle, and the costs associated with keeping a non-releasable bird were daunting. But in addition to rehabilitation, public education was a primary JRC goal, and the organization decided to take a chance. Kira became the JRC's first educational bird.

Over the years, Kira visited classrooms (from preschool to college) in Juneau and other cities throughout Southeast Alaska, delighted passengers on the Alaska Marine Highway, had a coloring book published about her and made numerous other public appearances, giving children and adults alike the opportunity to see a raptor up close and learn more about their role in this complex and inter-connected world. One of the most memorable moments with Kira when a third-grade class voted to give up their recess so they could spend more time asking questions and visiting with Kira. More than anything else, that says it all.

Kira passed away in September 2008. Although the JRC has welcomed other non-releasable birds into its educational program, to many of us, Kira will always be special.

As members of the JRC, we want to give a special thanks to all of the people whose support over the years has made it possible to care for Kira and the other non-releasable birds in our educational program.

• John Eiler was one of Kira's trainers and caregivers for 5-7 years at the Juneau Raptor Center.

To make a donation in Kira's memory, contact the Juneau Raptor Center at www.juneauraptorcenter.org, info@juneauraptorcenter.org, P.O. Box 34713, Juneau, AK 99803-4713, or at 586-8393.



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