Hailstorm kills and injures thousands of falcons


A violent hailstorm in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal has killed and injured almost 2,000 falcons.

The vast majority of the birds involved were Amur Falcons, although smaller numbers of Red-footed Falcons and Lesser Kestrels, which roost among the flocks of Amurs, were also injured. The birds roost communally in large numbers, meaning freak weather incidents such as that on Saturday 9 March can potentially be devastating to wintering populations.

The event unfolded in the town of Mooi River, situated inland some 140 km north-west of Durban, late evening on Saturday, where large numbers of falcons roost during the winter months. Fortunately, volunteers and members of the public were on hand to transfer hundreds of the injured birds to the FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation KZN branch in nearby Howick throughout the early hours of Sunday morning, where urgent treatment began.

The vast majority of birds arrived in appalling condition following the hailstorm, with hundreds having already perished (FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation KZN).

In total, 1,090 falcons were treated during 18 hours of constant effort by the team throughout Sunday, with this thought to be the largest single-species rescue ever made in South Africa. Following assessment and treatment, the first 400 falcons were ringed and released back into the wild on Monday, with this figure climbing 970 by the end of Wednesday.

Hundreds of falcons recuperate in the external flight aviary following treatment (FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation KZN).

However, it was not all good news. Unfortunately, around 70 of the falcons admitted to the clinic died, while no fewer than 713 corpses were recovered from beneath the roosting tree in Mooi River on Sunday. The deceased birds have been donated to the Durban Natural History Museum, University of KwaZulu Natal and South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) for DNA, isotope analysis, gene pool analysis, further research and taxidermy.

Corpses continued to be retrieved throughout Sunday, with the number of casualities eventually exceeding 700 (FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation KZN).

The storms came at an awkward time for the falcons, with them due to commence their northward migration within the next couple of weeks. The team of rehabilitators has worked around the clock to ensure that the birds are fit and healthy enough to face the tribulations of such long-distance flights on time. However, several tens of birds suffered broken bones during the incident and will be retained in care throughout the southern winter in order to give them time to heal, thus meaning these individuals won't be migrating to breed in 2019.

Mass bird killings due to hailstorms are few and far between in their occurrence, but do happen occasionally. Earlier in March, over 1,100 birds – including almost 600 egrets – were killed by hail near Pench Tiger Reserve, India.

You can find out more about the fantastic work that FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation does at www.freemekzn.co.za or at www.facebook.com/KZNFreeMe.

A sodden male Amur Falcon awaits treatment (FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation KZN).

By Wednesday 13th a total of 970 Amur Falcons had been rehabilitated, ringed and released (FreeMe Wildlife Rehabilitation KZN).