Alta. couple stokes passion for peregrine falcons

The Trefrys raise, train and sell falcons on their 230-acre farm located in a wetlands ecosystem near Edmonton

TOFIELD, Alta. — Way in the back and beyond at the Trefry farm sits a row of wooden, tin-roofed buildings. Large wire-covered openings in the roofs allow sunlight and fresh air. Intermittent shrill screams, cries of the peregrine falcon, pierce the air.

Phil and Helen Trefry raise, train, and sell peregrine falcons on their 230-acre farm located in a wetlands ecosystem east of Edmonton. They are falconers.

The devotion, time, and attention they’ve committed to the peregrine falcon is testament to their passion for these birds. It’s not just a sport. It’s a way of life.

Dozens of falcon images have collected in the Trefry home. Along with paintings, sketches, carvings and mountings is an early 1990s “happy family photo.” Front and centre is a peregrine falcon, perched on the leather-gloved wrist of one of their two smiling daughters, then about ages 8 and 10.

Helen said that the girls didn’t always love the birds.

“We sometimes had to drag them kicking and screaming to falcon events when they were little.”

Helen estimates about 40 falconers live in Alberta. Half of those actively fly.

“The birds are not pets,” she said. “They are hunting companions.”

The falconer’s role is that of observer.

Phil said falconry enables people to participate in nature in ways they would be unable to otherwise.

“Every day you get to see that tremendous interaction between predator and prey. The falcon is letting you participate in what it does naturally. Rarely do you see that in the wild”.

In the well-lit, open lower level of their bungalow, incubators sit with a dozen or so brown-speckled eggs, as well as a heated towel-covered brooder in which nestles a downy day-old chick.

Phil hand-feeds the baby falcon raw ground quail eight times in 24 hours for five days.

“We want to make sure every chick gets its fair share so get them to eat as much as they can,” he said.

“Imprinting isn’t a concern yet because they can’t see till they’re about five days old”.

After this strong start, Phil will relocate the chick out of the tin-roofed buildings to one of the Trefrys’ eight pair of ready and waiting parents. Rather than build traditional nests, falcons lay eggs and raise their young in a scrape, a shallow depression in existing sand, dirt or rock. In nature, these are generally made on high, rocky cliffs and ledges. The birds also nest under bridges and in high-rise buildings.

In addition to their main livelihood of breeding peregrine falcons, Helen and Phil Trefry also raise a few turkeys and broiler chickens and keep Bantam chickens to provide household eggs. Their falcon farm was previously a horse enterprise. The horse barn now houses birds: baby broiler chicks, quail and a couple of northern saw-whet owls the Trefrys are housing for the nearby Beaverhill Bird Observatory and that they use in their educational tours.

Falcons require fresh meat daily.

“A big part of our job is finding enough feed,” said Phil.

The Trefrys buy live quail and old laying hens. In the wild, falcons primarily hunt other birds but also feed on rodents, reptiles, and insects.

The males, called tiercels, reach maturity at 30 days; the larger females, called falcons or hens, at 35 days. Shortly after, flight school begins.

The young birds are relocated to small pens, known as tame hacks, near the bungalow. Initially, they’ll fly to the roof of the house and sit. Each day, they venture further afield.

“All training is based on the reward for food,” said Phil. “They’ll come back when they’re hungry. They quickly learn how to get the next meal. If they’re successful hunters they become less dependent.” After two weeks of flight school traditional falconry training begins and the birds are taught to come back to us and to hunt with dogs.”

The Trefrys have been raising peregrine falcons at their Tofield farm since 1996. Their market is for release to the wild in Alberta, to other falconers and for abatement throughout North America.

“When we started, we didn’t know if there would be any demand, but it’s been steady,” said Phil.

He said companies use falcon-based bird abatement to intimidate and scare away nuisance birds at berry farms, vineyards, landfills, golf courses and airports. “Starlings are a big problem at B.C. cherry orchards,” said Phil. “And we’ve relocated falcons to the new Calgary hospital to chase away pigeons.”

He said bird abatement is quiet, natural, and sustainable. It’s also more successful than scarecrows, horns, flares, nets, shotguns and poisons.

Helen’s love of the outdoors began when she was raised on the farm at Fourth Creek in northern Alberta’s Peace country.

“It was some of the last homestead land issued in Alberta,” she said. “My mom still lives there. So, I’ve kept up that (rural) connection”.

The couple met at the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) peregrine falcon breeding facility at CFB Wainwright where they were wildlife technicians. Phil was the facility’s first employee in 1973. Helen started in 1981.

The facility was established in response to the species’ sharp decline in the 1950s and 1960s, linked to the use of pesticides, most notably DDT.

The project was criticized by some for the forced captivity of the few remaining wild peregrines.

“Some people felt it would hasten the birds’ extinction,” said Phil.

Others doubted that young birds raised in captivity would survive after being released into the wild, considering a naturally occurring mortality rate of 70 percent in the first year.

However, the project proved to be extremely successful, leading to the reintroduction of peregrine falcons where they had all but disappeared.

They rebounded strongly and were removed from Canada’s endangered species list. With its intended goal completed and more than 1,500 birds raised for release over the years, the CWS facility closed in 1996.

Phil said that current peregrine falcon numbers in Alberta are “really good” at about 60 pair.

He attributes much of the program’s success to the fact that humans have been involved with falcons for thousands of years, resulting in an immense collection of knowledge and understanding of the birds. Falconry started as a way to augment humans’ food supply thousands of years before guns were invented.

When the Wainwright breeding facility closed in 1996 the Trefrys bought this farm, a former horse operation. Phil was 50 and eligible to retire. Their daughters were still in school. Helen, being 10 years younger, continued to work for CWS in the species-at-risk sector. She travelled to wherever she was needed; at times to the Arctic to work with eider duck management or to the Prairies, where she assisted with burrowing owl recovery.

Helen retired in 2015, the same year her and Phil’s daughter, Sarah, started her career as a seabird biologist at Delta, B.C. Their younger daughter, Amy, is a yoga teacher and has a film career in Halifax.

A few equines still inhabit the farm, those being boarded horses.

The Trefrys also put up square bales and rent out hay land, which is in high demand in an area full of acreage owners.

They also raise a few turkeys and broiler chickens and keep a small flock of Bantam chickens scratching about to provide household eggs.

Phil and Helen regularly host educational tours to school groups and clubs. Both are involved in the nearby Beaverhill Bird Observatory, a research and education station. Helen volunteers with CWS each summer doing burrowing owl surveys at Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan.

The Trefrys intend to continue with their life’s passion. It’s the topic of humorous family discussions.

“Our children’s biggest fear is that we’ll die together in an accident and someone will call them and say, ‘who’s going to feed the birds?’ ” Helen said.

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