Idaho Researcher Looks At What Gyrfalcons Can Tell Us About Climate Change

Jan 11, 2016

What can the world’s largest falcon tell us about climate change? That’s the question one Boise researcher is asking in an article published this month in Audubon Magazine.

Bryce Robinson is a Gyrfalcon field researcher and a graduate student at Boise State University. Working with the Peregrine Fund, he’s been studying Gyrfalcons in western Alaska for two years. Robinson studied the birds for his Master’s thesis.

If the conditions are right, these giant birds have been known to spend some time in Idaho during the winter. But come summer, they nest in the Arctic and that’s where Robinson has been watching the parents and banding the baby birds.

Robinson's study looked at how the bird’s diet can be a warning signal of climate change.

“If they’re not able to produce offspring or they’re not nesting as regularly, we can then look at are there any aspects of the diet that have changed that might enlighten us on where the problems are coming from,” Robinson says.

He says he’s been interested in birds since he was a kid. He says when this study came along, he jumped at the chance to get involved.

He climbed high above the tundra on the rocks where the birds nest.

Credit Bryce W. Robinson

“I installed these motion-activated cameras in the nest. When the motion sensor is activated they take a series of photographs to capture what the Gyrfalcon is feeding the young. So these cameras are not only gathering information I’m using for my thesis, my Master's, but a bunch of other information.”

Robinson says these birds are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. He says they’re at the top of the food chain.

“They depend on a number of species to live. They eat a number of different things. Because they depend on a number of individuals from the system, any changes or perturbations in that suite of individuals will show in the Gyrfalcon’s health.”

He says watching the Gryfalcon’s habits can give researchers a clue to changes in the climate.

“It’s one way to keep a finger on the pulse of the heartbeat of the Arctic.”

You can check out the Audubon Magazine article here.

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