Sinister attempted poisoning of Peregrine Falcons at well-known south Co. Dublin nest site

16th June 2014

BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s leading wildlife conservation charity, has been left horrified by a callous attempt to poison a family of one of Ireland’s most spectacular birds of prey, the Peregrine Falcon.  Not alone were these protected birds themselves almost killed, but the lives of hill walkers, rock climbers and local children were also put at risk by the cruel actions of the would-be poisoners.

The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal on earth, diving through the air to catch its prey at speeds in excess of 300 km/h.  Brought to the brink of global extinction in the 1950s and ‘60s by the effects of a pesticide called DDT, which caused the female falcons to lay eggs with abnormally thin shells, the Irish population has recovered somewhat in recent years and the species has returned to occupy many of its former haunts.

One of the adult Peregrine Falcons near the Dalkey nesting site (Photo: Crossing the Line Films)
One of the adult Peregrine Falcons near the Dalkey nesting site
(Photo: Crossing the Line Films - taken under licence from NPWS)

In recent months, locals, walkers and climbers who frequent Killiney Hill Park in south Co. Dublin have been treated to a fascinating natural spectacle, getting a rare insight into the lives of a pair of Peregrine Falcons and their four chicks.  The birds nested this summer in Dalkey Quarry, a section of the public park, which is managed by the Parks Department of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

These impressive birds have become local celebrities over the past few months and have attracted many visitors, who have felt privileged to witness their attempts to raise their young and have enjoyed spectacular views both of their aerial displays and of the nest itself on a ledge within the quarry.  Much to the delight of those which have followed their fortunes throughout the breeding season, all four chicks successfully began to fly last week.  However the whole family was nearly wiped out just before the chicks took their first flight, as a sinister and targeted attempt to poison them was discovered and foiled just in time.

Two of the Dalkey Peregrine Falcon chicks, photographed while being ringed by NPWS staff (Photo: Crossing the Line Films - taken under licence from NPWS)
Two of the Dalkey Peregrine Falcon chicks, photographed while being ringed by NPWS staff
(Photo: Crossing the Line Films - taken under licence from NPWS)

On the evening of Wednesday 11th June, three members of the public out walking in the quarry noticed two live tethered racing pigeons in a distressed state in the vicinity of the falcons’ nest.  The racing pigeons, whose wings had been clipped to prevent them from flying, had been tethered near the nest site using fishing line and had a wet substance applied to backs of their necks.  The incident was reported to BirdWatch Ireland and the pigeons were subsequently submitted to the State laboratories for testing, under an inter-departmental protocol between the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), Regional Veterinary Labs and the State Labs.  It is believed that the pigeons had been laced with a poison in a deliberate attempt to kill the breeding Peregrine Falcons.

One of the walkers who first discovered the stricken pigeons was Jenn McGuirk: “At around 8:00pm, I was walking through the quarry with two friends when the flapping of a bird’s wing caught my eye, just behind and to the left of the Peregrine Falcon nest.  Looking more closely, we could see that it belonged to a pigeon and, thinking that the bird had become trapped somehow, my friend Niamh McConnell and I walked up to the top of the cliff to try to free it.  When we got there, however, we immediately saw that there were in fact two pigeons and they had been deliberately kept in place using a tether, so we knew that something sinister had happened.

At that point, our main concern was to try to rescue the distressed pigeons, which had been tied up and dangled over the cliff in such a cruel manner, and we managed to hoist them up and free them from the tether.  We noticed that the backs of their necks were damp, soaked with some kind of liquid.  We were absolutely horrified to discover the next morning that this was most likely poison, and we became very worried about our own personal safety, having handled the birds.

Niamh is a highly experienced zookeeper and I have a lot of experience with wildlife, and neither of us has ever come across a situation like this before.  We have spent a lot of time watching these Peregrine Falcons in Dalkey over the past few months and chatting to the public about them, and we really feel invested in them.  That someone would try to poison them like this is absolutely sickening.

This incident comes on the heels of a spate of horrific poisonings of birds of prey which have occurred throughout the country, perpetrated by a sinister criminal element.  John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland, commented, “Such callous incidents cause an incredible sense of helplessness and frustration.  Even though each case causes shock and outrage, these poisonings continue to occur without those responsible suffering any consequences.

John Lusby continued, “A small minority continues to carry out these illegal acts, which are hugely damaging to sensitive bird of prey populations, as well as to our environment and to Ireland’s international reputation, yet the individuals responsible go unpunished and act without fear of reprimand.  Increased awareness of the threat and efficient recording of incidents are both absolutely essential, but must be carried out in tandem with proper criminal investigation and with proper enforcement of wildlife protection legislation.  The State needs to change its approach to how it tackles these issues or quite simply the illegal persecution of birds of prey will continue as present.

This is one of the best known and most public Peregrine Falcon nest sites in the country,” noted Niall Hatch, Development Officer with BirdWatch Ireland.  “The fact that poisoning was attempted here, in full public view, indicates that similar attempts to kill these magnificent birds must also be taking place at more remote nesting sites elsewhere in the country, away from public eyes.  This may only be the tip of the iceberg.

The poisons used by these criminals are generally highly toxic, and the very public nature of the site gives added cause for concern here.  Killiney Hill Park is extremely popular with dog walkers, ramblers and many other people from the local community, and especially with children and school groups.  If a child had come across these distressed pigeons, had tried to help them and had got some of the poison on their hands or in their mouths, they could have been killed.  It beggars belief that someone could do something like this and endanger not just the falcons but also local people.

One of the adult Peregrines flying back to its waiting chicks in the nest (Photo: Crossing the Line Films - taken under licence from NPWS)
One of the adult Peregrines flying back to its waiting chicks in the nest
(Photo: Crossing the Line Films - taken under licence from NPWS)

Local resident Michael Ryan, who is a member of the South Dublin Branch of BirdWatch Ireland and who monitors the progress of Dalkey’s nesting Peregrine Falcons each year, commented, “I was very worried when I originally found out that the Peregrine Falcons were nesting in such a high profile site, given that they are such a regular target for persecution, but I thought at least that having so many people aware of their presence would help to keep them safe from human interference.  It came as a great shock to me, therefore, when I heard that there had been an attempt to poison them.  Apart from the criminal intent, even if the pigeons hadn't been taken by the falcons, they could have been found and eaten by dogs or wildlife in the quarry which would have suffered a horrible death.

It is not tolerable for these majestic and extraordinary birds of prey or any other wildlife to be persecuted or poisoned,” said Jimmy Deenihan T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.  “It is illegal, but just as importantly, it harms our reputation as a country that values its wildlife.  I would urge anyone to report such incidents to the National Parks and Wildlife Service in my Department.  Harming our birds is not acceptable.

Thankfully, in this instance, the pigeons were rescued and the falcons survived this attempt to kill them.  It is likely, however, that further attempts may be made to kill these vulnerable birds.

BirdWatch Ireland, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Parks Department of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council are all calling on the public who use the park to remain vigilant and to report any similar incidents.  We would also ask people to keep a close eye out for suspicious activity at other Peregrine Falcon nest sites throughout the country.

We would reiterate that people should take great care to keep children and pets away from pigeons or other birds that they suspect may have been laced with poison, as these poisons are extremely dangerous to wildlife, domestic animals and people.

Anyone coming across a suspect bird should call Maurice Eakin of the National Parks and Wildlife Service on 086 8059240, while still at the scene.  They should not touch or remove the bird unless told to do so.  A Wildlife Ranger will attend to the bird.  If possible, they should remain in the area until a Ranger is present to deter the Peregrine Falcons from coming to eat the poisoned prey; if this isn’t possible, callers are asked to please convey this in their initial phone call so that appropriate action can be decided on.

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