WATCH: KZN hailstorm kills hundreds of falcons, more than 1 000 rescued

An injured falcon receiving care at FreeMe KZN wildlife rehabilitation centre. (Wade Whitehead/FreeMe KZN)
An injured falcon receiving care at FreeMe KZN wildlife rehabilitation centre. (Wade Whitehead/FreeMe KZN)

A massive rescue effort was launched in KwaZulu-Natal over the weekend after a hailstorm hit a roosting site for migratory falcons.

The Amur and red-footed falcons were roosting in a tree in Mooi River on Saturday evening when the storm killed more than 700 and injured more than 1 000 birds.

The Mooi River and District Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said one of its inspectors was alerted to the plight of the birds while he was on his way home after a call out. The SPCA rallied community members and managed to transport around 1 090 birds to the FreeMe KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Howick.

"Some have broken wings, broken bones, broken legs..."

FreeMe staff and volunteers worked around the clock to assess the birds and treat the injured falcons in their clinic.

"We worked from about 22:00 that night ... and we had finished all the birds by 16:30 on Sunday – that's working flat-out all the time," FreeMe KwaZulu-Natal CEO Wade Whitehead told News24.

"Some have broken wings, broken bones, broken legs – which are under treatment," he said.

400 birds released

According to Gaynor Lawson, chairperson of the Mooi River and District SPCA, the small raptors migrate from Asia to enjoy summers in South Africa and escape the harsh winter in the northern hemisphere. 

Whitehead said 400 falcons that were well enough to fly were ringed and released on Monday. However, those with more serious injuries remain in FreeMe's care and will not be able to join their flock.

"They will unfortunately not be able to make their migration – they leave in the next few weeks and they migrate up to the Amur River in the China/Russia region. So those birds that can't make the migration will be kept over winter while they heal and they will be released early summer when those migrants return." 

FreeMe said it hoped the ringed birds would deliver valuable data regarding the movement patterns and behaviour of the birds at the Mooi River roost, since there isn't much information available at the moment.

The carcasses of the falcons that perished in the storm were donated to the Durban Natural History Museum, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the South African National Biodiversity Institute for DNA, isotope analysis, gene pool analysis as well as further research and taxidermy. 

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