Ode to the Peregrine Falcon
Updated: Jan 28, 2019
By Jeremy Schwartz
I was always the kid that rooted for the predator in nature documentaries.
I have vivid memories of a set of VHS tapes I would watch on repeat as a child called Predators of the Wild. We had a set of seven or eight, and each featured a different (generally mammalian) predator. I loved them. I was never squeamish about a lion or wolf taking down a gazelle or deer. To me, it was just nature. Meat eaters have to eat, too.
This fascination with predators always made me feel bad when meat eaters were portrayed as the bad guys in children’s media (The Lion King notwithstanding, but you never saw any of them actually hunt). You had the evil wolves from Beauty and the Beast that were seemingly only there for the Beast to whale on. Then there was the snarling murder machine called Carnotaurus in the Disney CGI flick Dinosaur. I remember this being particularly galling to me as a youngster because of my love of dinosaurs. All the plant eaters could speak, but not the meat eater! How unfair is that?
Rapt with Raptors
Understandably, this interest in predators has extended into my love of birds. The agility and strength needed to hunt other animals that fly while on the wing is so impressive to me.
Sure, the loss of life of the hunted bird makes me feel a twinge of sadness. But that raptor has babies to feed, too. Hunting moving food is simply more difficult, and much less of a sure thing, than foraging for seeds and nuts that generally stand still.
It’s a semi-secret hope of mine to one day see a bird of prey swoop down on the feeders in our backyard and take a small song bird. In fact, raptors predating on song birds in your backyard is one sign you’ve got a relatively healthy ecosystem back there. As a birder and nature writer I follow has put it, if you’re squeamish about birds of prey coming to call on your backyard feeders, you might consider taking the whole setup down.
With all this said, I’d like to devote at least one article on The Bird Nerd blog to one member of the fascinating raptor family: the Peregrine Falcon. Now, I sort of have to give away that the Peregrine Falcon features in Backyard Birding somehow, but I won’t share the details. You’ll just have to play it to find out!
A little bit bigger than a crow, Peregrine Falcons are draped in dark gray with white underbellies. They have gray cheeks over a cream-colored under-neck area, giving the appearance of thick mutton chops. They average about a 1.5 feet long, have a 3.5-foot wingspan and weigh about 3.5 pounds.
Peregrines are one of the most widely distributed birds of prey in the U.S. They can be found from mountainous areas to deserts, and from coastlines to cities, where they’ll hunt for the common pigeon (or Rock Pigeon for any birders reading this).
Numbers of this falcon are strong, though this was not the case in the 1970s when peregrines and other raptors suffered precipitous population declines thanks to the use of harmful pesticides.These chemicals ended up in the food chain and made it all the way to these top predators, damaging chick survival rates. Thanks to bans on these chemicals and tireless conservation efforts, Peregrines have bounced back.
On the Menu
Peregrines are often called the jet fighters of the bird world for their blinding speed. According to AllAboutBirds.org, peregrines can reach speeds of 200 mph when diving for prey, making them the fastest animals on Earth. Their average cruising flight speed, the equivalent of me walking to the store, is between 24 and 35 mph.
Peregrines are bird hawks by trade, diving down on medium-sized birds (such as ducks) from above “in a spectacular stoop,” as the website AllAboutBirds.org puts it. This sort of dive (correctly called a “stoop,” not a “swoop”) typically stuns their prey with sheer force, allowing the peregrine to then rip its prey’s throat out without much struggle.
Peregrines have been documented hunting up to 450 individual North American bird species. That’s a huge menu that includes the sizable Sandhill Crane all the way down to the tiny and quick hummingbird. As Mike Unwin describes in his appropriately named book Peregrine Falcon:
“If the prey avoids the first stoop, the falcon may rise again and repeat the dive, or it may roll over and try to strike the target from below.”
Raptor with an Attitude
From most accounts I found, peregrines are not birds to shy away from a fight. According to Unwin, peregrines will aggressively defend their territory from other birds of all sizes, including other peregrines. Peregrine-vs.peregrine battles are not uncommon, Unwin writes, with two birds locking talons in mid-air and sometimes plummeting all the way to the ground. Nothing like an aerial battle to show how bad-ass you are as a bird of prey.
Additionally, videos abound of peregrines fighting off much larger birds in defense of nests. One notable video shows a peregrine dive bombing a Red-tailed Hawk. The hawk gets hit fast from above and only recovers after at least five seconds of flailing around in mid-air. Another account from a newspaper in Idaho describes a mated pair of peregrines taking on a Golden Eagle that was apparently sitting on the wrong perch:
“The female falcon, larger and more aggressive than the male, attacked first. She pitched, rolled and dove toward the much larger eagle. It held steady as she veered away, letting her mate stage his first attack as she re-positioned to stage her second… The eagle soon got the hint and launched off the branch with a stretch of its massive wings.”
Long story short: Don’t even think about messing with a peregrine’s nest.
Finding the Falcon
I remember the first time I spotted a peregrine in the wild. My wife and I spent the afternoon walking through an expansive wetland set aside as a refuge and managed hunting area about an hour and a half north of Seattle. It was Winter, which brings thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese descending upon the area. This day also offered wonderful views of Great Blue Herons, Bald Eagles, and Belted Kingfishers living up to their name as they dove from spindly trees into the water after prey.
It was in one of the many dead trees in this wetland that I spotted the peregrine. It was a bit far off to be sure, but a slight turned of its head revealed its distinctive dark grey cheeks. This combined with an all-dark-gray body and the surrounding habitat made me certain I was looking at the world’s fastest bird.
It was a little surreal to be looking at a record-holding species, relatively in my own backyard. Africa has the world’s largest bird with the Ostrich, while the islands of Cuba are home the world’s smallest bird, the tiny Bee Hummingbird.
My home region of the Pacific Northwest may very well be home to other, more subtle record-holding birds that I don’t know about. But to have the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird in the world, call my neck of the woods home is something special.