Birds of prey have got to be some of the coolest animals around. They are so graceful and powerful and amazing and I love them (in case you couldn’t tell). I’ve written about a number of raptors on this blog, but one I’ve accidentally skipped over is the peregrine falcon, an impressive and beautiful hunter.
Peregrine falcons are extremely widespread, and are some of the most widely found bird species in the world. They are not found in rainforests or extreme polar areas, and do not live in New Zealand. Anywhere else in the world is fair game for peregrines. Many northern populations are migratory, moving to colder areas (such as Alaska or northern Canada) to breed, and then flying south (to Chile or Argentina, for example) in the winter.
There are many subspecies of peregrine falcon, which range in size and colour. Most falcons are between 36 and 58 cm long, with wingspans of 91-112 cm. Females are 15-20% larger than males. Peregrines have blue-gray wings, black stripes on their backs, and black stripes on each cheek. They are quite beautiful birds.
Peregrine falcons are famous for their hunting dives, known as stoops. They use these to catch other birds, usually pigeons, doves, waterfowl and songbirds. Birds make up 77-99% of a peregrine’s diet. During a stoop, peregrine falcons reach incredible speeds, faster than any other animal on the planet. One falcon was clocked at 389 km/h during a stoop.
During such dives, the falcons need special adaptations to protect their lungs and eyes. Tubercles in the birds’ nostrils direct air flow away from the nose, preventing the increased air pressure from damaging the falcons’ lungs. The birds use their third eyelids to keep their eyes clear of debris and tears during a stoop. After all, you wouldn’t want your vision impaired when you’re travelling at speeds of over 300 km/h.
Peregrine falcons are monogamous, staying in pairs for many years, and often for life. Males and females will fly together during courtship, showing off their aerial skills through dives, spirals, barrel rolls and other fun acrobatics. The falcons ‘build’ their nests in high places, such as trees, cliffs, or buildings. They have simple nests that are depressions dug into the dirt, with no additional materials added.
Females lay 2 to 6 eggs in the spring, between March and May. The eggs hatch in just over a month, and the young take another month or so to learn to fly. Both parents help care for the young, and once the chicks start flying, hunting training begins. The adult birds drop dead prey near the nest, making their chicks pursue this ‘prey’ in the air. I guess if you spend most of your life hunting birds on the wing, learning to do it early is pretty important.
Though peregrine falcons are currently abundant, this was not always the case. The use of DDT in the 1950s to ‘70s had a drastic effect on falcon populations, as the chemicals in the pesticides caused the falcons to lay eggs with thinner shells, which meant fewer chicks survived to hatching. Recovery programs and the ban of DDT has led to a surge in peregrine populations, and today they are happily stooping all ‘round the world.