Not only is the Peregrine the fastest bird in the world, it is the fastest animal on earth. This falcon was long known as the Duck Hawk in North America, and is the Peregrine Falcon or the 'Falcon Gentle' of traditional European falconry.
So much has been written and documented about this famous species that a volume could easily be filled, or an entire book written about just this one species.
This is a predominately slate grey, medium to large, stocky falcon, which is approximately the size of a crow. It has a dark slate grey back and wing coverts . The underside is barred with fine slate grey on a white to off white, or even with a tan tinge. This depends on the subspecies, of which there are 17 to 19. This bird's head is adorned with a well known dark 'cap' or 'helmet' with a wide curved malar stripe that curves forward under each eye. Its purpose is to reduce light reflection that would otherwise distract the bird while it is hunting.
Males of this species are known in falconry as Tircels, which means 'one third smaller'. This is an accurate fact about this species. Peregrines attack prey in mid air and virtually kill at will, with a distinctive behaviour which is known as a vertical stoop. There is a nasal pin in the centre of each nostril which prevents too much air from entering the birds lungs during a stoop. This prevents their lungs from exploding under the incredible forces they are exposed to when this species makes that famous stoop which is known to reach speeds of 200 mph or 320 km/h!
To do a stoop, the Peregrine first does what is known in ancient traditional falconry as 'waiting on'. This is a form of high and tight circling in a relatively stationary portion of the sky, near the zenith. This is necessary in order for the bird to gain the needed altitude. Then when prey is selected, the bird turns or even flips right over in the air so it is suddenly facing straight downward. The Peregrine then pumps its wings hard and yet holds them very close to its body. The stoop is also gravity assisted, and to the human ear sounds rather like the ripping of a bed sheet. This sound is caused by tiny air turbulences under the upper wing coverts as the bird plummets earthwards at extremely high velocity. It is positively astonishing how fast a bird that a moment before was merely a speck high in the sky, is suddenly right over head. Their speed is so fast, that it is very difficult for the human brain to even follow, let alone to accurately judge.
The Peregrine falcon is extremely wide ranging. In fact it has the largest natural range of any raptorial bird. It is found on every continent except Antarctica. It is absent from the majority of tropical rain forests, polar areas, and extremely high altitude mountains. It is also not found on the island of New Zealand. Northern populations are migratory. In fact, this species name reflects this fact. Of all birds, only the Rock Pigeon has a wider range, due to its being introduced to so many areas by humans.
The Peregrine is a specialized feeder and preys upon medium sized birds, mostly at twilight. During the breeding season, birds preyed upon are mainly those that fly below its nesting ledges. At the conclusion of the afore described stoop, the Peregrine falcon grasps the live bird's body with its long net like toes. It then uses the specialized tomial tooth on its beak to snip the spine of the prey beneath the skin, at the base of the skull. Due to this behaviour, the Peregrine is rather an 'executioner' of the bird world. Its hunting and killing style, as dramatic as it is to the onlooker; is actually very humane compared to that of most raptors. Perhaps, this is where the term 'falcon gentle' came from in traditional falconry? Interestingly, the Rock Pigeon is a favourite prey animal of this species. Was the famous and extinct Passenger Pigeon also an important prey species to the Peregrine in North America? Unfortunately, we will never know.
The Peregrine is a very specialized cliff ledge nesting species. This strict adherence to nesting on high cliff ledges limits its population across its vast range. In relatively recent times, the Peregrine has managed to adapt and even to thrive by utilizing the high cliff ledges provided by certain skyscrapers in some major cities, where an abundant supply of Rock Pigeons is also to be found.
When being propagated in captivity, the Peregrine is a very gentle and easy going species (for a falcon). The Centre has found it somewhat easy to captive breed. Having faster metabolisms than other falcons of similar size, we have found that peregrines need relatively more food compared to the diet of other falcons, and it must be of a higher quality, composed purely of birds.
Much has been written about the how the Peregrine became an endangered species due to its near extinction by the insecticide known as DDT. This chemical built up within the Peregrine's body tissues and caused this species eggs shells to become too thin to withstand the natural incubation process.
Fortunately, public awareness thrust the Peregrine into the limelight and brought world attention upon the plight of many raptors, as well as upon the dangerous effects of environmental toxins world wide. Thankfully, in the case of the Peregrine, most of the world took heed of the warning in time.
Due also in no small part to the captive breeding efforts of many devoted conservation minded facilities like our own, the Peregrine has slowly recovered, and it has even been reintroduced back into areas where it had become extinct.
As a result, the majestic Peregrine falcon is a living, flying mascot for wildlife conservation. The Peregrine falcon is an important reminder to remain constantly vigilant for the unseen side effects of human activities. Being an indicator species, the Peregrine's close call reminds the world to be ever mindful of the often disastrous consequences of envrionmental toxins. If the lesson of the Peregrine is not learned, then other equally unique species around the world, including ourselves; could in turn meet a fate similar to that which the Peregrine managed to overcome just in the nick of time.
If you have found an injured bird of prey (hawk, falcon, owl, etc.), contact the Centre and our experienced staff can assist in determining what steps should be taken to ensure the bird receives the best possible care.
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