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Spotlight on Peregrine Falcons
If someone asked you to name an animal that’s the fastest creature alive, that’s equally at home in the city and the country, and that was once so endangered it teetered on the edge of extinction, you might not come up with a peregrine falcon on the first guess. But these incredible flying machines are all that and much more.
Peregrine falcons are the fastest hunters around. They primarily eat medium-sized birds, and their hunting style involves sitting on a high perch, watching for a tasty meal to fly by. Once the prize is spotted, the falcon leaves its perch and goes into what’s called a “stoop,” a bullet-shaped posture with its feet tucked up and its wings and tail folded back.
Shooting downward, the peregrine can reach 200 miles per hour! Their horizontal, normal flight is 40-55 miles per hour.
Most birds would be harmed by the air pressure at this speed, but peregrines have little bony tubercles on their nostrils that guide the air away from their faces, allowing them to breathe more easily. Like all raptors, peregrines have a “third eyelid,” called a nictitating membrane that they can close while diving and still retain their great vision.
Because of its speedy stoop, peregrines need open spaces in which to hunt. For this reason, they’re often spotted over the water, and in open valleys and fields. When the falcon reaches its prey, it strikes the prey with its balled-up foot, stunning (or killing) the bird.
Peregrines can be seen almost anywhere, from the high-rises of large cities to rural countryside all over Washington state. These birds were encouraged to live in Seattle by the Falcon Research Group, which put up a nest box on the Washington Mutual Tower in the 1990s. In 1994 the box welcomed its first nesting pair, and falcons have had a home in the city ever since. A pair nested as recently as 2009. After raising their young, the adults stay in the city, while the young falcons head off to find their place in the world. There have been reports of Seattle-born falcons in Oregon, San Fancisco, Los Angeles, Victoria, and Vancouver.
Back from the Brink
In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the use of DDT nearly caused the end of peregrine falcons. The pesticide caused organochlorine to build up in the falcons’ fat tissues, a situation that lowered the amount of calcium in their eggshells. Thinner shells meant that more eggs broke before the chicks had a chance to mature, and populations plummeted. In the eastern United States, the peregrine is still locally extinct.
On the west coast, we’re lucky to be a popular area for peregrines. They’re year-round residents all along the west coast, from the Aleutian Islands to Mexico.
In addition to medium-sized birds and ducks, peregrines will eat bats and other small mammals, and sometimes small reptiles and insects.
• What state’s commemorative quarter features a peregrine falcon?
Idaho’s (minted in 2007.)
• Do peregrine falcons mate for life?
Yes. Like many raptors, peregrines nest with the same mate, year after year. They’ll return to the same nesting spot and go through their mating ritual, which includes amazing aerial spirals and dives. The male will catch prey and pass it to the female in mid air – a feat that involves her flying upside down to receive the food from his talons! Falcons like to nest in high areas that are safe from predators. They favor cliff edges, bridges, tall buildings, and sometimes tree hollows.
• How many eggs do peregrines lay?
3-4. The eggs take anywhere from 29 to 33 days to hatch. During the day, the male will often spend time sitting on the eggs, but at night the female takes sole egg-sitting duty. After the chicks are born, both parents will take turns hunting to feed the babies. Egg-laying dates vary, but generally in North America the eggs are laid between February and March.