The Peregrine Falcon
The peregrine falcon belongs to a group of birds called the Falconiformes. This group
includes vultures, kites, hawks, eagles, and falcons. Other than vultures, all of these birds
hunt and kill other animals for food. Falconiformes are equipped with hooked beaks and
strong talons, making them excellent predators. All Falconiformes are daytime hunters.
The peregrine falcon is the best-known of the fifty-eight birds in the falcon family. The
word Peregrine comes from a word that means, "one who wanders." This falcon has
definitely earned its name. For example, some of Canada's tundra peregrines fly to Brazil
Peregrine falcons are found in every single part of the world except Antarctica. They were
once trained by kings to hunt and bring back kills. This sport, called Falconry, is still
popular. However, in the 1960s the American falcon came close to extinction. Most of the
damage was done by poisons that farmers used to kill insects. The worst poison was DDT.
By the time naturalists learned of DDT's effect on wildlife, it was almost too late.
The American peregrine's scientific name is Falco peregrinus anatum. At one time, people
called this falcon a duck hawk. That was a poor name, since falcons aren't hawks and they
rarely kill ducks. The American peregrine was once found all across the eastern United
States and southern Canada. In the west, the species was found from Mexico to California.
DDT poisoning hit this subspecies the hardest. Even today, naturalists are still working
hard to save the American peregrine from extinction.
The smaller tundra peregrine (Falco peregrinus tundrius) lives farther north. Tundra
peregrines range across the treeless regions of Alaska and Canada. They are also found in
Greenland. Peale's peregrine (Falco peregrinus pealei) is the third North American
subspecies. This western bird ranges from Oregon northward to Alaska and the Aleutian
Islands. Peale's peregrine is the largest of the three subspecies. The tundra and Peale's
peregrines have escaped the worst effects of DDT poisoning.
Most peregrines are slate blue on the back and wings. The top of its head is black. Black
feathers around the eyes reduce glare and improve the bird's vision. The white underside
of a Peregrine's wings, tail, and chest show more bands of dark feathers.
A peregrine falcon is a medium-sized bird about the size of a crow. Female peregrines are
larger and heavier than the males. An average female (called a falcon) weighs a little over
two pounds. The female is eighteen inches in length from beak to square tail. Her long,
pointed wings measure forty-five inches from tip to tip. The male bird (called a tiercel) is
only two-thirds the size of his mate. Therefore, a typical tiercel weighs only one and
one-half pounds. His body is two inches shorter and his wings are four inches shorter than
A peregrine's feathers make its high-speed flight possible. The feathers lie close to its
streamlined body. Like all birds, peregrines lose their feathers and grow new ones. This
process is called molting. A peregrine's molt lasts from April to October. It loses only a few
feathers at a time. If too many feathers fell out, peregrines wouldn't be able to fly.
In flight, a peregrine's wings look long and pointed. Close to the body, however, the wing
is wide and strong. This gives the falcon the lift it needs to carry a heavy kill. In level flight,
these swift falcons reach speeds of sixty miles an hour. During a dive peregrines reach
their highest speeds. They fold their wings halfway back and drop like a missile. An air
force pilot once clocked a diving peregrine at 175 mph!
The peregrine's feet and beak are also designed for killing. Each yellow foot has four toes;
three in front and one behind. Each toe ends in a curved claw called a talon. When a
peregrine dives at its prey, it strikes first with the razor-sharp back talons. This blow
usually kills the prey instantly. If the prey is still alive, the peregrine uses its strong,
tan-colored beak. One slashing bite with its beak will break the back of smaller birds.
The peregrine's large eyes give it superior vision. Each black, shiny eye weighs about one
ounce. If a falcon were the size of a human, its eyes would weigh four pounds each! A
falcon's eyes are set toward the front of its head. It cannot see in all directions at the
same time. If it hears a noise from behind, it will simply turn its head all the way to the
rear! The peregrine doesn't see colors as well as humans do, although it can see eight
times as far as a human.
Naturalists do not know how peregrines find their way back to their nests. They think that
the bird somehow remembers the look of nearby fields, woods, and rivers. Peregrines are
equally at home in big cities. To them, a tall building is just another natural stone cliff. City
peregrines nest on building ledges and feed on pigeons and starlings.
Along with keen eyesight, peregrines have good hearing. Peregrines don't make warning
cries, but they listen to the warning calls of other birds. A peregrine is usually silent while
it is hunting. Around its own nest, a peregrine makes a number of calls. To attract a mate,
the tiercel makes a series of tweeting and wailing cries. If a human comes too close to the
nest, the peregrine makes an angry warning cry that sounds like: "cack, cack, cack." If the
warning cry fails, the falcon will fly directly at the face of the stranger.
Taste and smell are less important. Peregrines don't have many taste buds on their
tongues. Therefore, a peregrine will eat birds that taste terrible to humans. Similarly,
peregrines can smell odors, but they don't use this sense in hunting. When its dinner is
flying far below, the peregrine must depend on its eyesight.
When left alone, peregrines may live as long as twenty years. One famous falcon nested
on the Sun Life building in Montreal, Canada for eighteen years. Many peregrines die in
their first year of life, however. Even without DDT, the peregrine's habitat holds many
Today, the peregrine has almost vanished. The tundra and Peale's peregrines have been
less affected by the poisons. They can still be found in many of their northern and western
Peregrine falcons were once found over most of North America. Their favorite habitat is a
rocky cliff that overlooks open country. These cliffs are often found near rivers and lakes
along the seacoast. A peregrine's habitat also needs a food supply of songbirds, pigeons,
Peregrines spend their summers in the northern half of their range. When winter drives
the smaller birds south, the peregrines join the migration. Cold weather doesn't seem to
bother them, but they must have food. Tundra peregrines fly the farthest of all falcons.
Some fly to Florida and Central America. Others travel all the way to Brazil. American
peregrines and Peale's peregrines do not fly as far. The young birds don't need a guide.
Instinct tells them where to go when the food supply flies south. When the first frost hits in
the south, all peregrines begin following their prey back north. They usually return to their
nest, although on some occasions their nest may be gone or they followed their prey into a
new habitat. When this happens, they simply find an ideal place to live and build their nest.
After the attack of DDT, a man named Heinz Meng decided to attempt to raise peregrines
in cages. Most naturalists told him he was crazy! They claimed that peregrines would only
mate in their natural habitat. Meng knew that a German falconer had bred peregrines in
the 1940s. Meng decided to go on with his experiment. He started in 1964, but he had
many failures. Finally, in 1971, his peregrines hatched a tiny eyas. Meng was overjoyed.
Peregrines could be bred in captivity!
At Cornell University in New York, Dr. Tom Cade started Project Peregrine. Cornell raised
money to build a long barn for his peregrines. The barn had two story "apartments" that
made good nests. Meng and other falconers donated birds of mating age. Cade also
wanted to raise his own mating pairs. The government let him take a few Peale's
peregrines from Alaska. A female named Cadey was one of the eyases he found there.
In 1973, Cadey mated with a tiercel named Heyoka. She laid four eggs. Cade took the
eggs away. Cadey laid four more. Again, the naturalist removed the eggs. Cadey fussed at
him, but she laid four more eggs! Cade and his helpers put the eggs in an incubator.
Three weeks later, Project Peregrine's first eyases pecked through their shells.
For two weeks, the team members fed and cared for the eyases. Then they put the little
ones back with Cadey and Heyoka. The adult birds took good care of the eyases. That
year, twenty eyases lived and learned to fly in the barn. The question was, would the
young peregrines learn to hunt on their own?
One of the young tiercels answered that question. Taken to the outdoors to fly, he began
to dive at pigeons. Instinct told him that small birds were his natural prey. A few weeks
later, the tiercel flew up to chase away another predator from his territory. This time, he
In 1978, the project produced 95 eyases. Cade and his helpers began releasing the
peregrines. They fed them for a while, but the falcons soon learned to hunt on their own.
The Project birds began nesting on nearby cliffs. Peregrines were once more living in the
wild in the eastern United States.
Soon after this project took place, another started. The plan was to put peregrines into a
new habitat: America's big cities. The record showed that peregrines had done well in
Montreal, New York, and other cities. In 1981, a team turned nine peregrines loose in Los
Angeles, California. Eight of the birds survived the first year.
The peregrines found their own nests. Several falcons nested on the ledges of the Plaza
Building in Westwood. Two more picked out the Union Bank skyscraper in downtown Los
Angeles. Another bird moved out to the coast at Marina del Rey. Local citizens couldn't
believe their eyes. They looked up to see peregrines chasing pigeons down Wilshire
Naturalists still have their fingers crossed. So far, the news is good. The peregrine falcon
is coming back from extinction!