Peregrine Falcons are special

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Imagine you’re watching a lone duck flying above a marsh. Then, out of nowhere, a downward hurtling dark shape appears from nowhere and strikes the duck and bounces away leaving a cloud of feathers as the duck falls toward the ground. The shape opens its wings and dives for the falling duck. A Peregrine Falcon, aka “duck hawk”, has collected a meal after stooping from high above its prey at a speed that can approach 200 miles per hour!

Peregrine Falcons are very special birds of prey. They have a long history in association with man maintained by falconers since at least 1000 BC. Often owned by royalty, they are native to all continents except Antarctica.

Peregrine Falcons are reasonably large raptors – 16” long with wingspan of 41” and weighing around 1.6 pounds. These stocky birds have sharply pointed wing tips and narrow, short tails. As with most raptors, the females, called simply “falcons”, are significantly larger than the males, referred to as “tiercels”. Adults have blue-gray colored backs and are barred or spotted below. Juvenile peregrines are dark brown above and heavily streaked below. Heads have dark hoods with very prominent “mustaches”.

We almost lost our peregrines in the 1960s. The species literally disappeared in our region as a result of accumulations of organo-chlorine pesticides from their food. But, as a result of an intense captive breeding and release program sponsored by the Falcon Fund and banning of the pesticides, peregrines are seen regularly during the fall-winter-spring period when they winter here.

Peregrines feed primarily on medium-sized birds favoring ducks, pigeons, and shorebirds. However, they can take birds as large as a goose or as small as a sparrow. According to the great bird artist John James Audubon, peregrines had a penchant for taking chickens around homes in southern Louisiana in the early 1800s and were referred to as “mangeurs de poulet” – chicken hawks. They will eat small mammals including rabbits, rats, and mice. Bats are sometimes taken especially when they emerge from day time roosts at dusk. In England, they have been observed catching and eating earthworms exposed by plows in agricultural fields!

Peregrine Falcons typically nest in very high places favoring cliffs in the wild. Nests are simple scrapes in the ground. However, peregrines will occupy and raise a brood of 3-4 young in large nests abandoned by crows and hawks in trees. In recent years, peregrines have found tall buildings and structures in cities to be suitable nesting sites preying on the large numbers of feral pigeons in such locations. But don’t look for peregrine nests around the rim of the northern Gulf of Mexico. They nest much farther north in the USA and Canada in North America.

Peregrine Falcons look like hawks and eagles but are more closely related to parrots. They do not have the strong feet and talons of those raptors making it difficult to kill their prey by striking them. Rather they break the necks of stunned prey using their notched beaks.

Stooping is the most dramatic form of hunting practiced by Peregrine Falcons. They climb to heights as great as 3,000 feet and then drop gaining speed until the unsuspecting prey is struck stunning it and sometimes killing it. A nictitating membrane protects the eyes of the stooping falcon and a projection in the nostrils permits breathing. Peregrines also fly at speeds of 50-60 miles per hour on a level path, often flying close to the ground catching prey unaware.

Falconry is a captivating sport practiced throughout the piney woods area. However, Peregrine Falcons need wide open spaces and are not well suited for falconry in our region. In other areas, falconers acquire peregrines from breeders or may capture a wild “passage” bird during the fall migration period. Licenses and permits are required to practice falconry and state game and fish agencies must be consulted before one becomes a falconer. One begins as an Apprentice Falconer, progressing to the General Falconer category, and finally to the Master Falconer category.