The Peregrine Falcon

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
each winter.
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
the female.
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