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The peregrine falcon

David Chapman / 04 January 2017

Find out about the hunting habits of the fastest bird in the world, the peregrine falcon.

Peregrine falcon
Peregrine falcon photographed by David Chapman

The name of the peregrine falcon, Falco peregrinus, is derived from the Latin word ‘peregrinator’ meaning ‘one who travels about’. 

This name is reserved for the peregrine because of its willingness to move between a variety of habitats at different times of the year and, presumably, its ability to fly great distances in a short space of time. 

Where to see peregrine falcons

During the summer the peregrine is a bird of uplands and moors but it is also at home on sea cliffs and even in our towns and cities but when winter closes in the peregrine is quite likely to be found around an estuary or wetland. So what is it that drives the peregrine to all of these habitats?

The two features of its lifestyle that determine the places in which a peregrine can live are its nesting requirements and its prey. Peregrines make their nests, or eyries, almost entirely on cliffs, either on the coast or on moors. Recently, though, they have taken to artificial cliffs such as cathedral spires, power stations and a range of other high-rise buildings.

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Diet and hunting style

The peregrine’s diet is made up almost entirely of other birds. Their hunting strategy consists of stooping at great speeds to surprise their prey. The fastest ever record of a peregrine in such a stoop was an amazing 217 miles per hour, making this the fastest bird on earth. To help survive the effects of such great speed the peregrine has specially adapted baffles inside its nostrils to stop it being suffocated by the inrush of air.

Such is the element of surprise that a bird attacked by a peregrine will often be killed before it is aware of the predator’s presence. 

The range of birds taken by peregrine falcons is astonishing. A pair of peregrines which nest near Bristol was studied and their prey was found to consist of birds from wide ranging habitats in the surrounding areas; these included feral and wood pigeons, green woodpecker, meadow pipits, snipe, grey partridge, wigeon, teal and little grebe as well as occasional bats.

Their prey varies according to the time of year because during the winter there is a tendency for them to hunt around estuaries and wetlands where a higher concentration of birds can be found. It is then that the peregrine is more likely to take wading birds and waterfowl rather than woodland birds.

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Identifying the peregrine falcon

It is rare to see a peregrine close up, when its plumage might be studied in any detail, but its black mask shape is often apparent even from a distance. 

More often it is the shape and size of the peregrine that makes its identity clear. This is our largest falcon; it has a barrel-shaped breast and stout wings which are broad at the base but taper quickly to a point. Compared to a kestrel or sparrowhawk the peregrine’s tail is short and stout. The peregrine’s wing beats are shallow with fast flicking wing tips and, though it will soar on motionless wings and stoop with wings folded, a peregrine will never hover like a kestrel.

To the falconer a female peregrine is known as the falcon and the male is called a tiercel. The term ‘tiercel’ is derived from the Old French word for ‘one-third’ and is used for the male peregrine because it is approximately one third smaller than the female. 

This size difference is repeated in most birds of prey and is of benefit to the species for two main reasons. Firstly the female, being larger, can spend longer incubating eggs without requiring food, and secondly she can hunt larger prey therefore not competing with the male.

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Peregrine falcon photographed by David Chapman

Persecution, decline and recovery 

Through the last few centuries peregrines have been persecuted by us for a variety of reasons. Where they occur on grouse moors they have been, and still are, killed by gamekeepers to protect their game birds. 

During the Second World War they were killed because of their habit of intercepting carrier pigeons. In the 1950s and 60s they were particularly badly affected by organo-chlorine poisoning because many of their prey species are grain-eaters so the poisons that were used in agriculture were passed from prey to predator building up to lethal levels.

By the beginning of this century peregrine numbers had recovered to their former levels across most of the UK and are increasingly seen in towns and cities. So wherever you live keep one eye on the sky, the chances have never been better to witness a fly-by from the world’s fastest bird.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.