Birdwatch

Peregrine Falcon

The return of a legendary predator

By Susan Campbell

As the mercury begins to fall, it is time to keep a sharp eye out for the return of a consummate avian predator, the peregrine falcon. This handsome fast-flyer can be found worldwide in a variety of habitats. During winter months, we are lucky enough to find them along the North Carolina coast.

Readily recognizable, peregrine falcons are large raptors with long, pointed wings and a long tail. Adults have barred underparts, whereas immature birds are streaked. Both, however, have steely upperparts and a dark head with noticeable “sideburns.” Peregrines tend to be solitary outside of the breeding season, likely due to the large territory they require for foraging.

Also known as “duck hawks,” peregrine falcons hunt medium-size birds such as ducks (surprise, surprise), terns, gulls and larger shorebirds. Individual falcons dive from high perches with wings folded to catch unsuspecting prey, a technique called stooping. During such dramatic pursuits, these birds easily reach speeds of 75 miles per hour. Labeled as world’s fastest bird, peregrines have been clocked as fast as 200 miles per hour stooping from half-mile perches.

In the summer months they can be found breeding on the tundra, on cliff ledges and man-made structures such as churches and skyscrapers. Pairs of peregrines return to the same sites for breeding season, raising three or four youngsters each year. In cities, peregrines take advantage of the endless supply of pigeons and starlings to feed their growing families, but they will pursue whatever sizable bird-prey is available.

Peregrines — the name comes from the Latin word for “wanderer” — are also known for having one of the longest migrations of all birds. Those that breed on the North American tundra have been tracked to southern South America in winter. Peregrine falcons can cover more than 15,000 miles a year; some travel over the open ocean as they migrate down the East Coast.

Most notably, the peregrine falcon is the subject of a real success story. There was a time when these birds could not be found anywhere in North Carolina or even this region of the United States. As a result of the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, the eastern population was virtually driven to extinction by the middle of the 20th century. In 1970, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared the peregrine falcon an endangered species. Given the broad national interest in this species, intensive work to reintroduce peregrines began at Cornell University. Effective captive breeding techniques and release procedures known as “hacking” developed rapidly. Thousands of birds were hacked at hundreds of sites and, as a result, the species was de-listed in 1999.

By the mid-1980s, young birds were hacked at several remote sites in western North Carolina.  After 20-plus years, peregrines were once again gracing the sky. Monitoring of the breeding population by state biologists continues. This summer, five of the 10 occupied sites had successful nests, which hosted a total of 14 young. Believe it or not, this includes the Wells Fargo building in downtown Charlotte, where the resident pair has been nesting for three years.

In the winter around here, peregrines may perch high on telephone poles, pilings or simply on a dune line. Should you see flocks of shorebirds or gulls suddenly explode into flight, look carefully for a large falcon in their midst: It just might have an unsuspecting individual in its talons. There’s nothing like witnessing one of these amazing birds in action.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

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