The Peregrine Falcon: The Fastest Animal in the World
After The Kill
A Global Distribution
Terror In The Skies
The most successful predators are not always the biggest. Indeed, the bird of prey, that has truly taken over the word is neither as large as an eagle, nor as formidable as a goshawk. Remarkably, at first glance, it looks little larger than a kestrel.
You can tell this bird is something awesome however, by virtue of the reaction of other birds to its presence. A group of waders or ducks feeding in the open will often not react much to a kestrel, and may only pay passing attention to a buzzard. But if a peregrine is overhead, everybody panics. Birds rush hither and thither at high speed, going nowhere much at all. They call loudly to one another as they dash about, yet, all too often their haste and energy is wasted. The peregrine watches the palaver from high above, and often simply moves on to cause panic somewhere else. This supreme predator normally has plenty of options.
The terror engendered by the peregrine is understandable; few other birds can feel safe when it takes to the skies. These remarkable hunters have been known to catch 120 different species in Britain alone, which is half of all of the breeding species to be found- and these are the ones that have been recorded. The victims range in size from the tiny goldcrest to the huge heron, so every bird, bar perhaps a golden eagle must always be on their guard.
The other aspect of the peregrine that provokes such fear is the way in which it kills. Birds know that this hunter can strike from anywhere, without warning. Just because the peregrine is a thousand feet above the ground or several miles away, that doesn't make you safe. No, the peregrine is dangerous at any distance, because it is quite simply the fastest moving bird- indeed possibly the fastest moving creature of any kind in the world.
When a peregrine has spotted some likely prey, which it might do while perched on a crag or circling at high attitude, its strategy is generally to strike from above. So it manoeuvres itself to a point high above what it hopes is its unsuspecting quarry and then, once in a position, simply plunges down towards its prey, with wings almost folded. Allowing gravity to work, the bird soon accelerates to quite astonishing speeds. If the dive or 'stoop' as its usually known, is from about 3000 feet up, then in theory a peregrine weighing just a couple of pounds could accelerate to more than 180 miles an hour. So far however, no speed of more than 111 miles an hour has ever been confirmed. Nevertheless, that is pretty fast.
But the bald statistics do not capture the full drama of the peregrine's stoop, which is one of the great sights of birdwatching. You see the hunter circle in the sky, note its sudden concentration, and then watch as, almost casually, it begins to close its wings and drop. With a few full flaps to power its dive, the peregrine is soon at the mercy of its own gravity. You simply cannot believe that a bird can move so fast.
One might expect that a peregrine would dive vertically, but this isn't always the case. On longer drops, especially, it usually maintains an angle of 30-45 degrees to the vertical. The reason for this is that a peregrine's overlapping, binocular vision- the zone of vision most effective for judging distance- works best at an angle of 40 degrees to its target. And so, rather than tilting its head, which would increase drag, the peregrine dives at a slant.
The dive not only gets the peregrine to its target very quickly, but also creates enormous momentum. This means that peregrines don't usually need to dispatch their prey with a bite to the back of the head, as most falcons do, but simply kill it on impact. Usually all you see is a fast moving peregrine and then a puff of feathers as the talons, balled into fists, strike the bird. The victim's neck is often broken, and occasionally the poor creature is decapitated. Compared with the messy exploits of many a bird of prey, this kind of kill is swift and decisive and, in a way, almost merciful.
Nature's Top Gun
Even Other Raptors Aren't Safe
The Ultimate Conqueror
No peregrine would admit to a mercy killing, though. These are predators at the very top of the food chain; they kill birds for a living, every day, often several times a day. In the mountains they specialise on pigeons, often commuting to the lowlands to find them, but many also feed closer at hand on ptarmigans and other mountain dwellers. As mentioned earlier, peregrines can kill almost everything.
With its devastating and simple killing technique, the peregrine has become the king of bird predators in every way. Not only does it terrorise our birds throughout Britain, but also on every major continent in the world. Peregrines kill birds in North and South America, and in Asia, Australia and Africa. No other diurnal bird of prey- perhaps no other land bird at all- has as wide a natural distribution.
And incredibly, among the 10,000 species of birds in the world, the peregrine is estimated to have tasted more than 1000. That's ten percent of all the birds in the world. So, if all those are the peregrine's subjects, that's evidence enough of who is king.
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© 2014 James Kenny