5 April 2012

Life's so short so I'm so fast

The Peregrine Falcon is a large, crow-sized bird of prey that is renown for its exceptional in-flight capabilities: the bird is incredibly agile and is the fastest known animal, entering dives of over 200mph whilst hunting! The Peregrine is also the world's most widespread raptor, being found on every ice-free landmass except New Zealand and can flourish in almost every ecosystem other than extreme polar regions, very high mountain ranges and areas of dense vegetation such as in tropical rainforests.

Peregrine Falcons have long, broad wings that end in points, the physics of which allows the bird great manoeuvrability, whilst simultaneously allowing them to reach very high speeds. Their wing-span can be a large as 47 inches and their typical body length is between 13-23 inches. Like many birds of prey, Peregrines show reverse sexual dimorphism and female falcons can be as much as 30 times more massive than males. Peregrines become sexually mature when they are a year old and mate with one partner for their entire life (unless their partner is killed), which is usually around 15 years. The falcons also use the same scrape nest for many years, which unfortunately means that their breeding habits are easily disrupted by anthropogenic activities and if their nest is disturbed, it may be a few years before the pair breeds again.

The Pergrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus. This photo shows the characteristic black 'moustache' of the bird that descends either side of its beak. Their moustache is often used by birdwatchers to quickly identify the bird. The Peregrines upper beak is notches near to its tip, which is an adaptation that allows them to kill prey by severing their spinal column at their neck.

Peregrines predominately eat medium-sized birds such as pigeons and small ducks, but will also occasionally hunt small mammals, reptiles and even insects when their preferred food sources are scarce. Like all falcons, Peregrines specialise in hunting prey whilst it is in-flight, which is where their manoeuvrability becomes useful as well as their extreme speed. When hunting, the falcons will soar to an extreme height until they locate a potential meal. Once they have locked onto a bird they enter a ridiculously steep dive, called a hunting stoop, where they reach incredible speeds of over 200mph. To-date, the fastest recorded dive of a Peregrine is 242mph! Dropping like a missile, the falcon aims to clip one of the wings of its prey, the force of which often kills the unlucky bird outright. Even if the bird does survive the impact however, its fragile wing will be shattered and it will fall to its death. The Peregrine then simply finds where the bird has landed and tucks in...

A Peregrine Falcon entering its hunting stoop. The bird pulls its wings in tightly against its body and will drop at an almost vertical trajectory. Third eyelids, called nictitating eyelids, shut during the dive to protect the bird's eyes and specialised bony tubercles on its nostrils prevent much of the airflow from entering its lungs, preventing them from bursting due to the high-pressure air that is flowing into them.

The speed and spectacular hunting techniques of the Peregrine Falcon has long made the bird of interest to humans and the bird has historically been associated with aggression and martial powers. In Europe for example, Peregrines were the hierarchical bird of prey associated with princes, just below the Gyrfalcon that was used by kings, and princes often used the falcon for hunting and as a display of status. Native American Indians also used the raptor as a symbol of status, along with various other birds of prey, as a representation of celestial power and men of high status were often buried in costumes of such birds.

Man's interest in the Peregrine has also meant that it has been heavily sought after for falconry for more than 3, 000 years and the bird is frequently used in shows and by experienced falconers due to the high speeds of its dives.

A Peregrine Falcon featured on the quarter for the state of Idaho, USA.

Unfortunately, the high human interest in the bird has meant that historically, it was vulnerable to egg poaching. This, along with their persecution by farmers and their susceptibility to many pesticides such as DDT, meant that the numbers of Peregrines decreased dramatically throughout the mid- to late- 20th Century and bird was once classified as an endangered species by the IUCN. However, although the interest of humans in the Peregrine was part of its downfall, it is also the bird's saving grace and the recovery of the bird has been very successful. This is mainly due to the large numbers of the bird that were kept in captivity for their use in falconry, which enabled conservation biologists to mount a large-scale breeding program and the species has responded well, with an increase in Peregrine populations worldwide. There are now an estimated 1, 400 breeding pairs of Peregrine Falcons in the UK and in 1999, the bird was removed from the US Endangered Species List.

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