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WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

The Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcons belong to the Order Falconiformes and the Family Falconidae, they are placed in the Genus Falco. Some bird books class them with the Order Acciptirformes which includes, besides Falconidae, the Pandionidae {ospreys}, and the Accipitridae { Hawks and Eagles}. In the latter sequence of taxonomy there are over 300 species world wide in five families of which 26 species occur in Britain. The Order Accipitriformes also includes the Vultures.

Description of the Peregrine falcon

This large falcon has a large body with broad shoulders. the head has large forward facing eyes for superb vision which allows the bird to spot prey from up to a kilometre away. The black and white face patterning includes a facial moustache. The cere is yellow and there is yellow skin around the eyes. The bill is hooked and of a blue grey colour.

The upper plumage is of a dark grey slate colour which blends in well with rock faces. the breast is light coloured with distinctive black barrings. The flank and belly have greyish coloured bars. The feet are yellow the talons powerful. 

In relation to its body size the wings are medium length, the tail medium short and squared. The neck is short, the legs short to medium. They are 42 cm long with a wingspan of 102cm. The male weighs 670g The females are much larger and weigh 1.1kg.  this is in common with many species of raptures. The typical life span is 6-12 years.

The flight consists of winnowing wing beats followed by a glide, also soars and is much given to acrobatics, they are masters of aerial flying techniques. they are fond of scanning their surroundings from a favoured perch. from here it can launch itself into an awesome dive {known as a stoop}

the outline shape of the bird in flight is often described as an "anchor" shape, having long wings, short tail and relatively large size. 

Peregrine in flight

Photograph courtesy of Bill Buchanan

Lifestyle and Breeding.

Peregrine falcons hunt a wide variety of prey. Studies have revealed as many as 100 prey species are taken. These vary a great deal in size from the tiny goldcrest to large birds such as herons and geese. However, the majority of prey consists of medium sized birds which includes blackbird, song thrush, starling, pigeon, small duck and wading birds.

Peregrines' catch a high percentage of their prey whilst on the wing. this may start from the previously mentioned look out perch or by circling over its territory. When its spots a victim the bird folds its wing and plummets into the awesome stoop. When performing this stoop it can travel at speeds in excess of 150 mph. At the last moment it straightens out and knocks the bird out of the sky. they are hit with such a force that death occurs instantly. They may also take prey by just snatching small birds with their talons.  

Their hunting grounds in the UK usually includes open moorland, upland grassland,and occasionally woodland margins. However, open countryside seems to be the main requirement. Peregrines nesting on the coast hunt on nearby farmland on cliffs and even over the open sea. there is no sight that makes wading birds more terrified than the shadow of the peregrine falcon passing over them.

Lowland birds return to their breeding grounds from March until May, upland birds may breed later than this. After spectacular display flights the birds mate. There is no nest made, the eggs are laid on a suitable ledge. This may be on cliffs, old quarries or as is becoming more frequent, on top of tall buildings in towns and cities.

The eggs number from 2-4, mottled with dull red on a buff or rusty coloured back ground.  They resemble very much those eggs laid by the kestrel, except for their much larger size. Although a bold a fierce hunter it shows little defence of its eggs., hence illegal egg stealing occurs without much danger of attack.

The incubation period commences when the last egg has been laid. The incubation is undertaken by the female with occasional help from the male.  The chicks are born altricial { born blind and dependent on their parents} and downy. While the female is incubating, and when the young are hatched, the male is the sole provider for his family, as he returns he calls to his mate. The female leaves her chicks for a short period of time to collect the food. he may well have took the prey to a feeding or plucking post. The male will have done most of the plucking by the time the female arrives, making it much easier for her to feed the chicks.

 

Young peregrine

Photograph courtesy of Jo Keller

After two weeks the female will begin to hunt as the chicks become more demanding. The young leave the nest at about six weeks old, but even then they are dependent on their parents for an additional two months. as the juvenile birds become stronger the parent bird flies by at speed, calling calling out to the chicks. Any bird that is hungry enough will pursue the parent bird until they can snatch the prey from it. In this manner they are taught the skills they will require to hunt for themselves.

When the young leave or are driven away from their parents territory . Many head for the coast especially to estuaries where they feed on wading and other species of birds. Young birds which have not mastered the art of hunting will die before the winter is through. 

Conservation Issues

In the late 1950s and 1960s the numbers of peregrine falcons crashed to just 70 known pairs. This was due to persecution, egg theft and the use of agricultural pesticides. Thanks to the disuse of many pesticides and conservation efforts, the numbers have climbed rapidly in recent times.

In 2002 , it was estimated that there was 1400 pairs in Britain. the birds have recently been taken off the Amber list  of Conservation concern and placed on the Green list { which means there is no current conservation concerns.}

In the UK it is classed as a resident breeder and a passage/winter visitor.

PERSECUTION---Unfortunately persecution still goes on against this species. Examples of this was brought to light recently { February 2012}  when a multiagency operation investigating alleged crimes against peregrine falcons was launched across four police areas in England and Wales.. Police officers armed with search warrants, supported by staff from the RSPB, RSPCA, Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales, raided the homes of four pigeon fanciers. The raids to place within the following Constabulary areas-Avon and Somerset Police-South Wales police, Northumbria Police and West Midlands Police. An arrest was made at one of the locations after evidence was discovered there.

This follows another report in June 2011 The Forestry Commission in Northumberland reported that last year-{2010} that three nests in Northumberland {NE England} three nests were raided two for their eggs and one for the chicks. Suspicious activity has also been seen around a nest this year{2011}-This mirrors a national upturn in illegal activity targeting peregrines.

Martin Davidson, Forestry Commission ornithologist who has been monitoring nests in Northumberland  said; " Back in the 1990s half of all peregrine nests in the county were raided by criminals searching for eggs or young birds. We are certainly not back to those desperate levels and the birds revival has been encouraging, but we can not be complacent, as recent thefts have shown"

  

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Photograph courtesy of Frank Doyle

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