The peregrines' species designation is Falco Peregrinis,
which means "wandering falcon." The peregrine is a
bird of prey — a raptor.
In the 1960s, use of the pesticide
DDT nearly wiped out the entire population. In the early 1970s,
DDT was banned and the American peregrine was declared an endangered
species. Falconers, who are experts at handling, training and
flying various birds of prey, have helped scientists re-establish
the species in the United States.
Peregrines inhabit some of the earth's
wildest and least accessible terrain. They are among the most
widely distributed of birds, with nests on every continent except
Antarctica. Peregrines are a migratory species whose winter vacation
spots range from Little Rock, Arkansas to the tip of Argentina.
They'll sometimes winter at a power plant if there's
enough open water and an adequate food supply, such as pigeons,
Migrating peregrines usually return to
Minnesota in March. The males return from the South first to reoccupy
their nests. Females usually arrive from one to three weeks later,
although some pairs spend the winter together and reach their
nests at the same time. Peregrines mate for life. When one partner
dies, the survivor finds a new mate.
To build nests and raise their families,
peregrines seek cliffs, rock walls, tall buildings -- and more
commonly in the Midwest, the tall stacks of power plants. They
crave access to water, open country and open skies. Peregrines
defend the sky all around their nests and will vigorously attack
any threatening bird coming within a radius of about 500 feet.
Some of their hunting territories measure up to twenty square
miles. Nesting places are usually found at least two miles apart,
except under conditions where prey is extremely abundant.
Falcons feed on pigeons, starlings, blackbirds,
ducks, flickers, jays and doves. Falcons pursue their prey in
the air and their long, sharp-cut wings are shaped for speed.
The fastest raptor on earth, peregrines can dive at speeds of
over 287 miles per hour. In level flight, they can achieve speeds
of about 60 miles per hour.
Males and females exhibit the same elegant
markings, but it’s possible to distinguish the sexes by
size. Adult females, at weights of 1.9 pounds and more, look bigger
and sturdier than the males, which can weigh less than 1.25 pounds.
Peregrines are about the size and weight of a large crow.
Peregrines usually begin breeding at about
2 years of age. Females will lay a clutch of three or four eggs,
though sometimes five are laid (and very rarely, six). The eggs
hatch over 32 to 35 days. Chicks emerge from the shells covered
with a short coat of white down and their eyes are open. Their
leg muscles are weak, but their voices work very well and they
cry out for food.
When the nestlings are tiny, their parents
prepare “baby food” for them by plucking prey and
shredding it with their beaks. As the youngsters grow up, the
parents are more inclined to let them look out for themselves,
but they do not leave them entirely on their own. Though the parents
no longer serve them baby food, they continue to provide food
for their young for up to two months after they leave the nest.
Peregrines usually make their first flight
when they are about five or six weeks old, with males taking the
leap before females. After the young falcons’ first flight,
they are referred to as fledglings. It may take them a year or
more to master the flying skills of their parents.
The first year of life is treacherous for
young falcons; about 6 of every 10 peregrines hatched will die
in their first year of life. Although they have a high mortality
rate, peregrines have been known to live as long as 15 years.
The movement to save the peregrine falcon
has a happy ending. The birds were removed from the Endangered
Species List on August 20, 1999.