The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Regional

May 29, 2013

Zoo Tales: Peregrine Falcon Nature's Sprinter

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 —

Think of the fastest animals on the planet. Cheetahs (that can hit about 70 mph in bursts), some hares (that can run twice as fast as an Olympic sprinter) and some antelope and gazelles (that can top 50-60 mph in bursts) usually come to mind.

But the fastest animal is the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), that can reach speeds of nearly 200 mph in dives (although some will argue that the spine-tailed swift is actually the fastest normal-flight animal, hitting bursts of more than 100 mph).

Peregrines use that speed to literally crash into their prey (typically other birds) in flight, killing or stunning them through the impact. The highest measured speed ever was 242 mph.

Like hawks, owls, kites, eagles, ospreys, condors and some vultures, peregrines are true birds of prey, or raptors. The Latin word “raptor” means “to grasp or seize,” and that's exactly how these magnificent birds capture their food—with the help of long claws, called talons, on the end of each toe.

The strong taloned feet are one of three characteristics that make a bird, like the peregrine, a raptor, or bird of prey. A hooked upper beak for tearing prey into pieces and excellent eyesight are the other two. Raptors’ eyesight is unequaled in the animal world. A third, transparent eyelid, called the nictitating membrane, can be closed to help protect the eyes when it dives into brush or plants to catch their prey or to protect the eyes during aerial impacts.

Peregrines typically nest on cliff ledges and at first, it might seem odd that they can also be found in cities on tall buildings such as skyscrapers, but the buildings provide nesting ledges similar to those of natural cliffs. They mate for life and breed in the same territory each year.

Peregrine means "wanderer," and, true to their name, they may travel widely outside the nesting season. Some are permanent residents but many migrate. Those that do migrate to areas such as the Arctic tundra and South America can fly more than 15,000 miles in a year. But according to some sources, they have highly developed homing instincts that leads them back to their favorite nesting areas. Some nesting sites have been shown to be so favored that they are occupied by successive generations of falcons.

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