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.
Peregrines are high on the food chain and have few predators—except the one that could cause their most rapid decline—man. Primarily, they feed on the flesh of other animals, grasping and killing their prey with their talons. It is a myth that the larger raptors can grasp and carry off small children and larger domestic animals. A golden eagle, for example, weighs about 12-15 pounds. It can lift and fly away with only about one-third its own weight.
In cities, peregrines seem to have mastered catching pigeons. Elsewhere, they feed especially on shorebirds and ducks. Their high perches give them the perfect opportunity for their aerial assaults.
Once an endangered species in the United States, the peregrine population was completely eradicated east of the Mississippi River by the mid-1970s. Like so many other birds of prey, they have been shot and trapped by farmers and ranchers over the years; they have been poisoned by DDT and similar pesticides, and they have had their habitats destroyed and taken away by growing human populations and economic development. Only recently have humans begun to realize the value of all raptors as controllers of rodent populations and as indicators of the general health of the environment.
Under federal and state law, it is illegal for anyone to injure a bird of prey or to even own parts, such as feathers and talons. Federal permits are needed to own or keep them.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to save peregrines and all birds of prey, but it is essential that we all develop a more concerned attitude and tolerance for all the wild creatures that share the earth with us.
Along with the peregrine falcon at the Rocky Coast exhibit, Zoo visitors can also view four other raptors: a pair of burrowing owls at the Sonora Desert exhibit, a bateleur eagle at the African Pavilion exhibit and a barred owl at the Streamside exhibit.