Peregrine Falcons – sky hunters

by | Jun 19, 2021 | birds, breeding behaviour, peregrine falcon, Wildlife rescue | 2 comments

Every four weeks I have a short segment on ABC Ballarat Radio talking birds with presenter Gavin McGrath, and last session was about falcons and other birds of prey. And I realised that after writing nature articles on our local flora and fauna since 2008 – somehow I had missed writing about peregines – a species which is a personal favourite.

Peregrine Falcons are sleek, muscular and powerful with large piercing eyes and huge yellow talons; every Galah’s worst nightmare! Peregrine Falcons are a cosmopolitan species, distributed across continents, but the Australian subspecies (Falco peregrinus macropus) is a heavier bird with larger talons – enabling it to take down larger prey. Although known for preying on pigeons, here in Australia the big and chunky Galah is one of the peregrine’s favourite prey species.

A Peregrine Falcon about to perch – displaying its impressive talons! Photo by David Whelan Wildpix Photography

Peregrine Falcons are specialized bird hunters. They soar high at heights of up to 1200m,  scanning for flocks of birds – starlings, galahs, corellas and pigeons. When a hunting falcon has selected his or her potential prey bird, they lock on with those wonderful eyes like a missile finder, and enter into a spectacular hunting dive known as a stoop.

The peregrine folds its wings into its body and simply plummets out of the sky on a steep diagonal – any last-minute adjustments to the stoop are made by the bird executing a dramatic body roll, rather than moving its head! The speeds reached are variously listed as 237 km per hour, up to 300 km per hour – the fastest animal in the world. Like other birds that fly and move at high speeds, such as swallows and swifts, the forces the bird experiences as it flies are high enough to make even the most seasoned human aircraft pilot pass out – over 10 g at the end of the stoop!

This spectacular hunting method is called “waiting-on” and involves “circling or soaring and prospecting before stooping at a shallow angle with wings partly or fully closed” ( HANZAB Vol 2).   Waiting-on can also be carried out by flying underneath the flock of birds then flipping over and striking with talons, or carrying out “false stooping” beforehand to break up the flock and single out any stragglers. Peregrines will also hunt by “still-hunting”; which is hunting from an unconcealed perch, followed by attack, either by gaining altitude and stooping or making a level dash. Peregrine mated pairs will also hunt cooperatively,  with one bird flushing prey and the other catching it. How romantic!

After a successful kill, the falcon takes the bird to a perch or even a safe spot on the ground to pluck the bird before eating.

Asterix the male Peregrine Falcon looking simply magnificent on the arm of Martin Scuffins, of Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary. By David Whelan

I experienced the thrill of a peregrine hunt at very close quarters some years ago. I was on my way back from Warrnambool, and decided to visit some of the Ramsar listed lakes and wetlands for a spot of birdwatching. Only I didn’t think it through – it was 2008 and the height of the Millennium Drought. I pulled up to a bone dry depression surrounded by parched paddocks, thinking – well this is a bum deal! I was in my trusty Holden Commodore station wagon, and had my binoculars on the front seat next to me.

Movement in the sky ahead, and before I even had a chance to grab my binoculars a Peregrine Falcon was bearing down toward the car’s front windows in extremely hot pursuit of its prey! The peregrine banked steeply and just avoided crashing into the the windscreen – the bird being chased actually clung to the back right hand window of the wagon, its chest heaving!
The bird using my car for protective cover was most likely a Brown Songlark – a bird of the open plains that I did not recognise at the time. After resting on the car for a bit the Songlark flew off. The peregrine was long gone and I left that spot soon after,  filled with excitement and gratitude – what a moment!
In this video narrated by the UTTER LEGEND David Attenborough – the film makers attach a camera to the falcon itself – so you get a “bird’s eye view”:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovocT91G1ww

A pair of Peregrines at Laverton Industrial Estate, by David Whelan. @WildPix Photography

Unfortunately, the peregrine’s taste for domestic pigeons draws the ire of pigeon racers. Last month, a Peregrine Falcon was shot in Romsey and had to be euthanised due to the extent of its injuries ( May 25 edition of the Midland Express) . And this week in Melbourne, Nalini Scarfe of Boobook Wildlife Shelter rescued a bird shot in Diamond Creek. These shootings are illegal under the Wildlife Act 1975 – but how to find the per