What is a Peregrine Falcon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Peregrine falcons are widely distributed falcons which have become especially well known among humans, thanks to their tendency to nest on tall buildings and bridges in urban areas. The peregrine falcon represents a remarkable success story, as these birds were once almost exterminated in North America. Thanks to a very focused recovery effort, however, peregrine falcon stocks rebounded, and today the birds are abundant once more.

Peregrine falcons often capture other birds in flight.
Peregrine falcons often capture other birds in flight.

Biologists know this bird formally as Falco peregrinus, and a number of subspecies are recognized in isolated areas. The peregrine falcon is famous for being extremely fast, and the birds have historically been used quite extensively in falconry. This use of the peregrine falcon continues, with some people using the birds recreationally, while others use peregrine falcons for things like pest control.

Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 200 mph in a dive.
Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 200 mph in a dive.

These birds have characteristic gray and white plumage, along with the classic falcon silhouette. They are generally around the size of large crows, and they prefer extremely high, isolated areas for their nests. In natural environments, peregrine falcons nest on tall cliffs and high trees, while falcons who take up residence in urban areas take advantage of skyscrapers and other large human installations. Sometimes this causes quite a stir; several cities with resident peregrine falcons have falcon-cams on their websites so that citizens can keep an eye on “their” birds.

Peregrine falcons in urban areas often live on top of skyscrapers.
Peregrine falcons in urban areas often live on top of skyscrapers.

The lifespan of a peregrine falcon is around 16 years, and the birds pair for life, generally around the age of two. A peregrine pair will return to the same nesting spot year after year, which can be problematic in urban areas, where nests may be damaged or destroyed through human activities. In some cases, cities have attempted to relocate nesting pairs for their own safety.

The duck hawk, as the peregrine falcon is sometimes known, has an incredibly wide range. These birds can be found on every continent on Earth except for Antarctica, avoiding only the tropics and extremely high elevations. The distinctive “ka-ka-ka” of the hunting peregrine is known to many people around the world, thanks to the extraordinary resilience and adaptability of these birds.

Peregrine falcon populations were severely threatened in the 1970s, when pesticides like DDT severely undermined the health of the birds. Before the effects of such pesticides were realized, many adult falcons died, while eggs broke or failed to hatch as a result of pesticide contamination. A concerted effort on the part of conservationists and concerned government officials led to ban on dangerous pesticides, which allowed peregrines establish a firm foothold in the world.

In the 1970s, the widescale use of insecticides with DDT caused North America's peregrine falcon population to plummet.
In the 1970s, the widescale use of insecticides with DDT caused North America's peregrine falcon population to plummet.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon301627

This is also the fastest bird known to man.

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