The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is a bird of prey (raptor) found worldwide, except for rainforests and cold, dry Arctic regions. Also simply known as the peregrine, these birds are large with a blue-grey back, barred white underparts, and a black head. They are known for their quick flight and are actually the fastest bird in the world, travelling at speeds of up to 320 km/h (200 mph).
The peregrine falcon belongs to the family Falconidae and the genus Falco. There have been numerous subspecies of the peregrine falcon described, and currently 19 are recognized. The scientific name Falco peregrinus is a Medieval Latin phrase that was used by Albertus Magnus in 1225.
These birds feed mainly on medium-sized birds, although will also sometimes take small mammals. They make their nests mostly in open habitats, but in recent years have also been known to make use of urban areas, particularly tall buildings where there is a lot of pigeon prey for them to eat.
Unfortunately, due to the use of pesticides, the peregrine falcon had become an endangered species by the 1970s. Breeding in captivity after the ban of these pesticides helped to restore the peregrine falcon population, and they are now widespread across most of their area. The peregrine falcon is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Peregrine Falcon Characteristics
The peregrine falcon is a large birds, with a body length of between 34 to 58 cm (13 to 23 in) and a wingspan from 74 to 120 cm (29 to 47 in). Females are noticeably larger than males; while the two sexes have similar markings and plumage, females are up to 30% larger. Males weigh between 330 and 1,000 g (0.73 and 2.20 lb), whereas females weigh between 700 to 1,500 g (1.5 to 3.3 lb). The exact weight of these birds depends on the subspecies.
The color of the peregrine falcon again depends on the subspecies, but most bluish black to slate grey backs and long, pointed wings and black wingtips. The underparts are white to rusty with thin clean bands of dark brown or black. The tail is usually black and is long, narrow, and rounded at the end with a black tip and a white band at the very end. They have a black top of the head and a “moustache” along the cheeks, which contrasts with the sides of the neck which are pale and a white throat.
Peregrine falcons have yellow feet and beak base, while the rest of the beak is black, as are the claws. The upper beak is notched near the tip, which allows the bird to kill its prey.
Peregrine Falcon Lifespan
The peregrine falcon has a lifespan of around 13 years, although they have been known to live to 20 years in the wild. Despite this long lifespan, most peregrine falcons do not live to be a year old. In captivity, these birds can live for up to 25 years.
Peregrine Falcon Diet
The peregrine falcon feeds almost exclusively on birds, particularly mourning doves, pigeons, shorebirds, waterfowl, ptarmigan, grouse, and smaller songbirds, but it is though that between 1,500 and 2,000 bird species are eaten by this species. They will also eat small reptiles and mammals, such as bats, squirrels and rats.
These birds sit at high vantage points, such as in trees or on cliffs, searching for their prey and, once prey has been detected, they will fly to catch it. Prey is typically struck and captured in mid-air. They catch their prey with their talons and generally kill with their beak by severing the cervical vertebrae.
Small prey may be eaten in flight, but other, larger prey will be taken to an eating perch, where they are plucked and consumed. If prey is too heavy to carry, a peregrine will drop it to the ground and eat it there.
Peregrine falcons may also fly or hover to search for prey. In some areas, where they eat insects, lizards, or mammals, they will search for food on the ground on foot.
Peregrine Falcon Behavior
Peregrine falcons are predominantly solitary birds except from during the breeding season. They are very territorial, with their home ranges between 177 to 1508 square kilometers. They are active during the day and will hunt up to 5 km from their home range. They may be more nocturnal in urban settings.
The peregrine falcon is actually the fastest animal in the world — it can reach speeds of over 320 km/h (200 mph) when performing the swoop, which involves soaring to a great height and then diving steeply and hitting one wing of its prey so as not to harm itself on impact.
Peregrine Falcon Reproduction
Peregrine falcons are monogamous birds that breed for multiple years. They tend to return to the same breedings sites each nesting season, which may be one of the reasons they are monogamous. They breed between March and May, depending on how far north they are breeding. Prior to egg-laying, the pair will engage in incredible aerial displays, involving power dives, tight cornering, high soaring, and body rolls during a dive.
The nests are usually on high cliffs, tall trees or skyscrapers. They are called ‘scrapes’, dug into the sand, gravel, vegetation or dirt. They may sometimes use nests that were built by other birds. The female chooses the nest site.
Females will lay their eggs in mid-May and they usually hatch in mid-June. Peregrine falcons lay one egg every 48 hours, for a total of from 2 to 6 eggs. The eggs are white to buff with red or brown markings. Both parents incubate eggs and care for the young. Females generally incubate the eggs for greater proportions of the time than the males.
Eggs hatch in 33 to 35 days and are brooded almost continuously until they are 10 days old. The young are covered with creamy-white down and have disproportionately large feet. They learn to fly around 35 to 42 days after hatching, and fledge after 42 to 46 days. The peregrine falcon reaches sexual maturity at one to three years of age, but in larger populations they breed after two to three years of age.
An immature bird can be spotted as it is much browner, with streaked, rather than barred, underparts, and has a pale bluish cere and orbital ring.
Peregrine Falcon Location and Habitat
Peregrine falcons are found worldwide and are actually one of the most widespread terrestrial vertebrate species in the world. The only places that they don’t inhabit are the rainforests and cold, dry Arctic regions.
Peregrine falcons like to live in open habitats such as deserts, seashores, mangroves, wetlands, tundra, grasslands, dry forests and scrubland. They are not usually found in sub-tropical and tropical habitats. They will live anywhere that provides good nesting space, such as tall trees and high cliffs. However, they’ll also live in urban areas, on top of tall buildings.
Most southern Palearctic and island populations of peregrine falcon are resident, and do not migrate. However, northernmost populations breed in the tundra of Alaska and Canada, and migrate to central Argentina and Chile. They migrate along sea coasts, long lake shores, barrier islands and mountain ranges, travelling very long distances.
Peregrine Falcon Conservation Status
The peregrine falcon is currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, however this has not always been the case. Peregrine falcon populations dropped dramatically in the middle of the 20th century, which was due to organochlorine pesticides (DDT and dieldrin). They were placed on the United States’ endangered species list in 1969.
Fortunately, thanks to a successful captive breeding and reintroduction program, combined with restrictions in pesticide use, the peregrine falcon population has been rebuilt.
The peregrine falcon is a highly admired falconry bird, and has been used in falconry for more than 3,000 years, beginning with nomads in central Asia. They have been successfully bred in captivity, both for falconry and for release into the wild. Until 2004 nearly all peregrines used for falconry in the US were captive-bred.
Peregrine falcons were removed from the United States’ endangered species list in 1999, which is in large thanks to the effort and knowledge of falconers.
Peregrine Falcon Predators
Peregrine falcons are considered to be pretty close to the top of the food chain, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have any predators. Adults can be killed by other, larger birds such as great horned owls and golden eagles.
Young birds may be eaten by bears, cats, wolverines and foxes. In fact, this is so common, that many young don’t make it to a year old. Peregrine falcon eggs are also taken by humans so the young can be raised for falconry.
These birds are very defensive of their nests and will attack any predators, even those that are much larger than them.
Peregrine Falcon Subspecies
There are nineteen subspecies of peregrine falcon that are found throughout the world. Let’s take a look at them in more detail below.
Falco peregrinus anatum
Falco peregrinus anatum is also known as the American peregrine falcon or “duck hawk”. It is found mainly in the Rocky Mountains, although was formerly common throughout North America between the tundra and northern Mexico. The anatum is similar tot he nominate species but is slightly smaller. Males weigh between 500 and 700 g (1.1 and 1.5 lb), while females weigh 800 to 1,100 g (1.8–2.4 lb). Adults are paler and less patterned below than the nominate species.
Falco peregrinus babylonicus
Falco peregrinus babylonicus is found in eastern Iran along the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan to the Mongolian Altai ranges. It is paler than the nominate species, with males weighing between 330 and 400 grams (12 and 14 oz), and females weighing 513 to 765 grams (18.1 to 27.0 oz).
Falco peregrinus brookei
Falco peregrinus brookei is also known as the Mediterranean peregrine falcon or the Maltese falcon. It is found in the Iberian Peninsula around the Mediterranean, except in arid regions, to the Caucasus. It is smaller than the nominate species, with males weighing around 445 g (0.981 lb), and females weighing up to 920 g (2.03 lb). It has a rusty color and is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus calidus
Falco peregrinus calidus is often seen around wetland habitats, breeding in the Arctic tundra of Eurasia from Murmansk Oblast to roughly Yana and Indigirka Rivers, Siberia but travelling as far south as South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa in the winter. It is paler than the nominate species. Males weigh between 588 and 740 g (1.296 and 1.631 lb), and females weigh between 925 and 1,333 g (2.039 and 2.939 lb).
Falco peregrinus cassini
Falco peregrinus cassini is also known as the austral peregrine falcon. It is found in South America from Ecuador through Bolivia, northern Argentina and Chile to Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. It is similar to the nominate species, although it is smaller and has a black ear region. It is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus ernesti
Falco peregrinus ernesti is found from the Sunda Islands to the Philippines and south to eastern New Guinea and the nearby Bismarck Archipelago. It has very dark, dense barring on its underside and a black ear region. It is also non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus furuitii
Falco peregrinus furuitii is found on the Izu and Ogasawara Islands south of Honshū, Japan. It is a very rare bird and may only be found here, perhaps only on one island. It has dark coloring and is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus japonensis
Falco peregrinus japonensis is found in Japan and from northeast Siberia to Kamchatka. It looks very similar to the nominate species. The northern populations are migratory, while those of Japan are resident.
Falco peregrinus macropus
Falco peregrinus macropus is also known as the Australian peregrine falcon. It is found in all regions of Australia, except the northwest. It is similar to brookei in appearance, but is slightly smaller and the ear region is entirely black, and its feet are proportionally large. It is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus madens
Falco peregrinus madens is found in the Cape Verde Islands and is non-migratory. They have unique coloring; males have a rufous wash on the crown, nape, ears and back, while the underside is conspicuously washed pinkish-brown. Females are tinged rich brown overall, especially on the crown and nape. It is endangered, with only six to eight pairs surviving.
Falco peregrinus minor
Falco peregrinus minor is found widespread throughout Southern Africa and sparsely and patchily distributed throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It may also be found long the Atlantic coast as far as Morocco. The minor is the smallest subspecies, weighing as little as 300 g (11 oz). It is dark colored and non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus nesiotes
Falco peregrinus nesiotes is found in Fiji and probably also Vanuatu and New Caledonia. It is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus pealei
Falco peregrinus pealei is known as Peale’s falcon. It is found in the Pacific Northwest of North America, northwards from Puget Sound along the British Columbia coast (including the Haida Gwaii), along the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the far eastern Bering Sea coast of Russia, and may also occur on the Kuril Islands and the coasts of Kamchatka.
It is the largest of the subspecies, with males weighing between 700 and 1,000 g (1.5 and 2.2 lb), and females weighing between 1,000 and 1,500 g (2.2 and 3.3 lb). It has a very wide bill and looks like an oversized and darker tundrius. It is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus pelegrinoides
Falco peregrinus pelegrinoides is known as the Barbary falcon. It is found in the Canary Islands through North Africa and the Near East to Mesopotamia. It is smaller than the nominate species, with females weighing around 610 g (1.34 lb). It looks similar to brookei, although it is paler and has a rusty neck.
Falco peregrinus peregrinator
Falco peregrinus peregrinator is known as the Indian peregrine falcon, black shaheen, Indian shaheen or shaheen falcon. It is found in South Asia from across the Indian subcontinent to Sri Lanka and southeastern China. In 1996, its population was estimated at 40 breeding pairs. It is small and dark with rufous underparts and is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus peregrinus
Falco peregrinus peregrinus is the nominate species. It is mainly non-migratory in Europe, but migratory in Scandinavia and Asia. It breeds over much of temperate Eurasia between the tundra in the north and the Pyrenees, Mediterranean region and Alpide belt in the south. Males weigh between 580 and 750 g (1.28 and 1.65 lb), while females weigh between 925 and 1,300 g (2.039 and 2.866 lb).
Falco peregrinus radama
Falco peregrinus radama is found in Madagascar and the Comoros and is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus submelanogenys
Falco peregrinus submelanogenys is known as the Southwest Australian peregrine falcon. As its name suggests, is found in southwestern Australia and is non-migratory.
Falco peregrinus tundrius
Falco peregrinus tundrius is found in the Arctic tundra of North America to Greenland, and migrates to wintering grounds in Central and South America. Males weigh between 500 and 700 g (1.1 and 1.5 lb), while females weigh 800 to 1,100 g (1.8 to 2.4 lb). It has a white forehead and white ear region, and a crown and “moustache” that are very dark. Juveniles are browner and sometimes almost sandy colored.