Coming back from being endangered by DDT, the Peregrine Falcon is now a relatively common sight, including in Florida.
The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest bird in the world. I know this because I read it somewhere. I have never seen one dive in a stoop where it reaches the highest recorded speeds of up to 273 miles per hour, but if I haven’t by the time I am old enough to start a “Bucket List,” this experience will certainly go on it. “No.1, See a Peregrine Falcon stoop at over 200 miles per hour.”
The Peregrine’s typical method of taking its prey is to use its speed to strike the victim, hitting it with closed talons, but with such force that it usually kills on impact. The Falcon then circles around and catches the falling meal in mid-air and carries it to the Peregrine version of the dinner table. Try to visualize: You are some poor hapless Rock Pigeon making a meager living picking paltry pieces of pop-corn and bread crumbs from among the cigarette butts and other detritus of some city street, all the while dodging the feet of passing pedestrians and contending with pesky House Sparrows, and on the way home after work one day, a ball of flying fury hurtles out of the sky and ends your world. It is the stuff of a Hollywood “asteroid hits earth, end of the world” movie, but probably less marketable.
The recovery of the Peregrine Falcon is a remarkable story. The Eastern sub-species was extirpated in the late 1950’s, an early victim of the DDT thin shell syndrome. At that time a few Peregrines of other sub-species still survived in relatively DDT-free places like British Columbia and Greenland. A falconer/ornithology professor at SUNY New Paltz, named Heinz Meng, experimented with raising Peregrine chicks from eggs laid by Peregrines in British Columbia, and later, in 1974, successfully hacked them back into the wild from a simulated aerie atop a campus building in New Paltz, NY. Closely following the work of Meng, and collaborating with him, Cornell University biology professor, Tom Cade, founded the Peregrine Fund in 1974, and successfully raised the funds to develop a full scale Peregrine propagation program and eventually release hundreds of captive bred Peregrines back into the wild. Their program was so successful that in 1999 the Peregrine Falcon was removed from the US Endangered Species list.
They are now a relatively common sight in the winter in Florida. On a personal note, it was a program presented by Heinz Meng in 1969 on his Peregrine experiment that moved me from casual birder back to intense birder after my eight years away at school, starting a family, a career, and middling effort at golf. And a couple of years later I was privileged to meet Tom Cade and observe the Peregrine Fund work at the Chester County, PA, farm of Bob Berry, a cofounder of the Fund with Cade.
Peregrine Falcons formerly nested on high cliffs at inaccessible locations free from predators. Now their re-introduction into the wild has occurred on man-made cliffs more commonly called sky scrapers in cities, where nest monitoring is easier. For some reason they also have taken to large bridges. They nest on most of the largest bridges over the Delaware River; we have seen them on the Verrazano Bridge over the Hudson; and experienced one fly mere feet over our heads as we walked the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Plentiful pigeons provide ample food for their hungry chicks, and they are free from their most persistent predator: the Great Horned Owl.
There is a local birding legend in Bucks County, PA, our summer home, that the last wild Peregrine Falcon nest was located on the Nockamixon Palisades, cliffs high above the Delaware River, and that in 1958 an ornithologist died in a fall from the cliffs while checking on the nest. I have never been able to confirm the legend, but have heard it often from various sources, usually old-time locals who were not even birders. Whether the legend is truth or myth, the last Peregrines probably did nest on some cliff somewhere and it will be an exciting day when they are confirmed returning to their original natural high cliff habitat. In the meantime, I’m wondering whether it is time for me to begin thinking about starting a “Bucket List.” Nah, not yet. Maybe when I get old.
For more information and an interesting video on the speed of Peregrines, see: http://www.extremescience.com/peregrine-falcon.htm. For information on Heinz Meng, see: http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20073472,00.html; and for information on Tom Cade and the Peregrine Fund, see: http://www.peregrinefund.org/people/cade-tom (1/9/2013)