When it comes to speed, the Peregrine Falcon is difficult to beat.
Speed has always been important to humans. Our very earliest ancestors used speed to survive and pass on their genes by escaping prowling predators, not by out-running the predators, but by out-running their slower human companions, who often suffered a less desirable fate.
We no longer rely on our own speed for survival, but we are still fascinated with speed: think Roman era chariot races; cars running around in circles in ever increasing speed; baseball pitchers hurling a ball at nearly 100 mph, or quarterbacks rifling a spiral practically through a brick wall; the majority of Olympic events award medals to the speediest; and the Kentucky Derby is sold out every year, and it’s not just for the mint juleps. And we are constantly looking for more speed. I remember as a boy that extreme speed was expressed as “going like sixty,” at a time when automobile typical “high” speeds hovered between 35 and 40 mph. Now a driver doing 60 on an interstate simply backs up traffic.
But nothing humans can do to generate speed on their own, without the help of machines, begins to approach the speed that Peregrine Falcons (right) reach when they stoop in a dive to knock some hapless duck, pigeon, pheasant, or other prey sized bird out of the sky. Starting at a height of anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 feet a Peregrine Falcon will stoop at speeds up to and over 270 mph and strike its prey with such force that the prey is instantly killed: bestsciencebloginthelife.wordpress.com/page/45/.
Of course, it also engages in more conventional chase hunting, like its close falcon relatives, the Merlin (left and below) and the American Kestrel. (The Gyrfalcon, the fourth and largest North American falcon species, has never been recorded in the wild in Florida.) Each of the falcon species was formerly named after the prey species that it might take. Thus the Peregrine was the “Duck Hawk;” the Merlin was the “Pigeon Hawk;” and the Kestrel was the “Sparrow Hawk.” While bird names are often inscrutable, the modern falcon names are certainly classier than the old names.
Peregrine Falcons, which were almost extirpated during the DDT years, have rebounded as a result of reintroduction into modern day cliff habitats, better known as city skyscrapers, where they often nest high on building ledges to the delight of office workers who are very protective of them, and where there is a plentiful supply of pigeons to prey upon. They follow migrating birds south, sometimes even chasing shorebirds along ocean beaches, and arriving like snowbirds in Florida, where they can be found in locations with concentrations of birds.
Jewel and I have witnessed a Peregrine dive on a duck, unsuccessfully, but have also seen one take and eat a Killdeer. Surprisingly, Peregrines are successful on only 20 percent of their strike attempts. Merlins also hunt small birds and sometimes, dragonflies. Both Peregrines and Merlins can be found in Florida in the winter, but breed much farther north, although some Peregrine Falcons are now breeding in eastern North American cities and at some shore locations.
American Kestrels (right) are the most common of the falcon species as they breed throughout most of North America, including Florida. While they can be seen on telephone wires and fence posts all over Florida, particularly in the winter, they have suffered some decline in numbers, attributed to the increase in Cooper’s Hawks, which love to prey on Kestrels. The Kestrel diet does feature some small birds, but they are more likely to eat small rodents or grasshoppers. Neither the Merlin or Kestrel achieves the Peregrine’s speed records, nor are they likely to stoop from high altitudes, even though short sudden surprise dives are their favored method of attack.
And so, the Peregrine Falcon stands alone: the fastest self-propelled organism on earth. We humans have achieved higher speeds, surpassing the speed of sound and sending rockets into space, but not by flapping our own arms or using our own legs. And memory is a wonderful thing. The older I get, with advancing age and approaching dotage, the faster I remember I was able to run as a youth. But alas, there was always Someone faster. (Actually, a lot of “Someones” were faster.) Somehow, dreams never die. Oh, to be as fast as the Peregrine Falcon!!!
Note: Some time ago I watched a video documenting a Peregrine Falcon being radar clocked at 272 mph, but despite diligent internet searching, I have not been able to relocate it. However, here are some exciting views of Peregrines stooping on prey: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me3Y64VUqqQ.
And finally, a long BBC documentary on Peregrine Falcons in three parts; Part 1: www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8ZY9a-9eBY, and Part 2: www.youtube.com/watch?v=vk7F0P_VwvE, and Part 3: www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7K7Tl9vK0E. (2/15/14)