Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus
L 14-18" / WS 37-46"

Peregrine Falcon is a large, powerful, lightning-fast falcon found in a variety of cliff habitats, marshes, and open areas across North America. Once nearly gone across part of its range, it has rebounded in recent decades, now occupying urban areas where it nests on building ledges, bridges, and man-made structures, especially boxes erected in areas of the U.S. specifically for them. Peregrines still use cliffs to nest on where available in the West and parts of the northeast but seem to be as common on man-made structures these days.

Peregrine is a bird-hunting specialist preying on shorebirds, waterfowl, and pigeons (in urban areas), but will snag any bird not too large if given the chance. On numerous ocassions, they have even been seen taking smaller raptors right out of the sky! Peregrines hunt mainly via damatic high-speed stoops, at times reaching speeds over 200 mph, earning it the title of "fastest animal on the planet." They are also easily capable at chasing down speedy birds such as Bufflehead and Pintail in level flight. For obvious reasons, it is the favored bird among falconers. Peregrines often perch conspicuously on prominent overlooks, including power poles and buildings, and when agitated give a loud, harsh, nasal "kak-kak-kak-kak..."

The Tundra race of Peregrine breeds across the Arctic throughout Alaska and Canada. It is the most widespread of the races. Tundra is generally a long-distance migrant, wintering sparingly in the United States but mainly in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. The Anatum race breeds primarily in the continental West to Mexico, and many winter within their breeding range. Peale's (which are slightly larger than the other races) is resident across the wet areas of the Pacific Northwest coast to the outer Aleutian Islands, and is found sparingly throughout the West in winter, but some have been known to migrate all the way to the East Coast and down into Florida! However, through efforts in the 1970's & 80's when the Peregrine population was diminishing (mostly in the eastern U.S.) birds of European descent, falconry birds of mixed decent, and heavily marked birds of unknown origin were introduced into the East, making it impossible to ID some Peregrines to subspecies in certain areas. Females are distinctly larger than males, the biggest birds approaching the size of male Gyrfalcon.

Shape

  • Appear stocky when perched, with a flat, blocky head, and stout chest and shoulders. Wing tips reach tail tip.
  • In flight, elegantly proportioned long, narrow, pointed wings.
  • Wings are smoothly curved with slight bend at the wrists making overall silhouette resemble a retracted bow-and-arrow when soaring.

Flight

  • Highly capable of soaring, seen high in the sky with other raptors on migration, or when 'hiding' from prey before initiating a lethal stoop.
  • Soar on flat wings or with a very shallow dihedral (sometimes just the wing tips curl upward).
  • Glide on slightly drooped wings powerful, fluid, whip-like, "rolling" wing beats, which enable them to accelerate to high speeds in seconds.
  • Steady in flight at all times.

Plumage

  • Plumage varies with geography, but only two age classes, adult and juvenile. Cere, legs, and eye-ring bluish changing to yellow over the first winter.
  • Adult is whitish below with variable blackish barring on belly, and checkered underwings. Bluish above, with blacker head (with white cheek) and primaries, and paler blue rump. Males average bluer above than females, but sexes often not identifiable in the field.
  • Juvenile is buffy below (fading to whitish by spring) with dark streaks, checkered underwings, and a pale throat. Dark brown to slaty on top with dark sideburn.
  • Three subspecies in N.A. -- Tundra (F. p. tundrius), Anatum (F. p. anatum), and Peale's (F. p. pealei). Subspecies distinguished by overall darkness of plumage (and range), Tundra juvenile palest overall, lightly streaked on underbody, and pale crown. Anatum typically more heavily marked than tundra, shows rufous wash to underside, and often dark forehead. Peale's extremely heavily marked underneath and dark above often lacking sideburn.

Migration

  • Tundra is most migratory of the three subspecies, moving south in fall mainly from mid-September through October, and from early April through May in spring. Notable movements occur along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
  • Anatun is year-round resident or short-distance migrants but less is known about their migratory patterns.
  • Peale's is partly migratory, but migration of Peale's is poorly understood. At least some move south of the breeding range and can be seen along the West Coast in fall and winter, or as far as Mexico.
  • Birds resembling Peale's can be seen along the East Coast south to Florida during migration, but its unknown whether these are all true Peale's, or some mix of genetic descent from reintroduced breeders.

Distribution

(Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)

Peregrine map