About Our Peregrine Falcons

Last Saturday morning. It was an impromptu off-Reecer Creek meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA). Deborah Essman, Bird Whisperer of Paradise (BWP), dropped by the Rodeo City Radio Club’s activity celebrating International Amateur (HAM) Ham Radio Field Day at the South Entry Park in Ellensburg, Washington (that triangle park on Main Street at Mountain View). As you know, any gathering of three or more outdoor nuts constitutes a quorum, and our by-laws stipulate the automatic calling of a meeting.

Deborah wanted to know what was up with all the antennae, radios, and K7RHT’s stunning new “Hambulance,” serving as the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for a series of emergency communication exercises. She also had exciting news about an almost-adult peregrine falcon perched on the microwave tower above the donut shop observing the goings-on at the Ellensburg Farmers Market along East 4th Avenue. While we find peregrines around the valley, this was the first of which she had knowledge in town. Of course, we are all aware that the market is drawing more and more interest, so…

At any rate, as BWP took her leave, one of the HAM homeys wanted to know what was so special about “that bird.” As Chair of the RCRGWD&OTTBA Watchable Wildlife Committee, I was duty-bound to respond.

Falco peregrinus is a 15-inch-long medium-sized hawk, with pointed wings spreading almost 40 inches. Its almost-black helmet, slate‑blue back and buff and barred underside were made for school kid sketches. Its natural habitat of cliffs and canyons has been widely supplemented with the tall buildings and deep gorges of major cities. Rock doves – common city pigeons – substitute for the ducks, doves, flickers, magpies and jays of its rural diet. The peregrine is the most widely distributed raptor on the planet, and is generally considered the fastest animal on earth – clocked once at 242 miles per hour in a dive – a “stoop.” Consider that such speed is faster than a free-falling stone in its first 10 or 15 seconds. This is a charismatic and amazing animal.

It has several unique adaptations. This falcon has developed nostrils which allow it to breathe at those tremendous stoop speeds; each nostril contains a rod and two fins behind it to control the air rushing into its lungs. Its proportionally large eyes enable the falcon to hold a clear view as it tracks its prey – one central image and two other moving objects – throughout its dive. It can see clearly at one mile, and its fovea center (the focal point on the retina at the back of each eye) is similar to a telephoto lens. Moreover, the two eyes are used independently of each other to view two different distant objects as they turn their heads. Shallower focal points in each eye work together to enable the bird to focus on one central image. The bottom line is that a peregrine is able to keep track of a central image (as we humans do), plus one magnified image in each eye. (If our eyes were proportionally the same as a perefrine’s, they’d be three inches across and well beyond a pound each.)

Then there is the stunning explosion of feathers when a peregrine strikes its prey. The bird’s strike, with its “clenched” fist of oversized feet, is like a lightning strike. In fact, those clenched feet are thrust forward just at the moment of impact, meaning that they are probably moving at more than 300 miles per hour. Devastating.

Peregrine falcons are now common in most large cities, where they make their livings on plentiful pigeons and other city dwellers. You will find “falcon cams” on line, tracking the birds and nests on skyscrapers across the US and Europe. Urban in-person watching is still a big hobby, also.

I still remember standing with a crowd of sidewalk lunch-munchers watching peregrines nail pigeons through the year in the urban canyons of Denver. We watched them teach youngsters to fly and hunt, with the drama of knowing that half those youngsters would die from accidents or starvation in the first year. We watched them hunt.

We would hold our collective breath as a falcon swooped after a pigeon, knowing it would miss four out of five times. We would imagine moving through the air at more than 200 miles per hour, in complete command. We could see that one in five pigeon (the one actually invited for lunch) literally explode with feathers, and flutter toward the ground until the peregrine regrouped and snatched it in midair. For a moment, there, each of us could be a peregrine falcon.

There are many videos of these amazing birds – and plenty of fascinating facts and pictures – online. Go surfing. See www.frg.org/ for the Falcon Research Group, and click the “Research” tab for information and photos of peregrines on Seattle’s Washington Mutual Tower. Find most everything you ever wanted to know about peregrine adaptations by googling “peregrine falcon skull” and opening “Specimen of the week 245:..” Google “peregrine falcon videos” and pick from dozens of opportunities to be swept away by the world’s fastest animal.

The peregrine is pure beauty and power on the wing. Find one. Watch it. Feel the air moving past its wings and torso. Touch the sky as you never imagined.


Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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