Cry of the Peregrine

Tuesday, September 28, 2021 | 02:08pm
The Cry of the Peregrine

By Sharon Scott

The Peregrine Falcon is swift, fearless, and powerful. From ledges high on rocky cliffs, the falcon sits motionless, surveying its surroundings. When it spies its quarry — an unwary ground squirrel or pigeon — the falcon launches into the air. In seconds it accelerates from a stand-still to a blur of speed; it strikes with one talon foot before the prey has time to react. When a small bird flushes ahead of a peregrine, it shifts into high gear delivering a head on kill. The falcon streaks forward like an arrow, with great agility then twisting and turning in zigzag pursuit. It easily outmaneuvers even the swiftest of smaller birds.

The falcon is fast and deadly. It does its hunting in the air, swooping or diving down onto its prey with incredible speed. At nearly 200 miles per hour, the falcon delivers a killing blow with the hind talons protruding from its closed feet. A peregrine is a meat-eating bird that use its strong feet to catch and kill prey. It has a strong hooked beak for tearing into flesh. Birds that prey on other birds are called raptors. Birds of prey are called raptors because of their exceptional hunting capabilities. They have sharp beaks, sharp talons, and keen eyesight.

There are other birds of prey like eagles that do not share a close genetic relationship to falcons. Eagles are typically stronger than falcons and are more heavily-built. Falcons, osprey, vultures, and hawks are birds of prey. They are distinguished from one another by the body, diet, and plumage. They also hunt prey in different ways. For example, Red Tail Hawks soar with their wings outstretched, high over the ground until they see prey and then use their strong talons to squeeze and kill their prey.

Conversely, Osprey flies high over a lake, looking for a fish in the water below. An Osprey is a skilled hunter- when it spots a fish in a lake it hovers and thrust into the water and grabs the fish with its strong talons and away it files.

Each raptor family has a different behavior, perception, communication, food habit, and ecosystem. Peregrine Falcons live in any place they can find food.  Some peregrines have adapted to life in the cities and others prefer forests. Incidental, peregrines thrive in habitats like the smoky mountains near the Tennessee and North Carolina border in the southeastern United States.

The Great Smoky National park is beneficial to the peregrine’s ecosystem and serves as its food chain due to the diverse species of small birds that make their home in the park. The deciduous forest is a haven for birds of prey. Some peregrines migrate to these forests and live among the trees. In recent years, peregrines have started to nest on city “cliffs,” ledges on the sides of tall buildings.

Peregrines thrive in big urban cities. The skyscrapers are suitable for the birds to nest. The eggs and chicks are safe from predators.  These ledges are just right for peregrines because large numbers of pigeons live in cities. Most song birds desire sunflower seeds over safflower and millet. Likewise, peregrines and their chicks love pigeons for their dinner over a ground squirrel! Conversely, some species of hawks resides in cities dwelling feeding on the abundance of rats and mice. Birds of prey that have the same family designation have features in common.

A peregrine interprets external stimuli using smell, sound, sight, and touch. For instance, peregrines use their keen eyesight to detect prey; then they take flight and stoop down onto prey. They glide and soar for long periods over great distances with only occasional wing beats. When the sun heats up the air near the ground, the warm air rises like an invisible balloon.

As it gets higher, this warm, rising air becomes a doughnut-shaped column of air. When the falcon flies into the column of air, the bird can soar and climb higher in the sky without flapping its wings. This is the spectacular view we witness as the birds soar above us. Peregrines have narrow pointed wings and long thin tails. They can fly very quickly, and they usually hunt over open areas. Falcons are specially crafted for intercepting prey in open flight. And ounce for ounce, few birds of prey can rival the slow, harsh, beaky, serrated cry of the Peregrine Falcon.

A stooping peregrine looks more like a missile than a bird. This was the breathtaking view I witnessed while vacationing in New York City some years ago.

I went to New York in late September to observe the city. Autumn leaves had begun to take on their metamorphism and the city was in full bloom. I decided to stay in a resort in New Jersey. One morning when I finished my last cup of fresh coffee I retreated on the balcony of the tall building. I was admiring the view when all of a sudden I heard a wild, skirling “airk, airk, airk, airk, and airk.”

I looked upwards and at first I thought I saw some kind of missile. But I realize what I was seeing was not a missile but a falcon on a mission. It had come out of the sun. The bird had selected a target and was flying high in the air diving toward it. But, “Who is the prey?” Before I had time to figure this out the falcon folded back its pointed wings with agility and speed it caught the flying pigeon in mid-air. The peregrine quickly soared across the sky and was gone leaving no sign of evanescent.

I was mesmerized at the sheer elegance of seeing a peregrine take its dive like a bow and arrow. The bird wings extended out like a bow-string pulled taut seeking out its target. And when its shot was lined up, the bow string released as the peregrine folded back its wing and soared. The peregrine hit its mark with the arrow, straight and true.

I stood on the balcony stunned beyond anything I had ever witnessed. I went back to my room and thought, “What a trip.” I thought, “How fortunate I was to have an up close account of this proud dignified raptor.”  The peregrine cry still echoes in my mind to attest that it is a warlord of the sky.