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In This Place

Back from Brink of Extinction, World's Fastest Bird Continues to Awe Watchers

Don Sutherland

A momentous thing happened in August of 1999. The fastest bird in the world - a bird that has been seen plummeting in a dive at over 240 miles per hour - the peregrine falcon was taken off the endangered species list. The ceremony was held out in Boise, Idaho on the 22nd August of that year. It is a wonderful and altogether rare success story.

This top of the food chain avian predator was severely poisoned by persistent pesticides accumulating in their body tissues. Things were so bad that the females would lay eggs that would break as soon as they began incubating because the shells were too thin. They were extirpated as a breeding bird from the eastern U. S., where they had been common, and were in serious trouble everywhere.

They are awesome to watch in the air and have evolved along lines that assure them of the fastest flying skills in the world. They must capture the fastest most acrobatic animals known and do it in the air. Built for speed they depend on their superior flying skills to capture prey in the air that they overtake, either in direct pursuit or in one or more powerful dives called stoops. Consequently, they don’t hang around in the woods but hunt open areas. They love mountains, grasslands, beaches, moorlands, deserts and open ocean areas where they can utilize their remarkable flying abilities to capture a meal.

The New England coastline and offshore islands in particular are the best place to see these spectacular birds in migration. The species is all the way back from the brink and putting on a show for those who care to take part. This past weekend as many as 20 individuals at a time were surveying the ocean from the bluffs on the east side of Nantucket while on Block Island, Rhode Island, raptor banders engaged in trapping and outfitting these falcons with satellite transmitters had their best week ever. The falcons have been putting on a show this fall.

This species has a worldwide distribution and have managed to colonize almost everywhere. They are common in the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic and are found the length of North and South America. They breed in Greenland as well as in New York, Boston and many other cities on window ledges of skyscrapers. They are extremely adaptable.

The birds that nest in the far north and Greenland migrate by the Cape and Islands on their way south. A few overwinter in our area. They have absolutely no fear of flying over or migrating across open water. It is second nature to these flying machines.

They bring a new meaning to eating on the fly. They are often seen at sea flying along slowly, reaching down to their talons and taking a bite of whatever bird they have captured. They are capable of catching and killing birds much larger than themselves but choose small easy to carry and eat prey when they are going to have to remain airborne. Peregrines can eat pretty much anything they want.

Generally, they feed like most raptors, on whatever prey is most abundant. In migration they are completely opportunistic and essentially will take whatever they are given. In other words any bird too far from cover or caught out over the ocean can become a meal for these skilled hunters. They catch and eat the commonest species of the day.

Lastly, this past Columbus Day Weekend was fabulous for birds and now all birding eyes in the region turn to the upcoming Nantucket Birding Festival in its 4th year from Oct. 17-19. Expectations run high for this well run festival with top notch leaders. Highlights will be reported in the next bird report.