Log In

Reset Password

It’s In Your Nature: Peregrine falcon is a nature success story

It’s nice to take time to write about positive environmental things.

In this case, it is the recovery of the peregrine falcon.

While learning my birds as a youngster, the peregrine falcon was called the duck hawk, the kestrel was called a sparrow hawk and a merlin was called a pigeon hawk.

Their names were changed but they’re still falcons, and built for speed. They have rather pointed wings and powerful breast muscles.

In particular, the peregrine is the speed champ. It is the world’s fastest bird and has been recorded at speeds of nearly 200 mph.

Adult peregrines hunt on the wing generally snatching flying birds from midair or knocking them from the sky with closed talons.

Depending on their habitat, they feed on waterfowl, gulls, jays, pigeons, and evening chimney swifts.

Young, recently fledged falcons, begin to hone their feeding prowess by catching dragonflies or butterflies. Once they’ve mastered their hunting techniques they advance to avian prey.

I began assisting in the hawk migration counts at Bake Oven Knob in the fall of 1975. In the numerous days perched on the mountain over the next few years, I never recorded a peregrine. Now, from late September through October, with favorable winds, they can be seen almost daily.

Peregrine falcons are more commonly observed migrating along the Atlantic Coast. Last year, for example, Cape May hawk counters recorded 220 passing the observation deck there. (As of Oct. 1, they’ve recorded 166 already.) Compare that number to 2002 when only 19 falcons passed the official counters.

Bald eagles, and osprey numbers also dropped dramatically as the use of DDT and similar pesticides increased. The accumulation of DDT in the higher order predatory birds caused either infertility or thinning eggshells. Eventually almost no nests were successful and the populations were unable to recover.

In 1972, North America banned the use of DDT.

In Pennsylvania, eventually there were no nesting peregrines after 1959. In 1990, the Pennsylvania Game Commission began reintroduction programs done with hacking towers. Captive peregrine’s young were transferred to these structures and careful feeding of them through puppet like surrogate parents enabled them to be released as “wild” falcons. Hacking was successful for eagles and ospreys as well.

Finally, 2003 brought the first nesting pair again to our state. Now nests have been found in 32 of our state’s counties. When peregrine numbers were stable before DDT, almost every nest was on a cliff usually along a river.

Now, the falcons have adapted well to the “cement and stone cliffs” of city buildings or on the steel framework of bridges over those same rivers.

One of my former students and outstanding photographer, Steve Miller, discovered a falcon nest in the Lehigh River Gorge. I had a chance to see both the nest and the adults on a mid-June trek there this year.

It has been reported to the Game Commission and is apparently the only nest in Carbon County. Peregrines around 1900 nested on the cliffs of Lehigh Gap and I can imagine a new pair could again find that area a great place to nest again. Kudos to those who found ways to bolster the peregrine, bald eagle, and osprey numbers. Let’s do our part to keep the populations healthy.

Nature Happenings: Start checking your feeders, the first juncos and white-throated sparrows should be arriving about Oct. 10. Autumn’s foliage is beginning to brighten. Look for bright yellows in spicebush (shrub) and sweet birch, while black gum (tupelo) and red maples show off their crimson leaves. So ... Get out there.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The majority of the peregrine falcon nests today are: A. On cliffs near waterways; B. In large conifers such as white pines; C. On tall building ledges or steel bridge superstructures

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: The mockingbird has a propensity to flutter up from a perch “singing away” and then back to the perch again.

Email Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com

I I photographed this juvenile peregrine falcon after its unsuccessful attempt to capture some sandpipers on the Cape May beach a few years ago. BARRY REED PHOTOS
Powerful breast muscles and a streamlined body highlight this perched peregrine. Note the distinctive dark “sideburns” which are great identification field marks.
Urban dwelling peregrine falcons have an abundance of pigeons, and the ever present starlings (shown here) to prey upon.
Peregrines that migrate coastally have an abundance of shorebirds and gulls on which to prey.