The peregrine is the largest British breeding falcon. It is 38-48 cm long, and its wingspan is 95-110 cm. The female is considerably larger than the male, as much as one-third larger which is why males are called tiercels. The upper parts are dark blue-grey, and the under parts are pale with fine, dark bars. The head has a black ‘hood’ with black moustache-like markings on the face. Juvenile birds are browner and heavily streaked below.
Peregrines are mostly silent but at nest or when disturbed their call is a series of quick, loud kee notes. Sometimes, the calls can be mistaken for gull calls.
Peregrines are a cosmopolitan species and you can find them on all continents apart from the high Arctic and Antartica. They can be found in a wide variety of habits, including wide open spaces, the coast and moorlands.
Some peregrines have even chosen life in urban areas (around 10 cities and towns in the UK) and set up nests on anything from chimneys to cathedrals to electricity pylons. These offer the same height and safety as their more typical crag and cliff nest sites. Three pairs of peregrines are believed to live in Birmingham but they are not all thought to raise young each year.
Peregrines do not construct nests. Instead, they lay their eggs either directly on the surface of the nesting structure or in a shallow, unlined scrape that hold small rocks or dirt. 2-4 eggs are typically laid at two to three-day intervals but incubation doesn’t start until until the clutch is complete, so eggs hatch around the same day. Peregrines can have second clutches if the first clutch fails.
The laying date varies but can start from February onwards. The females incubate the eggs for 29-32 days, and after they hatch, the male provides most of the food.
The falcons keep their feet curled up to avoid damaging the eggs with their sharp talons. The birds also periodically roll the eggs with their beaks, in order to incubate them evenly.
At about 3 weeks old, the chicks begin to walk and jump around the nest. As the chicks grow, the female also begins to hunt and both adults present the young with prey. When they are around 40 days old they are able to fly but they stay close to the nest site. They are dependent on the adults for an additional two months.
Peregrines typically pair for several years and may live up to 10 years old - the oldest on record was 15 years and 6 months old.
City-dwelling peregrines typically feed on pigeons and starlings while peregrines living on the coast or near estauries feed on wading birds and ducks. A hunting peregrine dives with amazing speed towards its prey, striking the bird with such force that it is often killed upon impact. This act, called a stoop, is what makes the peregrine falcon the world’s fastest animal, capable of flying at speeds of 180 km per hour!
They even manage to breathe when traveling so fast, because they have nostril pegs that slow down wind intake and prevent the lungs from bursting.
Peregrine numbers crashed in the 1960s due to the impact of pesticides. They have now increased in numbers, to about 1,400 breeding pairs in the UK but their recovery in some areas are still held back by illegal persecution. They carry one of highest standards of legal protection and if harmed, perpetrators can face fines up to £5,000 and even imprisonment. Today, peregrine populations in Britain are slowly recovering thanks to their protected status and the banning of dangerous pesticides.
The RSPB has launched a new campaign last year calling for an end to the illegal killing of birds of prey and asking members of the public to support their work to protect birds of prey. Visit the RSPB’s stand to find out more and to sign a pledge or click on www.rspb.org.uk/birdsofprey.