Falco peregrinusperegrine falcon

Last updated:

Geographic Range

Peregrine falcons are found worldwide, except for rainforests and cold, dry Arctic regions. They are one of the most widespread terrestrial vertebrate species in the world. Most southern Palearctic and island populations of peregrine falcon are resident, and do not migrate. (White, et al., 2002)

Peregrine falcons migrate long distances between breeding and winter ranges. Northernmost populations breed in the tundra of Alaska and Canada, and migrate to central Argentina and Chile. They typically migrate along sea coasts, long lake shores, barrier islands, mountain ranges, or at sea. (White, et al., 2002)

Habitat

Peregrine falcons prefer open habitats, such as grasslands, tundra, and meadows. They are most common in tundra and coastal areas and rare in sub-tropical and tropical habitats. They nest on cliff faces and crevices. They have recently begun to colonize urban areas because tall buildings are suitable for nesting in this species, and because of the abundance of pigeons as prey items. They have been observed breeding as high as 3600 meters elevation in the Rocky Mountains of North America. (White, et al., 2002)

  • Other Habitat Features
  • urban
  • Range elevation
    3600 (high) m
    11811.02 (high) ft

Physical Description

There are 19 regional variants (subspecies) of peregrine falcon worldwide. They vary considerably in size and color. Like all falcons, peregrine falcons have long, tapered wings and a slim, short tail. In North America they are roughly crow sized, ranging in length from between 36 and 49 cm in males and 45 to 58 cm in females. Wingspan varies from 91 to 112 cm. They weigh an average of 907 g. Like most birds of prey, female peregrine falcons are slightly larger than males. They are typically 15-20% larger and 40-50% heavier than males. Peregrine falcons have slate and blue-gray wings, black bars on their backs and pale underbellies. They have white faces with a black stripe on each cheek and large, dark eyes. Young birds tend to be darker and browner, with streaked, rather than barred, underparts. Plumage doesn't vary seasonally. (White, et al., 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Average mass
    907 g
    31.96 oz
  • Average mass
    840 g
    29.60 oz
    AnAge
  • Range length
    36 to 58 cm
    14.17 to 22.83 in
  • Range wingspan
    91 to 112 cm
    35.83 to 44.09 in

Reproduction

Peregrine falcons form monogamous pair bonds that often last throughout many breeding seasons. Both males and females have a strong attachment to previous nesting sites, which may explain monogamy over multiple breeding seasons, rather than attachment between individuals. (White, et al., 2002)

Males display at nest ledges to attract females and advertise ownership to other falcons. The development of a pair bond is first indicated by the male and female roosting near each other. Eventually they sit at the nest ledge side by side. Individuals may also peep at each other, preen, nibble their mate's toes, or "bill" (gently grab the other bird's bill in their own). Both sexes may then engage in "ledge displays", centered on the area of their nest, or scrape. Prior to egg-laying, the pair will engage in incredible aerial displays, involving power dives, tight cornering, high soaring, and body rolls during a dive. Once the pair has formed, they begin to hunt cooperatively and females begin to beg for food from the male. (White, et al., 2002)

Peregrine falcons breed between March and May, depending on how far north they are breeding. Females usually lay their eggs in mid-May and they usually hatch in mid-June. Peregrine falcons lay one egg every 48 hours, for a total of from 2 to 6 eggs. Eggs are laid in a nest high on cliffs, tall trees, or tall buildings. Falcons make nests that are called 'scrapes', or simple small depressions dug into the sand or dirt and lined with fine materials. They may sometimes use nests that were built by other birds. Eggs hatch in 33 to 35 days. Young birds learn to fly 35 to 42 days after hatching. It typically takes 3 years for the young to reach adulthood and be able to breed. Females most frequently breed earlier than males. (White, et al., 2002)

  • Breeding interval
    Falcons typically raise one clutch yearly, although in rare circumstances more than one clutch may be attempted. If a first clutch is lost soon after laying, another clutch will be attempted after about 2 weeks.
  • Breeding season
    Peregrine falcons breed between March and May, depending on latitude.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 6
  • Average eggs per season
    3
    AnAge
  • Range time to hatching
    33 to 35 days
  • Range fledging age
    35 to 42 days
  • Average time to independence
    6 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 5 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 to 8 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 years

Both parents incubate eggs and care for the young. Females generally incubate the eggs for greater proportions of the time than do males. Young are brooded almost continuously until they are 10 days old. Young birds remain dependent on their parents for several weeks after fledging. As the young become more adept at flying, parents begin to deliver prey to them by dropping them in the air. The young then pursue and capture this already-dead prey in the air. In migratory populations, young become independent at the onset of migration, usually around 5-6 weeks post-fledging. Young in non-migratory populations may be dependent for slightly longer. (White, et al., 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Though most peregrine falcons do not live to be 1 year old, a healthy falcon who survives lives an average of 13 years. Survival rates through the first year of life are estimated at 40%. Adult survivorship is estimated at 70%. Maximum longevity records for wild birds is from 16 to 20 years old. The longest known lifespan for a captive peregrine falcon is 25 years. (White, et al., 2002)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    20 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    25 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    13 (high) years

Behavior

Peregrine falcons are active during the day. When not breeding they are primarily solitary and establish and defend territories. Territory sizes vary with the density of food resources. In northern populations, with the highest population densities, the distance between nests averaged between 3.3 and 5.6 km in different areas. (White, et al., 2002)

Home Range

Home ranges have been estimated from 177 to 1508 square kilometers. Males and females regularly hunt up to 5 km from their nest site or territory. (White, et al., 2002)

Communication and Perception

Peregrine falcons use a wide variety of vocalizations at different stages of life, but primarily during breeding seasons.

Most vocalizations are either between mated individuals, parents and offspring, or in antagonistic interactions.

Young beg for food with a call similar to: "screea, screea, screea."

"Cack" calls are usually used in alarm and nest defense. They are highly individual specific, with individual recognition possible in 72 to 90% of calls. The call is characterized as "kaa-a-aack, kaa-a-ack."

"Chitter" calls are used in several contexts and are a rapid succession of "chi chi chi chi's." Similarly, the eechip call occurs in a variety of contexts. It is characterized as "kee-u-chip", but the "chip" portion contains the highest energy and the "kee-u" portion is often left out.

When hunting, peregrine falcons will often give sharp, territorial calls in quick succession, "kee, kee kee...".

Postures are used to communicate aggression and appeasement. Raising the feathers and bill gaping are typical of aggressive posturing. Submission is indicated by the feathers being held tight to the body and the head held down, with beak averted.

Peregrine falcons have extraordinarily keen vision. They can see small objects from very far away and accurately fly at high speeds to capture them. (White, et al., 2002)

Food Habits

Peregrine falcons prey almost exclusively on birds, which make up 77 to 99% of prey items. The most important set of prey, by biomass, is Columbidae. Birds eaten include mourning doves, pigeons, shorebirds, waterfowl, ptarmigan, grouse, and relatives, and smaller songbirds. They will also eat small reptiles and mammals. Most frequent mammal prey are bats (Tadarida, Eptesicus, Myotis, Pipistrellus), followed by arvicoline rodents (Arvicolinae), squirrels (Sciuridae), and rats (Rattus). (White, et al., 2002)

Peregrine falcons most frequently hunt from a perch with a high vantage point, such as a cliff or tall tree. They take flight once prey have been detected. They may also fly or hover to search for prey. In some areas, where they may have to rely on insects, lizards, or mammals for prey, peregrine falcons hunt on foot on the ground. (White, et al., 2002)

Peregrine falcons are most successful in capturing prey if they have more height from which to initiate a stoop onto a prey animal. Although peregrine falcons capture their prey with their talons, they generally kill with their beak by severing the cervical vertebrae. Prey are then typically carried to an eating perch, where they are plucked and consumed, or cached for later use. Small prey (such as bats) may be eaten in flight. (White, et al., 2002)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • fish
  • insects

Predation

Though peregrine falcons, like other birds of prey, are considered to be near the top of the food chain, they are not completely free from predators. Adults may be killed by other, large birds of prey, such as great horned owls (Bubo virginianus), gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos). Nestlings and fledglings may be taken by mammalian predators such as cats (Felis), bears (Ursus), wolverines (Gulo gulo), or foxes (Vulpes), particularly in nests that are closer to the ground. Humans take eggs to raise for falconry. (White, et al., 2002)

Peregrine falcons are aggressive in defense of their nests. They will attack birds and mammals that are much larger than themselves when defending their nest. (White, et al., 2002)

Ecosystem Roles

Because they are high level predators, peregrine falcons play an important role in regulating populations of their prey, particularly pigeons and doves (Columbidae), ptarmigan (Lagopus), and ducks (Anatidae) (White, et al., 2002)

Peregrine falcons harbor, and are susceptible to, a number of parasites and diseases, including avian pox (Poxvirus avium), Newcastle disease, herpes virus, mycotic infections, strigeid trematodes (Strigeidae), nematodes (Serratospiculum amaculata), malaria (Plasmodium relictum), tapeworms, and bacterial infections. Ectoparasites include chewing lice (Phthiraptera, including Colpocephalum zerafae, Degeeriella rufa, Laemobothrion tinnunculus, and Nosopon lucidum), fleas (Ceratophyllus garei), and flies (Icosta nigra and Ornithoctona erythrocephala). (White, et al., 2002)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Peregrine falcons (and predatory birds in general) are a great asset to many farmers, killing millions of crop-destroying animals and insects.

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Birds of prey are sometimes accused of killing farm animals, such as chickens. The numbers of farm animals killed by birds of prey is of minor economic consequence when compared to their contributions to pest control.

Conservation Status

Peregrine falcons have suffered due to their dangerous position atop the food chain. Pesticides accumulate in small (not lethal) quantities in the tissues of small birds and mammals, but become concentrated enough in predatory birds, such as falcons, to kill them or render them incapable of producing offspring. Organochlorine pesticides (DDT and dieldrin) have been proven to reduce the birds' ability to produce eggshells with sufficient calcium content, making the egg shells thin and more likely to break. Peregrine falcon populations dropped precipitously in the middle of the 20th century. All breeding pairs vanished in the eastern United States. A successful captive breeding and reintroduction program, combined with restrictions in pesticide use, has been the basis of an amazing recovery by peregrine falcons. Now the use of many of the chemicals most harmful to these birds is restricted. However, it is not yet restricted in Central and South American where many subspecies spend the winter. After having been on the endangered species list since 1969, the incredible recovery of peregrine falcons has become a perfect example of how effective human conservation can be. In the 1990s they were taken off the federal list of endangered species in the United States. They are still listed as endangered in the state of Michigan. (White, et al., 2002)

Other Comments

Peregrine falcons are perhaps the fastest animals on earth. In a stoop (dive), peregrine falcons have been clocked at speeds of over 180 miles per hour and are believed to be able to reach up to 200 mph. Because of their fantastic agility and capability for high speeds, peregrine falcons have been the favorite choice of falconers. Falconers train them to hunt other birds.

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Mark Potter (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chaparral

Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cosmopolitan

having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"

tactile

uses touch to communicate

taiga

Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

tundra

A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

White, C., N. Clum, T. Cade, W. Hunt. 2002. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). The Birds of North America, 660. Accessed March 24, 2006 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/BNA/account/Peregrine_Falcon/..