The Peregrine Falcon: The Fastest Animal on the Planet

With diving speeds above 250 mph, this bird is the fastest animal on the planet.

Look out cheetah, there’s a new bird in town.

Meet the peregrine falcon – majestic warrior of the skies. Armed with a hunting dive that can reach more than 250 mph, their physique screams predator. Paired with humans for ages, they even played a part during World War II taking down carrier pigeons.

And they almost went extinct.

About 50 years ago, the peregrine had a nasty reaction to several pesticides – particularly DDT. Skipping over the super sciencey stuff, this caused their eggs to have thinner shells and few survived to hatch. Populations plummeted around the world. After decades of conservation, it was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list in 1999. 

While the falcon’s populations are still monitored, they are not an uncommon sight in our hometown estuary. They don’t nest on the grounds but prefer higher territory, estuary educational coordinators said, but open coastal land is a perfect peregrine hunting ground.

Peregrines are “raptors” because they hunt and kill their food, similar to owls and bald eagles. These birds share sharp hooked beaks, large talons and keen eyesight, but no one dives like the peregrine. That dive is called the hunting stoop and it makes the bird the fastest animal on the planet.  

Commonly reaching speeds over 250 mph, the falcon will soar to great heights and dive steeply, essentially tackling their prey mid-air. Most other birds do not have the biology to achieve this dive. Engineered with special nostrils that streamline airflow to the lungs and three eyelids to maintain vision, the stoop is a devastating attack.

It is this hunting ability that drew humans and peregrine falcons together thousands of years ago. Some scholars say references to falconry appear as early as 2000 B.C. Before firearms, peregrine falcons were a weapon of choice during hunting excursions, becoming particularly popular among nobility in the middle ages.

And who was the sex of choice for falconry? Why females, of course! These falcons are sexually dimorphic, meaning ladies are significantly larger. In fact, during the middle ages, female peregrines were graced with the term “falcon” while male peregrines were termed “tiercel” meaning a third – referencing their smaller size.

Falconry is rare nowadays but the practice may have saved the peregrine falcon from extinction. Falconers, in conjunction with the Peregrine Fund, contributed to the preservation of the bird during its most precarious season. 

If you’re jonesing to catch the hunter in flight, visit the estuary at dawn and dusk, their preferred hunting times. Estuary educational coordinators say they are even more common near Border Field State Park beaches. Keep your eyes peeled for a characteristically dark, helmet-headed streak in the sky with a marking on its face like a mustache.

Think muttonchops - almost like the biker of birds. 


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