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The Binocular Advisor

Raptor Rapture

A peregrine falcon, diving toward a flock of ducks far below, was moving over 175 mph.

Peregrine FalconThe wildest of wild things pass through our human-ordered landscape in fall. October and November are raptor time in the much of the US.

Although a few hawk species, such as the red-tailed hawk, nest throughout the US, many nest and raise their young in Canada and the northern states, where the latitude provides long days. That way they have many hours to find food for their young.

In the fall, hawks ride the sky south. This is the window of opportunity to see more raptors than at any other time of year. It's also a great time to encounter a peregrine falcon, the fastest raptor of all.

How fast is a peregrine?

Sometimes peregrines hunt in a long tail chase. I have seen shorebirds fly fast enough to escape a peregrine chasing from behind. (Read about such an incident.)

But sometimes peregrines drop from the sky in a powered stoop. They are fast, accurate, and deadly. In the 1930s an aviator had an opportunity to estimate a peregrine's diving speed. Practicing his dive, the pilot aimed his plane toward a flock of ducks flying far below. According to his instrument panel, the plane accelerated until it was going 175 miles per hour. At that moment a peregrine falcon diving toward that same flock of ducks overtook the plane and passed it.

In recent years, some experts have claimed that peregrines can dive at 260 mph.

Enraptured with raptors

Raptors have powerful feet and claws, the weapons with which they strike and kill. Their beaks are hooked, for tearing prey apart. Their vision is keen. They can see as well all the time as we can see using binoculars. They live at a pitch of alertness that seems close to ecstasy. Indeed, our word rapture is related to raptor. Rapture comes from raptus, which means seized, transported, or rapt.

Many people are enraptured with raptors. Each fall hordes of people go to watch hawk migration at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, at Duluth's Hawk Ridge, at Sulphur Springs in Arizona, and other migration observation spots where thousands of raptors pass by during a single day.

But even if you can't travel to one of the famous hawk-watching sites, you will see raptors wherever you are this fall, provided you look up and scan the sky from time to time.

Back from the brink of extinction

We almost lost peregrine falcons in North America, due to the insecticide DDT that was used in the 20th century. The DDT was sprayed on plants to control insects. Birds and mammals ate the poisoned insects, and though they survived, they stored the DDT in their bodies. Peregrines ate the birds and mammals, further concentrating the poison.

The DDT caused the falcons' eggs to become so thin that they broke during incubation. By the late 60s, peregrine falcons became rare. In the eastern US, no baby peregrines were hatching at all. Not one, for decades.

At last DDT was banned, in 1972. Gradually, it began to be possible for peregrines to live and breed again in eastern North America.

Peregrine reintroduction programs have helped to bring peregrines back. Many have been hatched on the tops of skyscrapers in big cities, with the help of universities, departments of natural resources, conservationists, and falconers. (The process is called "hacking.") The young peregrines have grown up and made a good living eating mostly rock pigeons ("city pigeons") and starlings.

Peregrine FalconSome of these hacked peregrines are now nesting in natural habitats such as cliffs throughout country.

In 2004, a female peregrine who was hacked on a smokestack in Minnesota chose to take up residence at a power plant in Ottumwa, Iowa. (Note the bands on her legs, placed when she was a chick.) She successfully nested in Ottumwa in 2005 and 2006. Click the picture to enlarge it.

As a result of the reintroduction programs and the slow disappearance of vestigial DDT, birders once again have a real chance of seeing peregrine falcons in the wild. It's a great sign of hope for our land and the earth.

Diane PorterOne could fly over your yard today.

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

Copyright 2006 by Diane Porter
Drawing copyright 1997 by Mimi Hoppe Wolf



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