The remarkable recovery of the peregrine falcon

Back from the brink, thanks to conservation efforts

Peregrine falcons (Photo by Evan Young/NCC)

Peregrine falcons (Photo by Evan Young/NCC)

One of the most remarkable recoveries of a species at risk in recent decades is that of the peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest animal. Peregrine falcons are crow-sized birds of prey, with 22 subspecies, and are found on all continents except Antarctica. When pursuing their prey, they can dive at speeds of 300 kilometres per hour. Peregrine falcons have few natural enemies; it was an unnatural one that nearly caused their extinction.

Peregrine falcon populations started declining after the Second World War. By 1970, peregrine falcons were listed as endangered in the U.S. after high levels of pesticide residue were found in the birds and in their eggs. Pesticide residue interfered with breeding and led to thinner eggshells, with fewer chicks surviving to hatching. Fortunately in 1972, the pesticide DDT was banned (in North America) and the peregrine falcon’s recovery began.

Because breeding populations were so low, groups like the Canadian Wildlife Service began breeding peregrine falcons in captivity. The first experimental release of peregrine falcons in Canada took place in 1974, and since then more than 1,650 have been released in the wild near traditional nesting areas, including in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on the Bay of Fundy. Recently, peregrine falcons have been spotted nesting at the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Johnson’s Mills Shorebird Reserve and Interpretive Centre, in southern New Brunswick.

Peregrine falcons mate for life, and prefer to nest on steep cliffs, usually returning to the same nesting site year after year. They have powerful talons and a hooked beak that enables them to sever the spinal cords of their prey, usually smaller birds. They have acute eyesight, and often dive from great heights and at great speeds when hunting. To kill larger prey, peregrine falcons deliver a blow during a dive, using a fist-like clenched talon. When young peregrine falcons begin to fly, parents carry prey in their talons until the young learn to snatch it from them, mid-air. 

Although peregrine falcons still face threats, they have made a significant recovery and are returning to historic levels, thanks to coordinated conservation efforts.

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