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The peregrine is a large and powerful falcon. It has long, broad, pointed wings and a relatively short tail. It is blue-grey above, with a blackish top of the head and an obvious black ‘moustache’ that contrasts with its white face. Its breast is finely spotted. It is swift and agile in flight, chasing prey. The strongholds of the breeding birds in the UK are the uplands of the north and west and rocky seacoasts. Peregrines have suffered persecution from gamekeepers and landowners, and been a target for egg collectors, but better legal protection and control of pesticides (which indirectly poisoned birds) have helped the population to recover slightly from a low in the 1960s. Some birds, particularly females and juveniles, move away from the uplands in autumn.
There is currently no peregrine specific conservation action ongoing, and the species is not under a specific threat at present in the UK. General conservation action aimed at broad scale habitat protection and reduction of pollution and chemical contaminants will benefit peregrines. RSPB and other organisations have been trying to help peregrines re-colonise their former ranges in the south and east of England by provision of nesting ledges. Continuing vigilance is needed to keep in check the continuing illegal killing of adults and robbing of nests for eggs and chicks.
Peregrine is the fastest moving bird in the world reaching speeds of around 180kph (112mph) when stooping after prey. To enable it to breathe at this speed, it has special baffles on its nostrils which control breathing. The high speed stoop means that whilst hunting by this method the peregrine must catch its prey on the wing to avoid injuring itself on impact. Rivaled only by the Osprey, the Peregrine Falcon has one of the most global distributions of any bird of prey. This falcon is found on every continent except Antarctica, and lives in a wide variety of habitats from tropics, deserts, and maritime to the tundra, and from sea level to 12,000 feet. Peregrines are highly migratory in the northern part of their range.
The name peregrine comes from the verb to peregrinate, meaning to wander, and it seems that the peregrine was so called because of its habit, out of the breeding season, of moving to where food is plentiful. This ties with the German name Wanderfalke.
The peregrine has been popular as a falconers bird for centuries and was once protected by Royal decrees, reserving it for use by kings and nobles. Since the war, trained peregrines have been used at many military airbases to clear runways of birds.
The falconers term tiercel gentle for the male peregrine comes from tierce meaning third, due to the male being a third smaller than the female, and gentle from the Middle Ages concept of gentilesse meaning nobility of character.
The peregrine feeds primarily on birds, which it catches in flight. Prey is spotted at distance, and once positioned correctly, it stoops at speeds of up to 180kph to catch prey. Despite its speed and agility, the peregrine is successful on only a small number of attempts. Sometimes, if a surprise attack is possible at lower speeds, prey is snatched from a perch or on ground. Prey is usually struck from above. Little of the kill is wasted - usually all that is left is the breastbone with the feathered wings. Peregrines chiefly hunt birds such as starlings, pigeons, blackbirds, jays, shorebirds, and waterfowl, but will rarely take mammals, reptiles, or insects.
The feral pigeon is favourite prey wherever this is freely available, though a wide range of birds are taken, ranging in size from goldcrest to grey heron. Weight of prey ranges 10-1,800g, with females taking larger prey than males. This generalist diet allows the bird to exist wherever there are good mixed bird populations.