On Leap Year Day, I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with a Peregrine Falcon that dropped out of the sky.
The ledge outside of my office on the 28th floor of a downtown Sacramento high-rise was apparently the perfect place for a young Peregrine Falcon to sit and preen. And preen he did for a good 30 minutes, giving me time to grab my camera and fire away.
The Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) is the world's most widespread bird of prey. Because of its far-reaching breeding range, it is found in many areas around the world. At one time, it was on the Endangered Species list because it was threatened by the use of pesticides, but since DDT was banned in the 1970s, populations have recovered.
This guy is a testament to that fact, as he's a juvenile estimated to be about 10 to 11 months old. More about this downthread, but enjoy a few images first.
He looks to be pretty proud of his overall good looks in this shot.
He also seemed undaunted by the fact that I was pretty damn close to him. In fact, he preened and seemed to pose a bit for the camera. Kids. What are you gonna do?
I was pretty happy to see that Junior here was merely preening, rather than tearing apart a pigeon or other bird for a meal. The Peregrine's diet, in fact, consists mostly of mid-sized birds and they're famous for taking them right out of the air in what's called a hunting "stoop" or high-speed dive. In an image downthread, you'll get a look at the bird's talons which enable it to seize prey and often kill on impact. The kill-on-impact part happens because the Peregrine, in its dive, can travel in excess of 200mph, making it the fastest member of the animal kingdom.
In a spectacular shot below that I use with permission from professional photographer
Will Sooter of www.sharpeyesonline.com, you'll see two Peregrines passing food in the air. Once the Peregrine locks on to the food source it wants and begins its stoop, you can pretty much say goodbye to the bird it's decided is lunch.
Junior has a way to go before he becomes an accomplished hunter like this, however. He's just a young'un. Here in the next shot, he seems to be saying, "Hello, God, it's me, your little Falcon. I'm a good boy, aren't I?"
And here in the next sequence, he demonstrates his skill at preening and getting all his feathers -- and his feet -- involved in the process.
Then ... "Oops, I got a feather in my mouth!"
And now embarrassed, because he thinks you're laughing at him, he issues a stern warning: "Don't you dare!"
This bird is young, as you can see from its downy feathers and especially from the heavy vertical barring on its chest. Lineatus, our fine regular editor of Dawn Chorus and a raptor expert, summed it up thusly when asked the approximate age of this bird:
Peregrines make the transition from juvenile plumage to adult plumage in their second year, so any bird you see in juvenile plumage this time of year (i.e., before the new "crop" of juveniles starts flying in late spring and early summer) would be one hatched last summer. They should be starting their molting any day now, so soon this bird will have a mixed up jumble of juvenile and adult feathers, but by fall it will be in its full adult peregrine glory.
There are a couple of different sets of terms for aging, and they can be confusing. Some deal with plumage alone (juvenal, juvenile, subadult, adult) and some deal with the year the bird was hatched (hatch year, second year, after hatch-year, after second year, etc.). When using the second system, all birds have a "birthday" at the start of the new calendar year on January 1. A bird wearing juvenile plumage on December 31 is a hatch year (HY) bird; on January 1, the same bird in the very same plumage becomes a second year (SY). By December 31, that SY bird will look like an adult (with the exception of those species that take several years to reach adulthood). So your bird is a second year bird, in juvenile plumage, who is probably about 10-11 months old.
Got that? Good, because there will be a quiz shortly.
Juvenile or adult, it's pretty clear from the pictures below that the Peregrine relies on its deadly talons to secure its prey after diving mid-air and grabbing it. Once caught in this literal death-grip, there's no hope for the hapless bird in its clutches. Look at the length and curve of those talons:
But the talons are only half the story. The Peregrine's bill is the other half of the killer equation. A closer look shows how this strong and powerful curved bill is designed for tearing flesh.
The Peregrine Falcon is truly a spectacular bird of prey. As if it wasn't enough watching this juvenile bird in the late afternoon sun, he turned to show his back and let me see what his commanding rear plumage looks like, dark feathers and their details up close:
This young Peregrine Falcon really made my Leap Day in this Leap Year. It was an encounter I won't likely forget. And personality isn't a word I'd normally associate with a raptor, but this little guy had plenty. Just take a look at the last shot below. I hope you've enjoyed these pictures as much as I've enjoyed sharing them. Thanks for stopping by.