Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus)
|Also known as:||peregrine|
|Size||Length: 34 - 58 cm (2) (3)|
Wingspan: 80 - 120 cm (2)
|Weight||550 - 1,500 g (2)|
- The fastest animal in the world, the peregrine falcon can reach an incredible 250 km per hour when chasing prey.
- Female peregrine falcons can be up to 20% larger than males.
- The peregrine falcon mainly eats other birds and usually catches them mid-air.
- An incredibly fast and agile bird, the peregrine falcon attacks prey in a spectacular dive, or chases it to exhaust it.
The peregrine falcon is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix I of CITES (4).
One of the fastest species in the world, the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) may reach speeds of up to 250 kilometres per hour (155 miles per hour) or more when diving in pursuit of prey. It is also one of the most widely distributed of all birds (3) (5) (6), and shows considerable variation in size and colouration across its extensive range, with 19 subspecies recognised. A fairly large, stocky falcon, with pointed wings and a relatively short, square tail, the peregrine falcon typically has a bluish-grey crown and upperparts, and whitish, greyish or reddish-brown underparts, with a variable amount of dark spotting and barring (2) (3) (5) (6). The underwing and tail are also barred, and the pale throat and cheeks contrast with a broad, dark ‘moustache’ stripe (2) (3) (6). The facial skin and legs of the peregrine falcon are yellow to orange, and the beak is bluish, tinged yellow at the base and black at the tip (3).
The female peregrine falcon is up to 20 percent larger than the male, and usually has more heavily marked underparts. Juveniles can be distinguished by the browner plumage, streaked rather than barred underparts, and blue-grey or greenish legs and facial skin (2) (3) (5) (6). The peregrine falcon has a variety of calls, including a loud, harsh, persistent chatter, used against intruders (6).
The peregrine falcon has a worldwide distribution, occurring on every continent except Antarctica (2) (5) (6). The name ‘peregrine’ means ‘wanderer’, with most northern populations undergoing long-distance migrations to winter further south (2) (3).
The peregrine falcon inhabits a diverse range of habitats, from cold tundra to hot deserts and tropics, and from oceanic islands, to forests, wetlands, savannah and mountains. It is also increasingly using urban habitats, and is absent only from parts of the Amazon Basin, Sahara Desert, most of the steppes of central and eastern Asia, and Antarctica (2) (3) (6).
The peregrine falcon feeds mainly on birds, as well as some mammals, such as bats, rabbits and rodents, and occasionally insects, reptiles and fish. Although a wide variety of bird prey is taken, up to the size of small geese, the peregrine falcon often specialises locally on particular groups or species, most notably pigeons and doves. Prey is usually caught in mid-air, although some may be taken from the ground or from water. The peregrine falcon is fast and agile in flight, and typically either chases prey at great speed, to exhaust it, or attacks it in a steep, spectacular dive, or ‘stoop’. The dead or wounded victim may then be caught as it falls, or followed to the ground, or the peregrine may stoop past it and roll over to strike it from below (2) (3) (5) (6). Breeding pairs often hunt cooperatively, although the female often targets larger prey (2) (6). Surplus prey may be cached (stored), particularly during the breeding season (3).
The peregrine falcon is usually found alone or in breeding pairs, with each pair maintaining a breeding territory, and often remaining together throughout the year. The breeding season varies with location, and may depend on weather conditions and prey availability (2) (6). Courtship involves aerial displays and noisy calling (5). The nest is a simple scrape on a cliff or ledge, on a building, in a tree hollow, or occasionally on the ground, or the pair may take over the disused nest of another species (2) (3) (6). Three to four eggs are usually laid (although clutch size may range from 1 to 6), and hatch after 29 to 33 days. The young peregrine falcons fledge at around 35 to 42 days, but are dependent on the adults for a further few months (2) (6). The peregrine falcon first breeds at around 2 years, and may live for up to 20 years in the wild (2) (3).
The peregrine falcon underwent serious population declines between the 1940s and 1970s as a result of the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, which accumulated in the adult birds and led either to death or to eggshell thinning and reproductive failure (2) (3) (5) (6). Shooting, trapping and egg collection have also been problems in the past (3). Although the peregrine falcon population has started to recover since a ban on the use of chemicals such as DDT, and is now believed to be stable (2) (3) (7), illegal persecution is still sadly ongoing in many areas (8). In addition, the species has long been used extensively for falconry (2) (5), although the impacts of this are debated (2).
The peregrine falcon now has a high scientific and public profile, and is protected under a range of national and international legislation (3) (4) (9) (10). A ban on the use of organochlorine pesticides, together with releases of captive-bred birds, have helped this species to make a strong recovery in many parts of its range (2) (3) (11), and various organisations, such as the European Peregrine Falcon Working Group, are working together to continue to research and conserve it (11).
Priorities for the future include further efforts to re-establish a tree-nesting population of peregrines in central and eastern Europe (7) (11), as well as habitat protection and improvement, and population monitoring (3). There have also been calls for the peregrine falcon to be placed on a list of priority species for wildlife crime enforcement, and for captive birds to be properly registered, in order to help protect this iconic bird of prey from the ongoing threat of illegal persecution (8).
For more information on the peregrine falcon, see:
BBC Wildlife Finder:
- Sielicki, J. and Mizera, T. (2010) Peregrine Falcon Populations: Status and Perspectives in the 21st Century. European Peregrine Falcon Working Group, Poland.
- Ratcliffe, D.A. (1993) The Peregrine Falcon. Second Edition. Poyser, London.
To find out more about the conservation of the peregrine falcon, see:
European Peregrine Falcon Working Group:
The Peregrine Fund:
RSPB - Peregrine:
Birds of North America Online - Peregrine Falcon:
For more information on this and other bird species, see:
Authenticated (05/08/10) by Ed Drewitt, zoologist and researcher of peregrines, University of Bristol.
- Steppe: a biome (or subdivision of the Earth’s surface) that is composed of a swathe of temperate grassland stretching from Romania to China.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
- Tundra: treeless, grassy plains characteristic of arctic and sub-arctic regions. They are very cold and have little rainfall.
IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
White, C.M., Clum, N.J., Cade, T.J. and Hunt, W.G. (2002) The Birds of North America Online: Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
CITES (June, 2009)
- Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
- Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A & C Black Publishers, London.
BirdLife International (July, 2009)
RSPB: Peregrines in 2009 - Shot, Poisoned and Trapped (July, 2009)
Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (July, 2009)
EC Birds Directive (July, 2009)
European Peregrine Falcon Working Group (July, 2009)