Peregrine Falcon: A View to a Kill

peregrine falcon

Just a young ‘un.

The pigeon struggled, but the peregrine held tight, losing altitude quickly with its heavy prey.

I consider myself blessed to have one of the nicest commutes imaginable, and last night it was more rewarding than most. I work in Stanley Park and live near the shore of English Bay in Vancouver’s west end. Yesterday, around 4:30 pm, I was walking along the bay when I noticed movement overhead. Glancing up, I saw the usual gulls and pigeons, plus a pair of eagles high overhead. Then I noticed something a little more unusual: the shape of a peregrine falcon soaring on the wind over the buildings of Beach Avenue.

The silhouette was unmistakable, even with its wings spread wide in its best buteo imitation (falcons soar remarkably well when they want to.) The underside of its wings was a bit dark, and I pulled out my binoculars just to rule out the possibility of a wayward prairie falcon or some such.

Though the gulls seemed a bit bothered by this raptor in their airspace, I was surprised at how nonchalantly the pigeons went about their business. True, many of them stood resolutely on terra firma as any sensible pigeon would do under the circumstances (wait, is that a contradiction in terms?), but a dozen or so were wheeling overhead, apparently lulled into complacency by the fact that the falcon seemed more concerned with surfing the exceptionally strong winds than with hunting.

I fixed the falcon in my binoculars and followed it long enough to spot its dark hood and get a positive ID. It soared a bit closer, and then I watched as its wings suddenly folded inward and it began to drop like a stone. Within three seconds, it had made contact with one of the hapless doves. Feathers streamed from the injured bird and drifted away on the wind. It struggled, but the falcon held tight, losing altitude quickly with its heavy prey. Then the falcon fixed its wings into a glide, bent its head downward, and dispatched the struggling pigeon with what I assume was a bite through its spine. Rearranging the lifeless form in its talons, it changed course for one of the buildings, and carried its quarry away out of view.

I believe this was the first time I’ve witnessed a classic peregrine stoop in the wild. I had watched falconers’ birds do it, but most of my wild peregrine encounters were with birds hunting cruise-missile style: streaking over land at low altitude and high speed, trying to take their prey by surprise. I recall reading some of Dick Dekker’s observations from Beaverhill Lake, Alberta years ago; he suggested that the spectacular falcon dive (at which peregrines reach the highest speeds documented in the animal kingdom) were in fact much less common than believed. At any rate, I certainly felt privileged to have witnessed it. When it was all said and done, I took my binoculars down from my eyes and glanced around at the many passers-by: tourists, cyclists, beach-goers. I wanted to yell, “Wasn’t that amazing?” but nobody else had noticed a thing.

A note about the photograph: alas, I was unable to document the above kill with my camera. This bird, an immature falcon, was our escort through Queen Charlotte Strait last autumn. I was working as a naturalist aboard the Celebrity Mercury, and I discovered that a cruise ship is an attractive vantage point for falcons at sea. It would roost high on the ship, near the bridge, then foray outward for fulmars and shearwaters from time to time. This one accompanied us from Hecate Strait all the way to Vancouver. I have heard stories of peregrines hanging out on cruise ships for days.

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