The Mysterious Peregrine Falcon
The first encounter that I had with a peregrine falcon was during a sunny spring day in 2003. My father and I were hiking on deer trails along the coast of the Bay of Fundy. Above us shone the brilliant sun that was gaining its spring strength, while below, at the bottom of the steep cliff, splashed the rolling waves of the Bay of Fundy. Like the new life that spring was awakening around us, we were about to make a discovery that would allow us to contribute to the conservation of a species as it gained new life in old territory.
As we were hiking, a piercing cry suddenly caught our attention. As we searched the sky for its source, a bird appeared over the tops of the trees surrounding us. It circled us, watching. I was uncertain at that time of the species of this particular bird, but it appeared to be a bird of prey. My father and I were intrigued at the appearance of this creature. During our frequent hikes along the Fundy coast, we were always careful to watch for any new species of animals or birds. So we observed the bird with our binoculars and noted its features. I was mesmerized by its movements, and as it landed on a dead tree, we decided to attempt to observe the bird at a closer range. However, in the maze of vegetation along the side of the cliff, the bird was soon lost from sight. We had, however, made enough observations to form initial assumptions about the species of the bird. It appeared to be a medium-size bird of prey that frequented the steep cliffs and towering forests that surrounded us. As we continued on our hike, I also noticed another piece of evidence that might aid in its identification—feathers. I found the bright feathers of a blue jay, along with one or two feathers at several other locations. The number of feathers in one location and the presence of blood at other locations allowed me to hypothesize that these birds had been killed by a predator, perhaps by the bird of prey we had identified earlier. Our hike continued, and my investigation was momentarily delayed.
Upon arriving home, I looked through my bird book for the possible identity of the bird. I had only seen the bird for a few moments, yet I attempted to draw conclusions about what kind of bird it was. I did remember that it had appeared to have a dark back, a light breast, noticeably pointed wings, and a thin, slightly long tail. It had occupied a mixed forest on the coast of the Bay of Fundy where there were high cliffs and little chance of disturbance. From this description I narrowed my search and eventually determined that our bird of prey was most probably a peregrine falcon. The description of the bird matched the picture of the bird in my Peterson Field Guide. Even the size seemed correct, "near that of a Crow" (Peterson, 1980). Gazing at the picture, I could even faintly remember the "sideburns" (Peterson, 1980) on our bird's face. If this were a peregrine falcon, it would explain the appearance of feathers and blood. Peregrine falcons mainly hunt other birds and are even known to dive at speeds "in excess of 250 mph" (Burton, 1974) after birds of varying sizes. With the discovery of the possible identity of our bird of prey, I was able to create a question to investigation: Was a peregrine falcon present on the section of coastline where my father and I had been hiking? From my past knowledge of peregrine falcons, I knew that it was a possibility. So I proposed that there was indeed a peregrine falcon present, and we had just discovered it.
My reason for questioning our discovery was not merely because I doubted our ability to identify a particular species of bird. Peregrine falcons have not had a pleasant history in the province of New Brunswick. "This falcon has never been a common breeding bird in New Brunswick" (New Brunswick Museum, 1999). However, the existing breeding peregrine falcons had faced a decline in population numbers due to human interference. The presence of DDT in prey eaten by peregrines "led to a buildup of residues in body tissues" (New Brunswick Museum, 1999). This buildup had a discouraging effect on the breeding habits of peregrine falcons. The chemical DDT, also known as an "organochlorine compound" (Environment Canada, 2003), had thinned the shells of their eggs. The damaged eggs often broke prior to hatching, leading to a decreased production of young. Since this species has an average life span of only four to five years (Environment Canada, 2003), this reduction in reproductive success led to a nearly fatal drop in population. The New Brunswick population stopped breeding for a period of 20 to 30 years. It was not until 1976 that this falcon was officially protected as an endangered species, and since that time many efforts have been made in its conservation. In Fundy National Park, in New Brunswick, peregrine falcons were reintroduced in an effort to stimulate a growth in population numbers and to encourage a resumption of breeding activity in the province. Even after many years of conservation, there are still less than 10 known breeding sites of peregrine falcons in New Brunswick. We felt it was essential to continue to document the presence of the peregrine falcon. This required a second expedition—to the Bay of Fundy.
My father and I enjoy kayaking in New Brunswick. This kayak trip, however, had a purpose and a mission. The mission was to further investigate the possibility of the presence of a resident peregrine falcon. We set off from the shore of the bay and began exploring the coastline. The weather was different this day. There was no radiant sun in a blue sky, but rather foreboding gray clouds. There was a high wind, and the kayaks were buffeted by waves as murky as the dreary sky. We paddled past the high cliffs that towered above us. Our explorations, however, were not as dismal as the gray day. On the contrary, our expedition was extremely successful.
As we paddled past the cliffs, we caught a glimpse of a familiar sight. It was our peregrine falcon. He circled overhead, watching warily. We paused in our kayaks, holding on to the black seaweed on the rocks to steady them. The peregrine remained at one location on the cliff, which surprised me. Why would the bird always linger near that one precipice, in that one dead tree? We were again startled when a second peregrine took off from a ledge on the cliff above our heads. Our observations confirmed that not only did there appear to be one peregrine falcon present at this location, but two. There were only a handful of breeding peregrine falcons in the province. Had we discovered a new pair? The behavior of the birds appeared to agree with the breeding habits of a peregrine falcon. Both parents are known to care for their young and are often present at the nest. As well, the pair demonstrated the characteristic territorial behavior of peregrine falcons. The territorial boundaries of these falcons extend to about one kilometer from the nest site. The continued presence of the pair in one location also indicated the possibility that we had come upon a nesting site. "By mid-April breeding pairs are usually together on territory, and by mid-May the female has produced eggs and started incubation" (New Brunswick Museum, 199). Our second expedition had been a success, yet there were still questions remaining.
Although the identity of the birds was almost a certainty for my father and I, we wanted to contact the proper wildlife officials to inform them of our discovery. To do so, we wanted photographic proof of the presence of falcons. If there was a nest, we wanted to confirm its existence from the cliffs above the ledges where we had seen the falcons. So, armed with two cameras and binoculars, my father and I embarked on our third expedition. When we reached our expected location of the nest site, we were greeted by the distinct cry of a peregrine falcon. We only saw one falcon circling in the sky, but as one of the parents would likely be sitting on the nest, this did not seem unusual. Finally we located the dead tree that the falcon had perched in, and we found an area with a nearly clear view of the cliff face.
Observing the ledges on the cliff required some careful maneuvering at the top of the sheer precipice. To observe the face required balancing on the edge of the cliff with one or both hands firmly grasping onto the branch or trunk of a tree. From this precarious position, with the sky above you, very little ground under you, and with the waves crashing against the rocks hundreds of feet below, it was possible to see that the peregrine falcons indeed had a nest. On a bed of sticks on a ledge many feet below sat a nest with three eggs. The location of the nest was typical of a peregrine, on a ledge "under an overhang" (New Brunswick Museum, 1999). However, the nature of the nest was not typical. A peregrine falcon nest is usually prepared "by simply scraping a shallow hollow in loose soil, sand, gravel or dead vegetation on a cliff ledge" (New Brunswick Museum, 1999). It was determined later that the nest was not constructed by a peregrine falcon. Rather, it was likely the abandoned handiwork of a common raven, now being used by the falcons. Falcons have been known to use abandoned nests, so this use did not eliminate the possibility of the pair nesting. Every other aspect of the nest seemed typical.
However, we did note an unusual observation: only one parent was present. It may have been that the other falcon was hunting. However, although the peregrine falcon that was circling the area did approach the nest, it was not incubating the eggs. We began to photograph the nest and the one falcon. A ledge leading to an area that gave us a different perspective of the nest was used as well. Most of the photographs, however, were taken while hanging from the cliff above the nest site. Our third expedition was completed. As we left the site, I wondered about the whereabouts of the second falcon. Despite my concerns, the expedition was a success. We had confirmed the presence of the peregrine falcon, had found its nest, and had the photographs to prove it.
Our next step was to contact the proper wildlife officials. Our photographic evidence, as well as a digital movie that we had filmed of the circling bird, allowed the officials to confirm my earlier hypothesis. The appearance of the bird in the photographs, the screeching that it made as it circled, and the appearance of the eggs—all allowed the bird to be identified as a peregrine falcon. However, the mystery of the disappearing mate was difficult to explain. It was also necessary to visit the site with the official in order for them to mark the site. Thus began our fourth expedition.For a final time my father and I stood on the cliff's edge, gazing down at the ledge below. The wildlife official was present and marked the location of the nest on a map. The discovery we had made was indeed a new nesting site. This visit, however, was different from our past visits. No screaming falcon greeted us, and no bird guarded the unhatched eggs below. Where were the falcons, and why had they left their nest unprotected?
We were baffled. Our fourth expedition took place near the end of June, well after the period of time when the young should have been born. Although it was a possibility that the eggs were merely late in hatching, it was more likely that they were not going to hatch at all. The disappearance of the adult peregrine falcons was an indication of this, for falcons are not known to abandon their young. In discussions with the wildlife official, the possible fates of the falcons were explored. Peregrine falcons face many dangers, but in most areas the greatest threats to their populations are human-related. Besides the dangers of pesticides, falcons are also killed by cars or by hunters. Although it is illegal to collect or harm these birds, poaching and the collecting of eggs and peregrine falcon young for falconry, are still threats to their sparse population. Although the eggs had not been touched, it was possible that one or both of the adults had been killed or injured. Because of the earlier disappearance of one of the adult falcons, it was likely that one of the pair had been killed, and the second had stayed and guarded the nest when the first didn't return.
Our expeditions to discover the identity of the bird of prey had come to a bittersweet end. We had discovered a new nesting site of a breeding pair of peregrine falcons. We had photographed the nest and birds and had alerted the proper authorities. We did not, however, know the fate of the birds we had found. Our expedition ended with many questions. If one falcon had survived, would it return next year, perhaps with a new mate? If falcons did return, would they be successful in hatching their young? Even though I have many questions, one thing remains certain. The arrival of spring will find my father and I hiking on the deer trails that line the Fundy coast. We will strain to hear the familiar screech of a falcon. We will watch for it circling overhead. We will hang on to branches as we peer over the cliff in hopes of viewing a new nest on the rocky ledge below. Like the new life that returns every spring, our expeditions will continue in the hope that new life is dawning for the mysterious peregrine falcon.
Burton, Dr. Maurice and Robert Burton, eds. "Peregrine." Funk & Wagnalls Wildlife Encyclopedia.1974
Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to the Birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
Chickadee Notes: The Peregrine Falcon in New Brunswick. The New Brunswick Museum. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 1 January 2004. http://www.gnb.ca/0130/english/stories01.html
COSEWIC Species Database: Falcon anatum subspecies, Peregrine. Government of Canada. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 1 January 2004. http://www.cosewic.gc.ca/eng/sct1/searchdetail_1
Fundy National Park of Canada: Natural Wonders and Cultural Treasures. Parks Canada. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 1 January 2004. http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/nb/fundy/natcul/plateau_E.asp#02a
Species at Risk—Peregrine Falcon anatum subspecies. Environment Canada. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on 1 January 2004. http://www.speciesatrisk.gc.ca/search/speciesDetails_e.cfm?SpeciesID=29
More About This Resource...
This winning entry in the museum's Young Naturalist Awards 2004 examines peregrine falcons. Jessica's narrative essay (with photographs and references) includes:
- details about her initial sighting of what she believed was a peregrine falcon and her confirmation of it with a reference book and a second sighting
- a discussion of the rarity of breeding pairs among this once-endangered species and her thrill at finding such a pair
- details about her efforts to document the pair and to bring the site to the attention of wildlife officials
- her efforts to solve the mystery of why the second peregrine falcon disappeared
Less than 1 period
Supplement a study of biology or ecology with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Divide the class into small groups and send them to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Have the groups research peregrine falcons to learn more about these swift birds of prey and their recovery and removal from the endangered species list.
- As a final project, have students create an ad campaign for an organization dedicated to protecting endangered species that uses the peregrine falcon as a success story.
OriginYoung Naturalist Awards