Falcons Forever

I never imagined I'd ever see a pair of peregrines like this

Full disclosure right up front … this comes from someone who from his earliest conscious age always hoped he’d someday get to set eyes on a peregrine falcon, but almost never got the chance, thanks to the disaster of DDT and near extinction in the 1960s. In my mid-forties before finally catching my first, fleeting glimpse of a peregrine in flight, I could scant ever imagine getting to see a falcon in the wild so close up, and in such amazing detail, as this.

So to have not just one, but two fledglings land literally “out of the blue” on a cliff-side ledge near where I was standing one spring day at Yaquina Head, was definitely a jaw-dropping (honestly, nearly heart-stopping) experience for me. Please forgive if I gush a bit about it.

I’m sure the first-blush beauty in the footage above will be apparent to all. Plain to see are the saucer-sized eyes, savage-sharp beak and terrifyingly talon-tipped, too-long toes peregrines employ as grappling hooks to snatch unsuspecting prey from the sky. But scratch the surface even slightly, and watch even more of the magic and mystery of peregrine life resolve into focus. While it’s true, for example, that these prodigious predators do in fact often “snatch” slow-moving prey as described, they’re more likely when attacking at high speed to “strike” mid-air targets, using the kinetic energy inherent in a balled-up fist traveling as fast as 200 mph to knock their dinner out of the sky. To illustrate, I included a clip (03:10) confirming that these fearsome fighters can in fact ball-up a gnarly fist indeed, a living nightmare for plump, palatable pigeons everywhere.

As usual in my experience, looking even deeper into the footage provides ever more amazement. And for this happy truth I owe not just Mother Nature’s artistry in design, but also Sony Inc., for without my camera (in this case an RX10-IV), I’d never have been able to zoom in so close, and capture in such stunning detail, the myriad observable features that escaped my eyesight in the field.

In the final close-up clip especially, for instance, the odd little protuberance visible inside the bird’s nostril is not the “booger” that a lovable (but clearly non-birder) friend of mine opined, but rather a “tubercle” that scientists say serves as a baffle to mitigate the force of air molecules moving at Category 5 Hurricane speed. To get a practical sense of how difficult (even dangerous) the simple act of breathing can be when rocketing through the atmosphere at such speed, you can try this simple scientific experiment yourself. Next time you’re out for a drive, rev your car up to 100 mph — just half a peregrine’s top attack speed — and note the effect of the wind on your dog’s ears and lips. Step on the gas harder and by the time your speedometer tops 200, your dog — lacking tubercles — might wisely decline to stick his head out the window at all. (To wrap up this learning exercise, just tell the trooper, when he catches up, that you were not actually speeding but conducting a bona fide scientific experiment. If a ticket still appears imminent, as a last resort … blame the dog.)

Most remarkable of all (IMHO) is the “tomial tooth” that I ignorantly referenced above as “savage-sharp beak.” Thanks to this footage I can actually see how this single stand-out feature is but one aspect of the overall ingenious design encompassing the bird’s maxilla and mandible both. It’s the grooves in the flat-ish, toothless, previously unnoticed (by me) mandible, in fact, that might finally answer a question I’ve long had about how peregrines manage to de-feather their prey so efficiently, using a tool as apparently inefficient as a single sharp “tooth.” When I see now (05:03, 05:12) how perfectly the upper beak fits into the grooves apparent in the lower beak (bird experts call this the “mandibular notch”), I see not only the obvious killing functionality of the upper “tooth,” but also how tightly it fits into the broad, flat-ish “clamp” below, an ingenious combination perfectly suited to gripping-and-ripping mouthfuls of feathers (not to mention tender flesh) with ease. Credit Mother Nature for beauty in design almost unimaginable, and Sony for helping me actually see it.

There’s more, to be sure, but I’ll end here with one final reflection apparent in the footage that speaks to behavior, where I often discover the greatest beauties of all.

It could “just be me” … but doesn’t the interaction between these nestmates look like classic sibling rivalry? I risked running the video a little bit longer than usual to ensure that the teasing, tugging and tormenting occurring between these two siblings could not be missed. In watching this interaction, it appears (to me, at least) to rise almost to the level of (if I dare say?) personality development that would be considered normal when witnessed in human children. I know this will draw rebuff (yet again) from science-minded wildlife experts, who will no doubt inform me (yet again) that birds are primitive creatures hard-wired from hatch to care only for food, shelter, reproduction and ancillary other matters directly relating to species survival. Nonetheless, I continue to observe behaviors not just in birds, but throughout nature at large (a realm to which, if I’m not mistaken, anthropologists admit humans once also belonged) that appear to reflect considerable capacity in so-called “lower lifeforms” for much greater depth of character than science seems willing to credit.

Maybe if you grew up an only child, the concept of fur-and-feathered automatons strictly following narrow, pre-determined biological imperatives might seem cookie-cutter simple — “if you’ve seen one peregrine falcon, you’ve seen ’em all.” But recalling the torment that my siblings and I routinely dished out to one another throughout our shared childhood … still able to clearly hear in my mind’s ear our parents’ perpetual threat to “pull this car over right now!” if we didn’t cease and desist … well, seeing these two fledglings teasing and tugging at each other’s extremities makes me feel a kinship with so-called “lesser forms of life” that absolutely belies (IMHO) my own species’ self-declared superiority.

If you remain skeptical, I understand. But watch again as Father Falcon delivers dinner above (03:55), and you’ll gain a fair appreciation of how “dinnertime etiquette” looked and sounded in my own family home growing up. We were raucous as raccoons, way back then, and judging even by our “best behavior” at grown-up get-togethers in the decades since, I’m sure we’d remain an embarrassment today to any self-respecting murder of crows. For my family, evolution truly is but a theory — one we have no call whatever to crow about.


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