It’s the fastest animal on the plant, capable of speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. It mates for life—about ten years—and is fiercely protective of its young. The peregrine falcon belongs to the genus Falco, which is characterized by long pointed wings.
Peregrine falcons are birds of few words; they are generally silent but sometimes make a rasping kack-kack-kack-kack sound in the nest. Take a listen
Size and Shape
The peregrine falcon is a crow-sized bird, weighing just over two pounds with a wing span of approximately 3 feet. It can weigh between 1 and 3.5 pounds and measure between 13 and 20 inches long. An adult peregrine has a dark grey back and crown, dark bars or streaks on a pale chest and abdomen, and heavy malar (cheek) stripes on the side of the face. Immature peregrines are buff colored in front and have dark brown backs. Females and males are identical in appearance; however, the female can be one-third larger than the male.
Peregrine falcons are skilled at catching a variety of prey from small songbirds to large ducks, which allows them to live in almost any type of climate and habitat. They are found in deserts, seashores, wetlands, tundra, grasslands, dry forests and craggy mountains. Peregrine Falcons live and breed on every continent in the world except Antarctica.
They also manage quite well in urban settings—such as the pair who nest on the roof of Fox Hall.
Once established, the adults will remain in the same territory year-round.
Like most falcons, Peregrine Falcons do not build their own nests. They lay their eggs in scrapes, or small depressions, that they make in the soil or gravel of a cliff ledge. The pair atop Fox Hall nest in a box with gravel floor built by UMass Lowell staff under the guidance of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
Peregrine Falcons are mainly bird hunters; starlings, pigeons, blackbirds, jays, shorebirds, and waterfowl are all fair game for a hungry Peregrine Falcon. They also occasionally hunt mammals, reptiles and insects, and there have even been reports of some Peregrine Falcons specializing in eating bats. They typically catch their prey in the air with fast pursuits, rapid dives and other impressive aerial maneuvers for which these falcons are known and admired.
Perhaps its most famous hunting technique is the dive. To pull this off, a Peregrine Falcon flies high into the sky, using its keen eyesight to locate birds flying below. When it finds its target, the falcon folds its wings and falls into a nose dive, or stoop, gaining speeds over 200 mph. The falcon closes its feet, and uses them to knock the prey out of the sky.
The Peregrine Falcon is one of 26 North American species considered to be a partial migrant. Individuals typically follow the same route year after year. In eastern North America, the outbound and return routes of some individuals follow an elliptical path in which individuals travel south along the East Coast and return north along the Gulf Coast. UMass Lowell’s falcons usually stay in the area year-round. Their offspring can normally be found within Eastern Massachusetts. In previous years, some of them have been sighted in beaches and marshes as far north as Plum Island and as far south as Plymouth and Chatham. One was even spotted at Green Airport in Rhode Island.
Peregrine falcons mate for life, but if one of the mates dies, it gets replaced right away. They are able to reproduce starting at one to three years old. Male Peregrine Falcons bring females food during the courting and nesting season. By early March the adult pair has chosen its nest for the season. Between three and five eggs are laid around the beginning of April; the chicks hatch in early May after a month-long incubation.
After the chicks hatch, both the male and female provide food for them. The adult falcon uses its beak to rip up small pieces of meat and delicately pass them to the nestlings. When they hatch, the chicks are covered with fluffy white down and have very large feet in proportion to their bodies. But in just five or six weeks, the falcons are fully feathered and ready to fly. The chicks fledge (leave the nest) at about 7 weeks of age in mid-June and become independent of their parents by the beginning of August.
To date, the Fox Hall falcons have successfully raised a total of 15 chicks—12 on campus, and, prior to that, three in an abandoned mill building in downtown Lowell.
Intended for the control of agricultural insect pests, DDT traveled the food chain from insects through song birds to Peregrine Falcons, where it became concentrated. The most significant impact to the falcons was that they laid thin-shelled eggs that broke under the weight of incubation, leaving no young to replace the adults when they eventually died. By 1966, not a single nesting pair remained in the eastern United States.
DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972 and young falcons were released on the roof of the McCormack Post Office and Court House Building in downtown Boston in 1984 and 1985. The Peregrine Falcon population began to grow, and in 1999, it was officially removed from the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Species. However, it is still on the Massachusetts state endangered list. It is illegal to harass, hunt, capture or harm them in any way.
There are now 22 pairs of Peregrine Falcons in Massachusetts, including UMass Lowell’s own pair on Fox Hall.