Tales from the world of peregrine falcons
Have you ever had a Peregrine Falcon accidentally collide with you? There is a moment of sheer panic, when you both realise impact is inevitable and try to turn away. I have experienced this unusual, alarming event twice. Both times, I have been extremely grateful that they have not been going as fast as they could, as neither I nor the peregrines would have escaped uninjured. Capable of flying at up to 320km per hour, peregrine falcons are the fastest living creature in the world.
Peregrine falcons have recently recovered from massive population decline. The widespread use of the pesticide DDT by farmers began in the 1950’s. As peregrines only eat birds, and the birds they eat were feeding on DDT treated insects, the falcons built up high levels of DDT in their systems. This chemical caused females to produce thinner egg shells, so that when birds sat on them to incubate they broke.
High levels of DDT interfere with calcium metabolism in Peregrine Falcons. As shells are primarily made from calcium products, peregrines began laying thin-shelled eggs that broke before they could hatch. Image from George Silk.
DDT caused falcon populations to plummet, but in most places small numbers hung on. Tasmanian peregrines were not so lucky, as the hunters were also being persecuted by people breeding pigeons for racing; pigeon fanciers. In order to justify continued trapping, shooting and bounty setting, conspiracy theories were widely spread.
The argument was raised that peregrine falcons were not native to Tasmania. Not only ARE peregrines native to Tasmania, but the oldest known peregrine nest anywhere was found in Tasmania, dated at around 19,000 years old. Initially, the story was that peregrines were introduced to Tasmania during the war by the Japanese to kill messenger pigeons.
When this failed, the story became that “scientists in Canberra” were conspiring to translocate peregrines from mainland Australia to Tasmania (they were not), and that peregrines should be eradicated to protect both Australian wildlife and the noble practise of pigeon racing (really it was just about the pigeons).
Thus began a war with scientists and conservationists on one side, and certain pigeon fanciers on the other. Anyone interested in finding out more about this fascinating tale of Tasmanian peregrines can this article by Nick Mooney.
Poster confiscated from a Tasmanian Pub in 1973, offering rewards for captured or killed peregrine falcons. Scanned by Liz Hurley, used in ‘The Falcon Wars’ by Nick Mooney.
Gradually fines for peregrine killing became higher, the value of peregrines became better known, and pigeon racers became better more willing to accept loss as a component of racing. Peregrine population numbers have stabilised throughout Australia, and these aerial hunters have continued as parts of our ecosystems that most people are aware exist, but never really see.
Every now and again, peregrines capture attention for the success they have in inhabiting our cities. They can prey on urban birds such as pigeons and seagulls, and nest on the edges of skyscrapers instead of their usual choice of cliff edges and rocky ledges.
A pair breeding in Collins St. Melbourne have just hatched a pair of chicks, which can be watched here as they grow and develop over three months. Whilst peregrines CAN live and nest in urban environments, chick mortality is high. When young birds take their first flight they struggle to control where they land, and when surrounded by complex, high-rise buildings they often fail to land in a safe location.
Peregrine falcon chicks hatching under their mother at 327 Collins St. Melbourne. Source: 367collinsfalcons.com.au
Peregrine falcon pairs are highly territorial, so urban centres like Melbourne only have ONE breeding pair. Take the opportunity to watch these adorable chicks now, as successful breeding attempts may be few and far between for the Melbourne falcons!