Of Peregrine Falcons and other top predators

It’s well into Autumn, but the sun is out and I’m in a t-shirt and feeling hot. In every direction I look I see nothing but open grassland intersected bordered with native hedging. Only the distant sound of sporadic machine gun fire detracts from the ageless landscape. I seem to have the whole of Salisbury Plain to myself.

High overhead Golden Plover are in a circling flight, intimating their presence with their gentle, fluting calls. More than 100 of them switch between dark and light in synchronised turns as their golden topsides are shown dark against the sky or their white undersides are displayed depending on the direction of their flight.

On the ground a few rooks, jackdaws and some gulls are feeding. Suddenly they are all up, raucous in disturbance. What is it that has upset them? Scanning these birds I can see one that is different and now flying away from them. I focus my binoculars and get a clearer view; powerful flight, blue grey top side and a pale white underside, a dark hood. I can’t help but say this bird’s name out loud to myself ‘a peregrine.’

The peregrine falcon (Falco Peregrinus) is the most special of birds; a bird of prey that is the embodiment of the wild. It’s not a particularly large bird - bigger than a kestrel and smaller than a buzzard - but it is powerfully built and magisterial in looks. It is a formidable hunter of other birds and renowned for its turn of speed. The female peregrine is bigger than the male - sexual dimorphism seen in birds of prey gave rise to the male peregrine being called a ‘tiercel’, from the French ‘la tierce’, meaning ‘a third’. In truth, the female averages at about 1.1kgs (2lb.6oz) with the male weighing in at about 670g (1lb.5oz).

Like so many of our birds of prey, peregrines have suffered very mixed fortunes over the years. It went from being the choice of kings for hunting from the glove, with specially protected status, to being treated as a reviled predator by game keepers, in particular by those managing grouse. During World War II this bird was further persecuted still, this time by Government decree, with the aim of protecting homing pigeons that were employed by the military. As such, hundreds of peregrines were killed.

The end of the war should have offered some respite and recovery but it was not long before a new threat was identified, this time coming from a different quarter. The newly introduced, post-war, organochlorine agricultural insecticides were found to be taking their toll. As a consumer of other birds, many of which were feeding on farmland eating treated seeds, peregrines were taking in an ever-increasing dose of these chemicals. Some were killing the birds outright but one of particular note, DDT, was having an equally devastating but sub-lethal effect - the peregrines egg shells were found to be thinning and this resulted in widespread poor or failed breeding.

Thankfully, once these causes had been identified many of the products were voluntarily withdrawn and most were eventually banned.

Happily, the fortunes of the peregrine are now mainly on the up. My childhood bird books list its haunts as the coast, cliffs and mountains, but times change. Now, in two local cities, I can see them and they are a source for local pride. Salisbury Cathedral has nesting peregrines on its magnificent spire, and St John’s church in Bath hosts another pair. Both these nesting sites have proved successful.  And this, increasingly, is not unusual - Norwich, Derby, Exeter and Bristol all have their city centre peregrines. Central London has them too; Charing Cross Hospital, the Tate, Battersea Power Station all provide suitable breeding sites, and they can even be seen perched on the Houses of Parliament.

More enlightened times, changing land use, the restrictions on insecticides and full legal protection have all played their part in the revival of the peregrine.  Of course there are the few who still chose to flout the law and persecute these birds, but even they are coming under increasing pressure as their criminal behaviour is exposed.

And now my peregrine is back, flying in from a different direction. It is a mere 30 feet above the ground and it is powering along. The rooks, jackdaws and gulls have all flown off, but this bird is moving with purpose. A jerk upwards, a turn on its wing end, and down with speed out of my view. That must have been on to a kill.

Moving to regain my view, I find the bird at ground-level; upright and defiant on top of its prey. Around it, a burst of light coloured feathers, the result of a forceful strike. A few of these feathers catch the breeze and drift lazily across the ground, while the peregrine, still firmly anchored to its prey, continues to look around. Once satisfied that all is safe it begins to feed. This must be a female given her size and she is unhurried and thorough with her feeding.

I watch until the meal is complete and she ups and flies away, her wingbeats more casual and seemingly heavier now. I feel a sense of awe, of exhilaration and of privilege to witness such a spectacle.

Although much of our wildness is lost, the peregrine ensures that some of it remains. For those a little squeamish or uncomfortable about a peregrine’s ways, it is worth remembering that any predator sits at the apex of a symbolic triangle, with natural, healthy and abundant prey species spreading out below. When this profusion of prey is threatened and in decline, it is the predator that feels it and is the first to go.

As further heavy machine gunfire rattles across the Plain I think of another predator. A predator that often fails to follow its natural instincts and tidies away its feeding kill sites. But even this predator has its redeeming features: a strong intellectual and practical ability, and cognitive forethought. As such, this predator can be a force for good and a champion protector of its natural home. It only has to choose.   

©Michael Groves

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