Michael Charnofsky is a Naturalist with the East Bay Regional Park District, based at the Crab Cove Visitor Center in Alameda.
Peregrine Falcons Thrive in East Bay
Peregrine Falcons Thrive in East Bay
The peregrine falcon (Falco pereginus) is the fastest animal in the world, diving through the air at speeds of up to 240 miles per hour. People can easily get a speeding ticket for driving one-third as fast on the open highway! Peregrines eat mostly birds they catch in the air, and it’s exciting to watch them as they acrobatically hunt. Living on every continent except Antarctica, some peregrines have become famous for living in cities.
Tall buildings and bridges are similar to rocky cliffs where they have historically nested, and where they typically lay a nest of two to four eggs on a ledge or shallow scrape. In cities there are often fewer predators of young peregrines like great horned owls, although there are many other urban flying hazards to avoid like power lines and windows. Building owners often wish for a resident peregrine to eat or scare away pigeons.
One of the easiest places anywhere to watch them is around the Fruitvale Railroad Bridge, right next to the automobile bridge that connects Alameda and Oakland. Peregrines have nested there almost consistently for the last 10 years, although the exact location on the bridge changes most years. Often mating for life, when one individual of the bridge falcon pair has disappeared, another un-paired falcon has quickly taken its place. Survival rates of babies has varied each year, but has been good for the past 10 years. In 2018, four youngsters survived to independence.
About the size of a crow, peregrines hunt over much of Alameda, focusing on the shoreline. If you notice a flock of shorebirds or pigeons scattering quickly away, search for a predator like a peregrine on the chase. Look for their distinctive black “sideburns” that contrast sharply with the light feathers under their throats. Watch for them tucking their pointy wings back as they hunt, allowing them to aerodynamically reach incredible speeds before they slam into their prey with sharp talons.
Fifty years ago, peregrines were almost extinct in the United States and in many other parts of the world. Only two pair existed in California! The widespread use of the insecticide DDT in the 1940s through the 1960s caused toxins to accumulate in animals up the food chain. Top predators like bald eagles, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons suffered the worst effects: the shells of their eggs became too thin to support the baby birds inside.
Most uses of DDT in the U.S. were banned in 1973. Biologists then began intensive captive breeding programs that have released young peregrine falcons into the wild for more than 25 years.
Now there are around 400 self-sustaining pairs in California, and urban peregrines are an important part of the overall statewide population! The recovery of peregrine falcons and other predatory birds is a huge conservation success, thanks in part to the outlawing of DDT, protection provided by the Endangered Species Act, and the dedicated work of biologists and activists.
Peregrine falcons can now be seen throughout much of the Bay Area! A pair has been famously nesting on the Campanile at U.C. Berkeley for three years in a row, and last year two webcams were installed in the nesting area. These cameras allow the public to watch the show live online. During nesting season (late winter through spring), do an Internet search for “peregrine camera” to find links to this and other livestreamed nests in the Bay Area and beyond.
Keep looking skyward for the fastest animal in the world!
Great article! I had no idea they got up to 240 miles per hour.