Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Photo © Alan Murphy / BIA / Minden Pictures


World’s Fastest Animal

Speedy peregrine falcons can dive-bomb prey in midair.

by Kayla Meyertons

As swift as a speeding arrow and more rapid than a cheetah, the peregrine falcon is the fastest member of the animal kingdom, with a diving speed of more than 200 miles per hour.

While this medium-sized bird of prey’s cruising speed keeps it at a safe highway rate of around 55 miles per hour, when the falcon spots its prey, the force of its high-speed dive can kill a small bird in midair with its feet, closed like a fist. Exceptional eyesight helps this raptor scan for small prey on the ground. A peregrine falcon’s diet consists of songbirds, pigeons, small waterfowl, bats and small mammals.

With such superior flying skills, the peregrine falcon can cover enormous distances, explaining the root for its name: peregrinus, Latin for “wandering.” This slender bird of prey inhabits every continent except Antarctica.

Two subspecies of falcons — the American peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum) and the Arctic peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus tundrius) — can be seen in Texas. Peregrines in Texas are primarily winter birds or migrants passing through to as far south as Argentina for the winter. Some breeding populations reside in the Chisos, Davis and Guadalupe mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas, as well as the canyons along the Rio Grande. Some migrants remain through the winter in Texas, particularly along the coast. One year-round resident lives atop the University of Texas Tower (a falcon-cam lets viewers watch).

Peregrine falcons were federally listed as an endangered species in 1970 but later delisted. Captive breeding and reintroduction programs have helped to release several thousand peregrines into the wild in 28 states.

The adult peregrine falcon has a bluish-gray back with a pale gray or cream-colored underside streaked with black. Most distinctive to the peregrine is its black hood extending down the face.

Males and females look similar, but females are slightly larger than their mates, as with other falcons. In fact, the male peregrine is called a “tiercel” because it is a “tierce” (old measuring term meaning “one-third”) smaller than his mate.

Peregrine falcons are one of the most popular birds in the sport of falconry, and in ancient times were considered the birds of royalty. They mate for life, but if one of the mates dies, it gets replaced right away. Peregrines will often return to the same eyrie (nest) each year. A clutch of three or four eggs is laid in April on mountain cliffs, river gorges and building ledges.

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