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The Binocular Advisor

A Peregrine Tail Chase

KilldeerI was standing late one afternoon by the Des Moines River at Iowa's Lacey Keosauqua State Park, in southeastern Iowa. The only birds to watch were a dozen killdeer feeding and loitering along the shore, so I had my binoculars trained on them.

Peregrine FalconSuddenly a gray-backed bird, flying fast on long pointed wings, appeared from nowhere, and the group of killdeer went from peaceful feeding to full-out flight in a heartbeat. The peregrine singled out one bird and was closing on it, matching its escape maneuvers turn for turn.

In the few moments before the two birds disappeared around the bend of the river, I saw the details of the falcon with a crystal clarity: the black head like a football helmet with a strap coming down the side of the cheek, the white upper breast and delicate horizontal barring on the belly. I appreciated the quick, whip-like action of the wings, and the intense concentration of the chase.

Suddenly I was wide awake, noticeably more alive than before the falcon sliced through my day.

I did not get to see the outcome of that incident. The killdeer may have escaped, for predators fail more often than they succeed.

But I knew that this falcon had caught many birds, because it was an adult. (An immature bird, one hatched in the spring of the same year, would have a brown back, and lengthwise streaks on the belly.) Therefore, this bird had to be a year and a half old, or more, and it had undoubtedly eaten at least one bird every day all its life, many at the end of fast pursuit.

How fast is a Peregrine?

Often peregrines hunt the way I saw that one, in a long tail chase. Other times they drop from the sky in a powered stoop. The speed of a diving peregrine has been estimated at up to 260 mph.

Diane PorterAs a peregrine reaches its target, it strikes with closed talons, killing the bird with the blow, and then swoops around and catches its prey out of the air as it falls toward the ground.

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

Copyright 2006 by Diane Porter
Drawing copyright 1997 by Mimi Hoppe Wolf



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