Peregrine Wednesday

August 25, 2010 • 5:02 am

What gets many people excited about peregrines is the stoop: the high-speed vertical dive, with wings pressed close to the body, that they use to attack prey from above.  As we saw yesterday, this can exceed 200 mph when the bird is dropped from a high-altitude balloon, though it’s unlikely those speeds are attained in normal hunting.  Today we have two videos of the behavior that makes peregrines the top guns of the animal world.

A little owl’s legs are surprisingly thick and powerful for so small a bird.  They look slightly hairy, like an animal’s legs.  The whole bird looks completely out of proportion when perching, like a two-legged head.  One must try not to be anthropomorphic, yet it cannot be denied that little owls are very funny to watch.  In flight, they are just owls, but at rest they seem to be natural clowns.  They do not know it, of course. And that makes them much funner, for they always appear indignant, outraged, brimming over with choler.  There is nothing funny about their sharp claws and rending beak.  They are killers. That is what they are for.  But whenever I see one close, in a tree, I laugh aloud.

–J. A. Baker, The Peregrine

25 thoughts on “Peregrine Wednesday

  1. I don’t like to be picky but I’m pretty sure that’s not a Little owl. At least not a European one. I don’t know if you have a different species in the States that you call Little owl?

    1. It’s a saw-whet owl, which is North American, just chosen to illustrate Baker’s thoughts. I wasn’t aware that there’s an owl in the UK called a “little owl.”

      I am always curious why people who are being picky always start off by saying, “I don’t like to be picky but. .”


      1. The nearest North American relative to the European little owl (Athene noctua), and one which could also be described as funny in much the same way, is the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia).

        1. Okay, in the interest of scientific accuracy, I’ve replaced the picture of the saw-whet owl with one of the European little owl (Athena noctua). Thanks for the biology lesson!

          1. Athene noctua was introduced to England & Wales in the mid 19th Century. Last time I saw one was on the wonderful ‘bird island’ of Skomer in Wales, famous for the puffins & other sea birds.

          2. I’ve seen little owls around here (Surrey) and also on the continent. More often, I just hear them. But they are often active during the day and not too hard to spot.

            They are neat birds.

            The American saw-whet owl has a funny call, like a tin whistle. I just crack up when I hear it.

    2. Little owlet in the glen,
      How ungrammatical of you!
      You should say “to whom, to whom”,
      not “to who, to who”.

      1. Q. Why don’t owls have sex on rainy evenings?
        A. It’s too wet to woo!

        PS. Little owls are quite common near to Leeds in West Yorkshire.

        PPS. I want an Eagle owl. I have far too many neighbourhood cats using my garden as a toilet! 🙁

  2. Ooooh. How old is that book?

    I remember “funner” being one of those words (some) people object to, because they don’t like the adjectivisation of nouns.

  3. I dunno about the 25 g pulls, but it is impressive to see what looks like an impact jerk breaking the prey’s neck while the hunter simply proceeds getting the added load under control.

    One of the cleanest killers out there?

    1. OK, I can’t see the latest vids from this server, but usually the peregrin just bashes the prey with its closed feet on its (very) rapid flyby. Then it swoops back to grab it with its talons and, if necessary, to finish it off with a bite.

      The finishing off bit is usually not necessary unless the prey is pretty large.

      I have a acquaintance who taught his falcon to hunt rabbits — and it had to learn to use its talons on the attack, since the “bashing” technique didn’t work very well on rabbits. They just rolled over and started running again.

      1. Thanks, a vivid image!

        In this case there was no discernible swoop back, but it could possibly have been a bash and a grip change.

        1. I’ve seen them just reach out and grab prey if they weren’t going too fast. I actually saw a peregrine male grab a pigeon like this in South Africa last year — he caught it completely by surprise.

          It was still too fast to photograph, though.

  4. Not a fan of that logo in the middle of the screen of the 2nd video. Makes it difficult to see the action.

    Echo Torbjörn’s comment about clean kills. Efficient and economical.

      1. Is there some antiquated tradition of using the word “animal” to refer to just mammals?

        In elementary school a teacher asked us to draw an animal. Someone in the class asked if a shark (or something) was acceptable. The teacher said, “Sure, why not. I asked for an animal and all day kids have been drawing fish, birds, lizards. So you might as well draw whatever you want.”

        I have been confused by that all my life.

  5. That is definitely a European Little owl in the new photo. They are similar in appearance to Burrowing owl though.
    Pigeons seem to be the Peregrines favourite prey item but I have seen them take Black headed gull, Leach’s petrel, Northern lapwing, Whimbrel, Blackbird, Golden plover, Jackdaw, Oystercatcher and Snipe.

  6. I wonder if there are any discernible genetic changes that might harden or protect the peregrine’s body/legs against injury?

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