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Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Fastest Birds on Earth

Peregrine Falcons are not just the fastest birds they are the fastest living creatures on earth. Their top, recorded speeds, when diving, are way over 200 miles per hour. Take a moment and check out this video

This photo shows the star of our story.
Plus the photo contains at least two clues about the story. Take a look and see if you can spot them. Note: The red brick in the foreground is not one of the clues.

Our story begins in the middle but it will all make sense in the end. In mid-September 2011, almost exactly one year ago. Carkeek Park seemed like a great place to do some watercolor painting.  At the southern end of the beach in the shade of a small tree I found a nice place to work while looking out over Puget Sound. 

I sat my camera on a log in front of me and proceeded to paint. The air was clean and cool, the water slapped against the beach and once when a bird of prey passed overhead all the gulls leapt off the beach and settled just off shore. The beach around me appeared to be completely empty of any living creature. My head was down focusing on my painting when suddenly I heard a very loud THUMP directly in front of me. Startled I looked up to see this scene.

I grabbed my camera and started shooting. The Peregrine Falcon had just landed on the beach but her landing was not the source of the noise. Your first hint from the photo was the "rock" just behind the Falcon. It is actually the body of a Rock Dove, more commonly known as a Pigeon. Our Falcon must have knocked the Rock Dove out of the air with an incredible amount of force to create such a loud sound.

Normally a peregrine hits its prey at high speed with a closed foot, which kills it and then turns in the air and grabs the body. It turns out this Falcon was a rather young bird, just learning to hunt, maybe it missed the grab part. 

Initially the Falcon began to pull the feathers off her lunch, but sadly she heard the clicking of my camera as I snapped these photos. 

She decided the beach was too crowded and proceeded to take her lunch elsewhere.

The effort required to lift the pigeon is clearly evident in this photo.

The second hint from the photo above was the band around the lower leg of the Falcon. As the Falcon takes to the air bands on both legs are visible.

With the software I had last year I could not actually read anything on the bands. At some point I got better software and then happened to look more closely at the photo.

While the enlarged photo is very blurry it turned out to be good enough. Last week I finally remembered to send a copy of the photo to Bud Anderson. Bud is a highly respected expert on falcons and his organization and website called the Falcon Research Group displays an incredible amount of knowledge and hard work.

Bud forwarded my photo to Chris Kanit and Ed Deal. The bird was identified as 69Z a chick that was banded in May of 2011. Here is a photo Ed took during the banding process.

Here is Ed's email about the banding experience:


Thanks for sharing the photo of that PEFA.........as Kanit points out, there were two birds banded in the Seattle area that had a Z in the band.....62-Z and 69-Z.   When I magnify your photo it sure looks like 69 and not 62......Mike MacDonald and I banded 69-Z as a three week old chick on 20 MAY 2011 at the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge nest.   She spent two weeks in rehab at Sarvey Wildlife Center and was released back at the nest site on 25 JUNE 2011.   Its nice to know she was still "out there" as of mid-SEPT 2011.   And great shot by the way.......thats a odd way to carry a pigeon! 
I've attached a photo of the four chicks, the Mom and Mike from 20 MAY 2011.   He's reaching for a pigeon band he saw in the nest box....I just missed getting a picture of Mom sinking her talons into Mike's forearm as he reached.

   Ed Deal

PS.  69-Z is a grand-daughter of Stewart and Belle, the WAMU pair.

More photos of this banding operation can be seen on Flicker. I personally find it to be a very courageous and amazing process. By the way if you stop, with a pair of binoculars, in the wide spot on the southwest walkway on the University Bridge you can see the top of the nesting box. Of the four concrete support piers (for I-5) near the waters edge, the nest box is above the one to the northeast. Ed expects the nest will be used again this spring. It will be exciting to watch even from a distance.

Back at the beach I felt incredibly lucky to watch this magnificent bird, with lunch "in hand", turn slowly to the south and fly away. At the last moment, with the peregrine already in retreat, one of the gulls suddenly got a bit brave. Squawking loudly it half-heartedly chased after the Falcon for a few wing beats.

Today I realize that I was even more lucky to see a banded bird. Ed says that Bud, Mike, himself and other volunteers have banded over 400 chicks in Washington state. We in Washington are very lucky to have such brave and industrious folks working in our state. 

That single little band of metal links 69Z to her birth place under the ship canal bridge. Which in turn tells us she was only 4 and half months old at the time of my photos. From this we know that she had just learned to hunt.  Which explains why she hadn't yet figured out the most aerodynamic way to carry her prey. It also links her to her father that was born on top of the Washington Mutual tower and to her grandparents (Stewart and Belle) that lived and raised young in downtown Seattle for many years.

On Bud's website you can learn more about the history of this family of falcons. Also don't miss the link at the bottom of that page that links to the chronology of births of falcons on the Washington Mutual tower.

Today's blog is intended as a heartfelt "Thank You!" to Bud, Ed, Mike, Chris and all the other volunteers that go to great lengths and heights to learn about the fastest birds on earth.


PS: If you take photos of peregrines please watch out for 69Z and her relatives. The first winter for a falcon is the most challenging, but we now know that 69Z had at least learned to hunt before she faced her first winter. Her aunts and uncles have been spotted in California, Oregon and the San Juan Islands. So 69Z could be hundreds of miles away or right outside your window!

Odds and Ends:

By the way another way to learn more about falcons is the excellent book, "Falcons of North America" by Kate Davis. Bud recommended the book and it is incredible. It is easy to read and yet it is wonderfully full of details plus great photos.

A very interesting link about peregrine falcons in Portland, Oregon was included in comment number three below. The link is:

I hope you enjoy it.


  1. Great story. Terrific images. Thanks, Larry, for sharing this.

    1. Dan, Thank you. It was a story that took a long time to develop. It just grew along the way. I am excited to get to keep a distant eye on the I-5 peregrines nest next spring.

  2. What a great story and a fantastic blog! The added backstory was very interesting! I always look forward to your posts popping up in my RSS feed reader.

    There was an episode a few years back on Oregon Field Guide about a similar program banding Peregrines on the I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver. Great work by these folks and the ones you highlight here helping these birds back from the brink. http://www.opb.org/programs/ofg/segments/view/1763

    1. Thank you for the link to the very interesting and informative story about peregrines on Portland's bridges.

      As it turns out my father worked for the Oregon State Highway Department in the 50s and early 60s. I believe my mother told me he worked on the early designs for the Fremont Bridge. It's just another connection to the story for me.

      Thanks again for the very interesting video link.

  3. Larry, this is absolutely fantastic ... with stunning visuals that tell your story. I'm so glad you documented and investigated this event, for the benefit of the rest of us. :)

    I follow the Peregrine bandings back home in San Francisco -- on spooky-high ledges. I agree with you completely when I see video and photos of the researchers, one in particular, who consistently climbs to precarious heights for banding, rescues and other endeavors involved in helping the Peregrines. My unfortunate fear of heights gives me ample and added respect for the beautiful work of people like Bud. I'm so grateful for his efforts.

    Thank you for posting about 69Z, Bud and the dedicated people who champion and protect these wonderful birds here in Seattle and beyond. I will add my sympathies for the pigeon, too, since I came to work with many a Rock Dove in my wildlife endeavors. To watch a pigeon outfly a Peregrine is a spectacular sight, showcasing the undervalued talents and skills of our most common avian neighbors.

    1. Ingrid,
      Thank you for your kind words! Speaking of pigeons, I remember years ago when I was first learning about birds. I saw a flock of birds and asked my friend Marcus what they were. He replied that they were pigeons. I remember my disbelief. I could not believe that pigeons a bird that behaves almost like a chicken on the ground could look so elegant and swift in the air. I remember asking Marcus, "Are you sure those are pigeons?" Marcus rolled his eyes and said something like, "Yes, I have seen thousands of pigeons and those are pigeons." Even today the transformation of a pigeon in flight still amazes me.

    2. It's so true, Larry. And, as I'm sure you know, they evolved alongside Peregrines which probably accounts for their ability to out maneuver them ... provided they see the Peregrine coming. We watched a whole flock of pigeons consistently out-fly a Peregrine in a Fred Meyer parking lot a couple of years ago, until the Peregrine gave up.

      Through our wildlife rehab work in the Bay Area, my husband and I ended up rescuing two unwanted racing pigeons who had nowhere else to go. We fostered them for a year until we found them a permanent aviary. I got involved with a pigeon and dove rescue group, and my affection for pigeons expanded so much during that time. I continue to look at them, their flight skills, their intelligence, their parental loyalty, their beautiful plumage with admiration.

      I've read, and I'm not sure if it's true, that the respect Americans used to afford pigeons was eroded by the persistent efforts of pest-control companies. The flight museum here even has a small area dedicated to the hero homing pigeons that helped the war efforts. In working with these birds, I've come to wish that everyone understood that they are not "rats with wings."

    3. Ingrid,

      Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences. It is amazing that we can have nature experiences in a Fred Meyer parking lot.
      Thanks again.