The World’s Fastest Animal
By Wayne Bierbaum
Sometimes something happens to you or you witness something so improbable that you are hesitant to tell anyone because you know you won’t be believed. This is one of those occurrences.
Five years ago, in December 2017, I spent the morning photographing at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Sanctuary. To reach this Delaware Bay sanctuary before sunrise, I left the Annapolis region at about 5 a.m. and by 11 a.m. I was really tired and ready to go home. There was a camera with a 90mm lens in a carrying case on the passenger seat and a large telephoto lens packed up behind the driver’s seat. I also had a cell phone in my pants pocket. Although I was tired, I was still looking for animals along the route home. I frequently see soaring hawks or trotting foxes and other points of interest along the drive. That day, as I reached the western shore of Kent Island, I had not found anything else interesting and made my way onto the Bay Bridge.
Heading west, I drove toward the first suspension section and noticed a flock of pigeons tightly circling above the metal beams. As I got closer to where the pigeons were flying, three pigeons separated from the flock and dove toward the structure. Then, about 15 feet high and about 30 feet in front and to the right of my windshield was an explosion of feathers. I was barely able to make out a peregrine falcon as it hit one of the pigeons; it appeared as a blurred streak. The rest of the pigeons disappeared below the bridge.
As I was saying “wow” to myself, I passed the first suspension section and turned to look behind me for the falcon. I was shocked to see it flying next to my car, just on the other side of the railing.
In its talons was the pigeon, its wings still slightly flapping. The falcon was looking straight ahead and completely ignored the cars. It kept on flying next to me at about 35 mph to the larger suspension section of the bridge.
It was so close and so determined-looking but I was really, really frustrated that I could not get a photo. If only I was a passenger (or had a passenger with me). As I reached the second portion of the bridge structure, the falcon and its prize quickly flew up out of my line of sight and likely landed on the superstructure.
The peregrine falcon is the world’s fastest animal. As it plunges in a stoop, like what I witnessed, it can reach 200 mph and cruise at about 35 mph. Speed is needed as their primary prey are birds that they catch on the wing. The falcons will primarily prey on birds that are close to their size. They are not very large, slightly larger than a laughing gull, but they are very aggressive. I have seen one chase a bald eagle that got too close to the falcon’s perch.
Peregrine falcons like to nest on high ledges, including tall buildings. The nests are called an eyrie (or aerie). In the summer, a lifetime mated pair will raise two or five chicks called eyas. The eyas are born quite helpless and are cared for by both parents. In 35 to 42 days, the young falcons have full flight feathers and will start testing their wings. That is the most dangerous time for them. Crashing into cliffs and trees, being hit by cars, or just not getting back to the eyrie can be the young’s downfall.
As the young leave the ledge, they learn how to fly with speed and agility by chasing their parents and siblings. Over the next two weeks or so they are fed less and less by their parents and are expected to do their hunting. By the fall, the juveniles are independent.
From Webster’s Dictionary, peregrine means “having a tendency to wander”. Peregrines are found all over the world except Antarctica. Some falcons will migrate huge distances seasonally, such as 25,000 miles from Alaska to South America and back. Yet, many stay put for the winter, even in Alaska, and that probably depends on food sources.
Each fall, Hawk Watch stations throughout the United States will count migrating peregrine falcons. This October, the Cape May Hawk Watch station in New Jersey counted around five to 20 daily. Most of the birds appeared to be juveniles flying south for the first time. Trade winds blow them east and they then follow the coastline south, possibly following the migration of shorebirds, a frequent source of food.
The use of the pesticide DDT caused a huge decline in the number of falcons in the U.S. Since its ban in 1972, there has been a resurgence—so much so that the falcons can now be seen in many large cities. In Baltimore, Boh and Barb are a famous pair that live year-round on the ledge of a building at 100 Light Street. The Chesapeake Conservancy has a webcam on the 33rd floor so you can watch them at: chesapeakeconservancy.org/falconcam/.
There are nesting pairs in Philadelphia and New York City. In Annapolis, a pair of falcons used to nest under the Severn River bridge on Route 50 but since the recent construction project, they have not been back that I know of. Peregrine falcons are seen daily around the Bay Bridge and a pair of nesting birds still live near the Susquehanna’s Conowingo Dam.
Having a peregrine fly next to me with its prey is probably the most dramatic wildlife encounter I have had— if you don’t count that cottonmouth water moccasin at eye level incident or the time I encountered a mother moose and calf on a trail while I was snowshoeing, or the time a barred owl attacked the pom-pom on my wife’s hat. Happy wildlife watching!