Peregrine falcons have had a chequered history, and it is fortunate that they have survived so many threats to their very existence.
During World War Two they were regarded as a serious public enemy as their superb hunting skills took their toll of carrier pigeons being used to bear top secret messages from the resistance and from our spies on the continent. Peregrines around the channel coast killed so many returning pigeons that a special unit was set up to deal with the problem and the falcons were shot and trapped to reduce the toll.
As if this were not enough, the use of inappropriate insecticides and fertilizers for several years after the war had a devastating effect on the peregrine population as well as on numbers of other raptors like kestrels, buzzards and owls, for the chemicals they ingested with their prey caused serious reproduction problems, and many a brood of eggs failed to hatch.
Fortunately, however, the problem was identified in time to ban the worst of the insecticides, particularly DDT, and from the early 1970s on the position gradually changed, and the peregrine is now thriving again, its numbers increasing and its range spreading into town centres from tits usual habitat on coastal cliffs and inland rocks. Not that this pleases everyone, for pigeon fanciers still complain of losses of their prize racing birds.
For centuries the peregrine was much favoured by Kings as arguably the fiercest and most efficient falcon of them all. Henry 11, during a visit to Ramsey Island where he stopped off on his way to Ireland, loosed one of his prized Norway Goshawks at a peregrine, and the smaller but faster and more manouevrable falcon knocked his bird out of the sky at the king’s feet. From then on Henry insisted on being supplied with Ramsey eyasses for his falconry.
Watching peregrines in flight is a thrilling experience. Their normal flight is swift and direct and when they stoop on their prey they can reach speeds of up to 240 mph in the dive from several hundred feet, to strike an unsuspecting pigeon or other bird in flight. They are undoubtedly the fastest creatures in the animal kingdom. They can even knock down a bird as large as a duck, a skill which earned them the alternative name of Duck Hawk in North America. Almost every stretch of cliff on the mainland and on the Pembrokeshire islands has its pair of peregrines, and they are often seen taking prey over town and city streets. Their breeding range includes land regions from the Arctic tundra to the tropics and they can be found nearly everywhere on earth, apart from the extreme polar regions, high mountains and tropical rainforests. The peregrine is a handsome bird about the size of a crow, with a blue-grey back, barred white underparts and a black head and distinctive ‘moustache.’ Its yellow beak and talons and its large, dark, yellow-circled eyes are fearsomely formidable features.