With wings outspread, the soaring Peregrine Falcon exposes a distinctively patterned underside, white plumage barred with black fading into a darker blue-grey tail, similarly barred. Surveying the vast landscape as the early morning sun rises over the Canadian arctic tundra, the predator's large yellow eyes lock onto a pair of small, fluttering wings far below.
Spotting its target with sensational vision, the Peregrine prepares for its personal equivalent to jumping into hyperspace. Accelerating with four wing beats per second, the majestic spectacle suddenly transforms into a blue-grey bullet, diving directly downward toward its prey with its wings and legs tucked back. The maneuver is called a stoop - and moments later, it is all over. With the skills of masterfully murderous magician, the Peregrine has suddenly appeared hundreds of meters below, grasping a lifeless songbird in its talons.
Piercing the atmosphere at 90 meters per second (nearly the length of a football field, and the equivalent to more than 320 kilometers per hour or 200 miles per hour) the Peregrine is the fastest animal on Earth. When initially observed, the creature's capacity to reach such an unbelievable speed not only seemed unfathomable - it seemed naturally impossible. How could a modestly built falcon achieve such velocity, and experience up to 25Gs (or 25 times the acceleration due to gravity) in its stoop, without suffering fatal damage to its lungs?
Early jet engineers took a considerable interest in solving this perplexing problem: their engines continually choked out upon reaching certain high speeds as incoming air was blocked from the cowl by a wall of still air, forcing it around the engine. Ornithologists resolved this dilemma while examining the Peregrine's nostrils. Through an evolutionary adaptation, the Peregrine had acquired tiny bony tubercles in its nostrils that redirected shock waves, reducing the rapid change in air pressure during dives. Although not further aiding the airplane engineers' cause, scientists also observed nictitating membranes - a sort of third eyelid - which spread tears and cleared debris so the bird could maintain its exceptional vision.
Needless to say, this spectacular display of speed is as awesome as it is lethal. With its diet almost exclusively comprised of smaller birds, the Peregrine's record-setting velocity plays an integral role in each meal. Rather than snatching its prey while hurtling through the sky, the raptor first delivers a deadly punch with its clenched talons. The incredible impact renders the prey lifeless, or at the very least senseless, and the predatory Peregrine promptly turns around to catch its kill. If the powerful punch was not enough to do the trick, the falcon uses its notched upper beak to sever the spinal column of its prey.
After capturing the family's next meal, the male Peregrine returns home: a shallow scrape that the female dug out from loose soil and rock, high atop a cliff ledge. Measuring in at an unassuming average of 45 centimeters (17 inches) and 600 grams (just over 1 pound), no larger than a common crow, the male cocks his black head to look at his lifelong mate standing next to him. The female, like most species of raptor that prey almost exclusively on smaller birds, is significantly larger than her male companion - in this case nearly 30% taller and heavier.
An intimate creature, the male bends down to nibble his partner's toes with his black beak. Like all Peregrines, these two birds will mate for life, and return to the same nesting spot every year during the late winter months. After a month of waiting and guarding three vulnerable eggs from larger raptors and mammals, the scrape is bustling with a trio of chicks. While probability states that not all will survive their first two months to become fledges - Peregrines have a mortality rate higher than 60% during their first year - the chicks are all alive and well for the time being, screaming to beg for the food that their father has caught for them.
Thousands of miles to the south, another Peregrine pair perches under the overhang of a stone edifice, high above the snow-covered bustling city streets below. As one of the most widespread avian species on the planet - found nearly everywhere except polar ice caps, mountain peaks, tropical rainforests, and New Zealand - the Peregrine Falcon is also one of the most versatile, thriving in a diverse array of rural and urban habitats. For the cosmopolitan dwellers, various species of pigeon make up 80% of food consumption, while doves, swifts, and sometimes bats round out a diet.
Across the United States, "duck hawks" - a common American nickname for Peregrines - used to be common in metropolis towers, open plains, and forested countryside. With the widespread use of DDTs during the mid-1900s, however, the Peregrine population plummeted into a nosedive. As the pesticide infiltrated the birds' fat tissues, it also significantly reduced the level of calcium in eggshells, driving the first year mortality rate up to devastatingly high percentages.
While Falco peregrinus was never threatened with extinction on a global scale, within a matter of two decades, the species was completely decimated from the eastern American seaboard and Belgium. Recognizing the dire peril of the Peregrine, among numerous other bird species including the bald eagle and brown pelican, the United States government took action. In 1973, the Peregrine's road to recovery was paved when the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's ruling to ban the use of DDT, while Congress passed the Endangered Species Act.
Since these measures were implemented, the Peregrine's numbers have significantly recovered. Breeding the birds in captivity proved widely successful, and the falconry strategy of "hacking" back to the wild - feeding young birds while allowing them to fly free, letting them learn how to hunt and fend for themselves - helped ensure the safe survival of the Peregrine in the United States. On August 25, 1999, the world's fastest animal was removed from the United States Endangered Species list.
A Peregrine falcon is about to enter a stoop and hurl itself at high speed towards its chosen prey amidst flocks of Rock Doves flying some hundreds of feet below. The scene is in the central United States in early spring.