I was driving home the other day, when I saw a Peregrine. Those of you who know anything about this most remarkable falcon will understand what I am saying is: I caught a quick glimpse of a Peregrine. I was driving one way and it was flying the other, and since the Peregrine is considered the fastest bird on earth, I didn’t really have much of a chance to study him.
I should qualify that. The Peregrine has been regularly clocked at speeds well in excess of two-hundred miles an hour during its stoop (the hunting dive a bird of prey makes when it plunges after its prey), but it doesn’t routinely fly that fast while en route from point A to point B. On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly lollygag, either, and this one was clearly a Peregrine with places to go, people to see, and things to do.
Another notable thing about the Peregrine is that while it is the most widespread raptor on earth, being found virtually everywhere except New Zealand, it is also quite rare (my 1990 edition of Roger Tory Peterson lists it as endangered), so seeing one in the wild is a big deal. I’ve only (knowingly) seen three in my lifetime, but by far the most unusual sighting was the first one I ever saw, in the Arc Dome Wilderness area of the Toiyabe Mountain Range in central Nevada.
I was deer hunting, and for reasons that have now faded from the memory bank, I was sitting with the outfitter’s wife, overlooking a very deep and rugged canyon, when she spotted a Peregrine gliding below us, presumably in search of his dinner, as I was in search of mine. I think I can safely say there are not many people in the wide world who have had the privilege of looking down on the back of this revered bird.
There are multiple subspecies of the Peregrine, and I am nowhere nearly knowledgeable enough to know which is which or how to tell them apart (my friend Steve Bodio— http://stephenbodio.blogspot.com– almost certainly can), but judging by maps of ranges, it is a safe bet that all three of the ones I have seen are the so-called American Peregrine falcon, since that’s the one found in all of the lower forty-eight states with the exception of the Pacific Northwest. (The one in the Northwest is known as a Peale’s falcon.)
Peregrines were once almost, if not completely, exterminated on the East Coast by pesticides, but after they began their comeback, New York city made a specific effort to introduce them into the canyons of Manhattan. If memory serves, this was done in part for purposes of preserving the species, but also in part to keep the pigeon population in check, pigeons in the Big Apple being as plentiful and obnoxious as pickpockets, purse snatchers, and politicians. Apparently that reintroduction effort was successful, and the average birdwatcher today is more likely to see a Peregrine in Manhattan than in the mountains. But wherever you see one, it’s a thrilling sight, just as seeing any accomplished predator is thrilling.
I know I’ve posted this before, and I know the term “windhover” refers to a kestrel, not a Peregrine, but it is still a poem well worth posting and reading over and over, especially at the beginning of this Christmas season.
The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.