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 Peregrine Falcon

Adult falcons have a distinctive “hood” on their head, a gray back and a white throat.

Adult falcons have a distinctive “hood” on their head, a gray back and a white throat. -Photo by: KDFWR

The American Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum) experienced severe population decline during the mid 1900’s. This decline was mostly attributable to eggshell thinning caused by the widespread use of the pesticide, DDT. By the 1970’s, populations east of the Mississippi River had vanished, while only a few hundred nesting pairs remained in the western portion of the country. Prior to reestablishment, the last active nest in Kentucky was documented in the late 1930’s.

Starting in the 1970’s, cooperative efforts by both public and private organizations nationwide contributed to one of the most successful species recoveries in history. The recovery of the Peregrine Falcon can be credited mostly to the outlawing of DDT in 1972 and widespread hacking (release of juvenile birds). Hacking efforts in Kentucky occurred from 1993-2003, with 82 falcons released in urbanized areas and 32 released in cliff habitats. Kentucky’s nesting population began to reestablish in 1997, when biologists discovered the first pair of Peregrine Falcons nesting in the wild in decades.

In 1999, the Peregrine Falcon was removed from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife. However, it remains federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Kentucky’s State Wildlife Action Plan.

Although Peregrine Falcons historically nested on cliffs, nowadays the species will nest on tall manmade structures as well. Abundant prey (pigeons and starlings) coupled with high structures at urban areas in Kentucky provide good habitat for Peregrine Falcons. In attempt to increase nest site availability and productivity, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) has placed nest boxes at many locations throughout Kentucky. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, as well as several power companies, chemical facilities and building owners have cooperated with KDFWR to provide safe nesting sites for this species.

Table 1. Peregrine Falcon nesting Activity in Kentucky since reestablishment. Nesting success is defined as one or more young successfully fledging from a nest.

Year Active Nests Successful Nests Chicks Hatched Young Fledged
1997 1 1 2 2
1998 1 1 1 1
1999 2 2 6 3
2000 3 2 5 5
2001 4 3 4 7
2002 5 4 11 10
2003 4 4 10 10
2004 5 5 15 15
2005 5 5 15 14
2006 6 4 14 11
2007 8 8 26 21
2008 8 6 21 19
2009 11 10 35 35
2010 10 9 23 23
2011 12 6 17 17
Total 210 197
Falcon nest boxes are large- over 2 ft wide and over 1.5 ft deep and high.  This one is situated on a catwalk of a power stack- over 600 ft high.

Falcon nest boxes are large- over 2 ft wide and over 1.5 ft deep and high. This one is situated on a catwalk of a power stack- over 600 ft high. -Photo by: KDFWR

Nesting locations are monitored annually and the number of young which hatch and fledge (leave the nest) is recorded. The number of known territorial falcon pairs in Kentucky has tripled in the ten years from just four in 2001 to 12 in 2011 (Table 1). Most of these nests are located on manmade structures near the Ohio River between Louisville and Ashland (Figure 1). However, one pair has taken up residence in Franklin County, in the central portion of the state, in recent years.

Productivity and survival of individual falcons is monitored through the resighting of colored leg bands, a common method used to monitor many species of birds. When possible, each Peregrine Falcon is fitted with a US Geological Survey (USGS) leg band etched with a unique 9-digit number and a bi-colored band with a unique series of colors, letters and numbers so that the individual can be uniquely identified through a spotting scope. Resighting of leg bands allows biologists to differentiate individuals which are observed nesting, and to verify the origins and history of each banded individual.

Extensive monitoring in Kentucky and throughout the eastern United States will continue through 2015 to ensure Peregrine Falcons maintain healthy population levels.

Acknowledgments

KDFWR would like to recognize the following companies and agencies that have contributed to Peregrine Falcon restoration and monitoring in Kentucky:

  • Big Rivers Electric Corporation (BREC)
  • Capital Plaza Tower
  • Carmeuse Natural Chemicals
  • Columbia-Sussex Corporation
  • Duke Energy (DE)
  • East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC)
  • Louisville Gas & Electric (LG&E)
  • Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KTC)
  • Kentucky Utilities (KU)
  • The Dow Chemical Company
  • University of Tennessee at Knoxville
  • University of Minnesota -The Raptor Center
  • Walsh Construction

A special thanks to LG&E and KU for their generous financial support to the Kentucky Peregrine Falcon Program.

Counties where nesting Peregrine Falcons were recorded in 2011.

Figure 1. Counties where nesting Peregrine Falcons were recorded in 2011. -Data Source: KDFWR

Young falcons are brown with streaks on their chest.

Young falcons are brown with streaks on their chest. Notice the colored bands on this bird which allow for identification of its origins. -Photo by: KDFWR

Frequently Asked Questions About Peregrine Falcons

I have a large bird of prey nesting in my yard. Could it be a Peregrine Falcon?

Probably not. Peregrine Falcons are extremely rare in Kentucky and are very particular about where they nest. They do not nest in trees and do not use any sticks or other nesting material in their nests. They nest in very high locations (usually over 100 ft) near bodies of water. Acceptable nesting locations for Peregrine Falcons would include natural cliffs, old quarries, tall buildings, power stacks and bridges.

If you have a raptor nesting in a tree in your yard, it is most likely an American Kestrel, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk or Red-tailed Hawk. These species are all very commonly mistaken for Peregrine Falcons. You can compare photos of these species at: http://www.enature.com/home/.

How do you tell Peregrine Falcons apart from other hawks and falcons?

  • Peregrine falcons are approximately the size of a crow with a wingspan of about 3.5 feet.
  • Their most distinctive feature is their dark hooded head.
  • Peregrine Falcons are most often confused with Cooper’s Hawks, which are much more common in Kentucky. While it is possible that Peregrine Falcons could visit backyards, it is more plausible to find a Cooper’s Hawk in your backyard.
  • Peregrine Falcons can also be confused with the American Kestrel, Red-shouldered Hawk or Red-tailed Hawk. You can compare photos of these species at: http://www.enature.com/home/.

Does KDFWR still release Peregrine Falcons in Kentucky?

No. Hacking (release) efforts were discontinued in Kentucky after the 2003 season. There are no plans to hack Peregrine Falcons in Kentucky in the near future. Population expansion in recent years has been mostly attributable to natural reproduction. However, some states in the eastern US still hack Peregrine Falcons.

If Peregrine Falcons nest on manmade structures in modern times, where did they nest historically?

Peregrine Falcons historically nested on ledges or inlets of cliffs. They a scrape a concave depression into the gravel of the cliff to lay their eggs.

What do Peregrine Falcons eat?

Peregrine falcons feed on avian prey such as pigeons, doves, starlings, songbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Peregrine falcons can stoop (dive) at 200 mph to obtain prey.

What is the current status of Peregrine Falcons?

  • Federal Status:
    • Previously listed as endangered. Delisted in 1999.
    • Still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
  • Kentucky (State) Status:

How does banding Peregrine Falcons work?

  • Peregrine falcon chicks are banded when they are approximately 25 days of age at accessible nest sites.
  • Each falcon is banded with two bands: a federally-issued band with a unique nine-digit number on one leg and a unique alpha-numeric, bi-colored band on the other leg. (The second band allows for the bird to be identified through a spotting scope so that the falcons can be monitored after they leave the nest.)
  • KDFWR coordinates with the Midwest Falcon Society to ensure banding schemes are consistent across the region.
  • You can watch Peregrine Falcon chicks get banded on YouTube. Search for “Kentucky Peregrine Falcon” or click the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evyo-1oaAvw

I am sure I’ve seen Peregrine Falcon. What should I do?

  • Check to see if it is banded and record any colors/numbers you can make out.
  • Take a picture if possible.
  • Record its location and e-mail to KDFWR at Info.Center@ky.gov.

Where can I find more information about Peregrine Falcons?

  • KDFWR is part of the Midwest Falcon Society’s project for monitoring Peregrine Falcons. More info about this species in the region can be found at: http://midwestperegrine.org/
  • KDFWR follows the post-delisting monitoring plan set forth by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for monitoring the Peregrine Falcon. This plan can be found at: http://library.fws.gov/Pubs1/peregrine03.pdf

USFWS Peregrine Falcon fact sheet: http://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/Peregrinefactsheet.pdf