A Fishy Peregrine

As we all know, peregrine falcons eat only birds and they catch them in the air.

Or do they?

Last Wednesday I received an email from Dan Yagusic, an excellent birder who watches the peregrines on the Allegheny River bridges.  (He's the one who first found Mary Cleo (Dori) at the 62nd Street Bridge.  She now lives at Gulf Tower.) 

Here's what Dan saw at dusk on Tuesday, September 21:

Last evening at dusk I was passing Washington Landing's Marina (Allegheny River) at a no wake speed in our boat. In the near darkness I spotted a large bird flying fast downriver.

All of a sudden, directly across from me about five Mallards took flight squawking very loudly as they went. This bird (unidentified as of yet) started making repeated swooping turns down to the water, but appeared to be chasing nothing at all!  I grabbed my binoculars at this point and lo and behold to my utter amazement it was a Peregrine Falcon!!

I continued watching as this Peregrine made at least 20 passes over the water, each time rising 30 feet or so in the air before dropping down and dipping it's talons into the water as if to make a splash.  Running through my mind were the likes of "What the hell is this bird doing?" and "Just what is making him/her do this?"

After who knows how many trips down to the water the Peregrine came up with a FISH in it's talons. It proceeded to fly directly to the nearest tower where it immediately started eating its catch. 

Perhaps you or others know of this behavior in Peregrines, but in my limited experience I have never seen a Peregrine even attempt a shot at fishing.  That sure did make my evening, let me tell you!   Variety can be the spice of life, even for Peregrines???     -- Dan Yagusic


I did some research and found two (only two!) references that said peregrines occasionally eat fish though one said they took them from ospreys. 

So what was going on here? 

Dr. Tony Bledsoe of the University of Pittsburgh's Biological Sciences Department explained that our mid-latitude peregrines focus on birds but that peregrines occur nearly worldwide and are quite cosmopolitan.  Right now peregrines from Canada and the Arctic are migrating south through Pittsburgh.  Those birds travel to South America and have skills and tastes that our local birds never had to cultivate.   

If they know how to fish and the ducks aren't cooperating, why not?

Even so, it's very unusual!

(photo of a peregrine capturing a killdeer by Cris Hamilton.  No, I do not have a picture of a peregrine fishing!)

15 thoughts on “A Fishy Peregrine

  1. Wow, that is just amazing. I would have guessed an immature and very hungry Peregrine desperately trying something different, not a visitor from the Arctic using established skills (as suggested, we don’t know for sure). Did Dan notice if it was an immature or adult? I wonder how many reports of fishing Peregrines are out there in the literature?

    Fantastic observation, and thanks for sharing.

  2. I bow to much greater knowledge and experience than I have, mine being solely limited to casual observation! A question, though? 20 tries, with lifting up 30+ feet in between! That’s a lot of energy being used up! It had to have been an experienced bird!

    In one of my favorite books, MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Jean George, peregrines are locally called “duck hawks”. Guess the mallards were lucky that day!


  3. Kate, we saw a falcon catch a fish at the Conowingo Dam one day last winter too. Certainly surprised all of us, including Craig Koppie, who as you know has worked with falcons for many years!

  4. I saw an adult peregrine falcon catch a fish off the beach in Naples, Florida, yesterday. I took a number of photos – unfortunately, the falcon was pretty far away from shore. I uploaded several photos to Flickr – if you login to Flickr, you should be able to view them:


    It appears that the peregrine falcon is nesting on one of the high-rise condos on the beach.

    I was quite surprised to find that such fishing behavior is rare. This falcon got the fish on the first pass.

    — Burks

  5. I have been seeing a peregrine hunting at Litchfield Beach. S.C. The first time I saw it was almost at dusk, on a rainy evening walk. It was sitting on the sand protecting a fish, and a gull was screaming at it. Eventually the falcon flew and the gull got its meal. The second time was just this evening, about 6:00. The falcon flew right past our condo balcony, hovered a moment over the surf, dived, and came up with a fish. I saw the fish come out of the water in its talons, so no thievery here. I’ve been researching all week trying to find references to falcons diving for fish in the surf. I am glad I found this site.

    1. Margaret, that’s amazing! Thanks for sharing.
      You’re probably familiar with ospreys but if you aren’t they are birds of prey, dark and white like peregrines, and they hover and dive for fish, catching them in their talons. Ospreys are migrating right now so you would be seeing them more frequently in SC.
      That said, peregrines are full of surprises. You’ve witnessed something rare.

  6. Thanks very much for not scoffing, Kate! I know that it is much more probable to see an osprey fishing, but this was not an osprey. Its head was very dark, its back and wings dark, its tail striped dark on light, and the underside was pale gray or tan. It did not move like an osprey. It was more streamlined and did not fly with the “M” angled wings. Ospreys spread their wing tips and are generally more dramatic in a dive than the bird I saw, and their heads are white.

    I am up against it to make my local bird club president believe me, because I’m not one of the expert birders in our group. After I e-mailed the club a description, he wrote to ask for more specific field marks and my sources for other fishing peregrine sightings. I plan to give him this web site to prove I’m not alone.


    1. Margaret, here’s more evidence that peregrines sometimes catch fish from The Peregrine Falcon by Derek Ratcliffe 2nd edition.
      In his chapter on Food and Feeding Habits Ratcliffe gives three fish-eating examples from scientific observations (page 135). One is a peregrine catching a fish in the water, one is the remains of a fish in a peregrine nest, and one is from Thomas Cade (famous U.S. peregrine biologist) who saw a peregrine catch a leaping salmon in Alaska.

      Peregrines are resourceful.

  7. Awfully late to the conversation and only a casual bird watcher, but my children and I were geeking out when we saw what appeared to be a peregrine soaring directly over our house. He was flying low enough that we had a very good observation of his tail feathers and body from below. He was carrying a fish in his talons! When I refreshed my memory (via google) of peregrine diets your post popped up. It’s been fun and interesting reading both the post and the comments.

    1. Danielle, the bird sounds like an osprey. They are famous for carrying fish. (Peregrines eat birds but so rarely eat fish that people are amazed they ever so it.) An osprey is a good sighting.

  8. I just watched a young Peregrine dive and catch a frog out of our pond. I have been watching this pair of peregrines every day this spring. They have been hunting here regularly. I was astonished to see it dive towards the pond and come up with a frog. Especially since the frogs have just started to come out of hybernation here in illinois.

  9. I saw an adult Peregrine Falcon catch a fish in a lake near Ely MN a few weeks ago, early October 2017, late sunny afternoon. Could hardly believe my eyes, & Google brought me to this page with similar stories.

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