Behavior: The Solitary Nature of Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine in flight, Delaware (photo by Kim Steininger)
Peregrine in flight, Delaware (photo by Kim Steininger)

Because peregrine falcons treat their babies with such tenderness at the nest, we might assume they have the same care and emotions toward their young as we humans do.  This is not so.  Peregrines are very different.  Here’s how:

  • Peregrine falcons are solitary, territorial, top predators.  Those that migrate live alone more than 8 months of the year, spending only 16-18 weeks with a mate raising a family.  Non-migratory peregrines, such as those in Pittsburgh, stay on territory alone or as a mated pair.  No other peregrines are allowed in the territory, not even their own offspring.
  • Peregrines have no long-lasting “love” for their young.  Parents care for their nestlings, then teach them to hunt after they’ve fledged.  Four to six weeks later the parents wean the young and will no longer bring them food.  At that point the young must fend for themselves and leave the territory forever.  If they cannot feed themselves, they die.  This is The Way of the Peregrine.
  • Wild peregrine falcons regard humans with fear and loathing.  We are their enemies.  Being captured by a human is not a happy time for a peregrine.  As falconers will tell you, peregrines can become accustomed to humans and work with humans but they never love you.  They are always wild at heart.
  • Peregrine falcons do not have reunions with their relatives so siblings from different years and birds separated by more than one generation do not know they are related.  As my friend Karen likes to say, “They don’t have Thanksgiving dinner together.”

This poem, Hawk Roosting by Ted Hughes, is a good description of the solitary nature of birds of prey.

(originally published 25 June 2015. photo by Kim Steininger)

19 thoughts on “Behavior: The Solitary Nature of Peregrine Falcons

    1. I thought that the Peregrine Falcon was my favorite bird. But now that I have read this article, it makes me afraid of them!

  1. Thanks for some of the answers I had thought of every day I watched Fuzzy/Silver. I am hoping for the best for this young one he deserves everything he can possibly obtain from the human side. Good Lucky big boy/girl.

  2. I think that Dorothy is an exception with her nurturing abilities. She has shown this in the past with “Henry” after his window mishap(which prompted his rename from “Screamer”, which was the endearing term for him at the time) and subsequent lengthy recovery at the nest. The extra care she showed him allowed him to recover properly, and his “screams” are still vivid in my mind, as he also hung around through the summer and she stayed near and even showed him her alternate hunting ground of the church steeple in Lawrenceville. We joked at the time that he was the adult child that would never leave, but he moved on after his “extra” TLC as expected.

  3. Thanks, Kate. I appreciate the beautiful birds in my backyard even more now. No wonder that we humans wish we could fly, too.

  4. Isn’t it wonderful that Nature has programmed such tenderness into mothering birds, even though it is not their nature to be tender.

  5. Thanks Kate. Was looking for info about the Peregrine Falcon that sits on the top of a tall building across my balcony. Its alone. Was wondering. Now I have the answer. It was not found at the spot for 2 weeks and last 2 days it appeared again. Where did it go for 2 weeks?

    Once again thanks for the excellent info.

    1. Sanjeev, birds of prey like to watch from various perches, a variety of favorite places. They visit them in rotation as the mood strikes. When the bird is not in sight it’s somewhere else in its territory — which may be several miles in diameter.

  6. I recently got close enough to falcons (about 300 ft) to take some great photos! But they spotted me and moved to a more protected site on the rock face.

    1. Verne, peregrines are very susceptible to disturbance and will abandon a nest site where people intrude. Please do NOT get close to take photos.

  7. My wife and I, were hearing very strange squacking, repeatings itself almost compulsively, while walking on a remote trail near Algonquin Park in Ontario, Canada last week and thought we would see an interesting bird or small mammal in the trees as we got closer. Instead, we stumbled upon a curious sight – a beautiful falcon on the ground, standing guard over a kill… or so we thought. When we got too close (as in within around 5 meters/15 ft) it did eventually fly away, as far as the nearest log in the water next to us, and kept screaming for about 30 seconds before flying off over the lake and into the distance. It turned out it was not a pigeon, or squirrel on the ground underneath, but another falcon, recently killed and missing its entire head. Was this a mated pair, and one was predated by a larger bird, and we witnessed some sort of mourning reaction (not to anthropomorphize too much, but we know that animals besides humans are capable of complex emotional reactions), or are these birds sometimes cannibalistic? Is there a predator to peregrines known to eat only the head? It was a stunning bird, and unique experience, and I had never heard or seen any raptor behave this way.

    1. Saffy, thank you for sharing this rare event. Here are some possible explanations for what you witnessed:

      1. A territorial dispute that ended in death for a combatant. Peregrine falcons are highly territorial and will fight a rival to the death, if necessary, to keep their nesting territory. The two birds (male vs male, female vs female) lock talons and slash with their beaks. When they get carried away the victor beheads the loser. The puzzle is this: This level of aggression occurs at the start or during the nesting season. Mid-to-Late July is too late in the year for it, at least here in Pittsburgh. At Algonquin nesting might still be in progress, especially for a pair that had to re-nest. Here’s more about fighting other peregrines:

      2. Protecting their territory and fledglings from other raptors: Peregrines protect their young from hawks, owls, etc. In Pittsburgh our peregrines will kill Coopers hawks, especially juvenile ones that don’t know to stay away (the dead Coopers hawk is found near the Cathedral of Learning). Again, peregrines will sometimes behead the raptor but “professional courtesy” prevents them from eating it.

      3. In Pittsburgh other raptors (red-tailed hawks) will eat young Coopers hawks:

      About beheading: Peregrines eat birds for a living; beheading is the first step before eating. At the end of heated combat they ‘forget’ that they aren’t going to eat the loser and will behead it as a matter of course.

  8. Very interesting comments!I’m still learning about peregrine’s,as I watch them everyday in darwen,lancs.

  9. This is all so fascinating. I live in Warwickshire in the UK. For the past few years, a pair of peregrines have laid their eggs at the top of a local town hall. There are webcams (+ night vision cameras) and I have been privileged to watch their behaviour. They are into the early days of incubation. The fun will start at the end of April!
    I see many birds of prey when I’m walking my dog, but have yet to see a peregrine.

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