By Charlotte Owen
Our towns and cities may seem unlikely locations for a spot of birdwatching but next time you’re in the urban jungle, look up - the world’s fastest animal could be soaring overhead.
The peregrine falcon is built for speed and streamlined to aerodynamic perfection with pointed, swept-back wings and specialised feathers to minimise drag. It is powered by huge flight muscles attached to an enlarged breastbone so that each flap of the wings provides maximum propulsion. Peregrines can travel at 40 – 60 mph in level flight, which is one of the fastest speeds clocked by any bird – imagine looking out of the car window to see a 1 kg bird keeping pace alongside you on a stretch of dual carriageway. But even this pales in comparison to the eye-watering speed of a hunting peregrine, which can top 200 mph when it enters a controlled dive in pursuit of a pigeon dinner. Upon catching sight of its potential prey, a cruising peregrine will tuck its scimitar wings into its body, fold its tail and draw in its feet to become a feathered missile plunging towards earth. If you’ve ever opened the car window at 60 mph you’ll know how difficult it is to breathe when the air is rushing into your face at such speed but a rapidly accelerating peregrine manages to do so thanks to specialised nostrils that slow the air flow. To maintain vision, their large eyes have specialised protective membranes and secretory glands that act like built-in goggles, while the dark markings around the eyes help to reduce glare. As this speeding bullet of a bird approaches its prey it prepares for a precision strike, opening its talons before impacting with such force that it’s all over before the pigeon knows what hit it.
There are plenty of pigeons in the city but the buildings themselves are a big draw too. Peregrines would naturally nest high up on craggy cliff faces, safe from predators and with an excellent view of potential prey. Cathedral spires, power stations and other tall buildings provide the same opportunities and these incredible birds will readily make the most of them, adapting to thrive in the urban environment.