Peregrine Falcon

Head and shoulders look at a peregrine falcon
Peregrine falcons are a recovered endangered species in Yellowstone.

NPS/Dale Cordner

 

The peregrine falcon is among the fastest birds, flying at up to 55 mph and diving at more than 200 mph when striking avian prey in mid-air.

Peregrine populations began to decline in the 1940s because of pesticide contamination. One of three North American subspecies, the peregrine in Greater Yellowstone (Falco peregrinus anatum) was considered extirpated by the 1970s. As part of a national reintroduction program, captive-bred peregrines were released in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks during the 1980s.

They typically reside in Greater Yellowstone from March through October, when their favored prey—songbirds and waterfowl—are most abundant. During winter they migrate as far south as Mexico or farther.

 

Number in Yellowstone

  • In 2016 park staff monitored 9 of the 36 known peregrine breeding territories. Not all territories are occupied annually and several are currently vacant.
  • The 28-year average nest success is 76%, while the average success for active nests in 2016 was 46%.
  • The 28-year average productivity is 1.67 young per breeding pair, while the 2016 average was 0.85 young per breeding territory.

Identification

  • Slightly smaller than a crow.
  • Black “helmet” and a black wedge below the eye.
  • Uniformly gray under its wings. (The prairie falcon, which also summers in Yellowstone, has black "armpits.")
  • Long tail, pointed wings.

Habitat

  • Near water, meadows, cliffs.
  • Nests on large cliffs over rivers or valleys where prey is abundant.

Behavior

  • Resident in the park March through October, when its prey—songbirds and waterfowl—are abundant.
  • Lays 3–4 eggs in late April to mid-May.
  • Young edge in July or early August.
  • Dives at high speeds (can exceed 200 mph/320 kph) to strike prey in mid-air.
 

History

In 1962, Rachel Carson sounded an alarm about the irresponsible use of pesticides with her landmark book Silent Spring. Among the dangers she described were the adverse effects of chemicals—particularly DDT—on the reproductive capacity of some birds, especially predatory species such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon. Her book raised public awareness of this issue, and was one of the catalysts leading to the United States banning some of the most damaging pesticides.

The peregrine falcon was among the birds most affected by the toxins. It was listed as Endangered in 1970. Yellowstone National Park was a site for peregrine reintroductions in the 1980s, which were discontinued when the peregrine population began increasing on its own following restrictions on organochlorine pesticides in Canada and the United States, habitat protection, and the reintroduction program. The falcon made a comeback in much of its former range, and was delisted in 1999.

In Yellowstone, the most nesting pairs recorded was 32 in 2007, and they produced 47 fledglings. Although nesting pairs may reuse the same eyrie for many years, their remote locations on cliff ledges makes it impractical to locate and monitor activity at all eyries in a single year.

Yellowstone National Park’s protected conditions and long-term monitoring of peregrines provide baseline information to compare against other populations in the United States. Continued monitoring is essential, not only for comparisons with other populations, but also because peregrine falcons and other raptors are reliable indicators of contaminants such as polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), and of climate change. For example, to assess the levels of PBDE and other contaminants, scientists collect eggshell remains after peregrines have left their nests for the season.

 

Recovery in Yellowstone

While the organochlorines found in peregrine eggshell fragments and feather samples have declined significantly, several studies indicate that certain flame retardant chemicals developed in the 1970s for use in electronic equipment, textiles, paints, and many other products leach into the environment and have been found in birds of prey at levels that impair their reproductive biology. In 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2014 eggshell fragments, feathers, and prey remains were collected from nest sites in Yellowstone after fledging occurred. Comparative data on eggshell thickness, which is an indicator of environmental contaminants, is within the range considered normal for the Rocky Mountain Region.

 
Bald eagle standing over a fish that it's eating.

Bald Eagle

Bald eagles can be seen along Yellowstone's many rivers and lakes.

An osprey comes in for a landing on a nest, where its mate tends the nest.

Osprey

Osprey summer in Yellowstone, fishing and raising young.

A pair of white pelicans floating on water.

Colonial Nesting Birds

Colonial nesting birds—pelicans, gulls, and cormorants—primarily nest on the Molly Islands.

A loon swimming on a lake.

Common Loon

Loons in Yellowstone are some of the southern most breeding populations.

A pair of swans swimming on a lake.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter swans are the largest wild waterfowl in North America.

A white-breasted bird with gray and black wings and black beak on a mound of snow

Songbirds and Woodpeckers

Passerine and near passerine species comprise the majority of bird species in Yellowstone.

A small, gray bird perched on a rock along a stream holding an insect in its beak.

American Dipper

Also known as the water ouzel, these birds dive into water for aquatic insects.

Profile of a raven's head and chest

Raven

Ravens are smart birds, able to put together cause and effect.

A sandhill crane walking through a marshy landscape.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill cranes nest in Yellowstone during the summer.

A yellow-breasted bird with black markings calls out as it stands on a stick

Birds

About 150 species build their nests and fledge their young in Yellowstone.

An eared grebe near Mammoth Hot Springs

Sound Library

Immerse yourself in the aural splendor of Yellowstone.

 

Resources

Annual Bird Program Reports. National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park. http://www.nps.gov/yell/nature/birdreports.htm.

Enderson, J.H.,R.J. Oakleaf, R.R. Rogers, J.S. Sumner. 2012. Nesting performance of peregrine falcons in Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, 2005–2009. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 124(1):127–132.

White, C.M., N.J. Clum, T.J. Cade, and W. Grainger Hunt. Peregrine Falcon. The Birds of North America Online. https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/perfal/introduction.

Last updated: June 16, 2017

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Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168

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