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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

47) Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus

There’s a split-second when you see a Peregrine Falcon scything low across a city sky in which you realise that it is a Peregrine, and not a Pigeon (Columbidae) or a Gull (Laridae); and that split second is one of the most exciting sensations that a casual observer of the animal kingdom can experience.

The Peregrine travels fast, exceptionally so, even in a straight flight from point to point, and when one stops to alight on a pole or a TV antenna or on any bare, elevated position, it’s almost a disappointment to see it stationary.  Part of the exhilaration of seeing the animal is in its flight: in being witness to, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing about another Falcon, the Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus): “The achieve of, the mastery of the thing”.

If birds move writers to write, Falcons (Falconidae) stir a special eloquence: as if those people who choose to write about them would feel ashamed of not doing them justice.  So much, both in volume and in quality, has been written about Falcons, and about Peregrines in particular, that it’s perhaps a folly to try to add anything at all to the collection; and yet I see a Peregrine and I feel moved to words, as if words could bear me aloft to take a position alongside the animal for even a few moments.

Seeing Peregrines in Melbourne is a surprisingly common experience: just by looking up in the sky every now and then I see one at least once every couple of months; and if not a Peregrine, then its smaller and no less ferocious cousin, the Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis, a bird reputed to have been observed diving into a flock of Pigeons and emerging with a Pigeon in each claw).  Finding out information about Melbourne’s Peregrines, though, is surprisingly difficult.  A search online yields only a handful of useful articles, and most of those simply repeat the same information: that in 2007 a Peregrine’s nest, complete with nestlings, was discovered on a known nesting site in Melbourne’s CBD, the first successful use of the nest since 2004 – coincidentally, the year I moved to Melbourne.

I’d seen Falcons occasionally in Canberra before then, though usually they were Kestrels hovering by roadsides – a charming, even enchanting site, but lacking the visceral thrill of seeing a Peregrine in full flight – but it wasn’t until moving to Melbourne that Falcons became a regular part of my life.  Since arriving in Melbourne I’ve moved house three times but I’ve kept within five kilometres of the CBD; the radius of a Peregrine Falcon’s hunting territory can stretch to five times that much, and it’s delightful to imagine that the birds I’ve seen since moving to Melbourne have all been the same individuals, or at least of the same family.

How fanciful such a thought is is difficult to ascertain: no matter how many variations of the phrase “Peregrine population of Melbourne” I type into Google I can’t find an number.  It’s not important, though: for now, for me, the point of Peregrines is not how many of them there are, but that they’re here at all.  In 1962 Rachel Carson published her famous and incalculably important book Silent Spring, and for the first time the general public was made aware of the horror unleashed on the environment by the widespread usage of pesticides, most famously DDT.  The book took its title from a parable, related in the first chapter, of a town “famous for the abundance and variety of its birdlife” – birdlife which is ultimately killed by poisoning.  The Peregrine Falcon is not a particularly vocal bird, and certainly not a songbird, but it is the bird that is most emblematic of the evils of DDT: through thinning the shells of this apex predator’s eggs, DDT caused the Peregrine to become endangered in many parts of the world.  It seems that no article about the Peregrine is complete without mentioning this fact; it bears repeating, and it demands to be remembered.

DDT was banned in the US forty years ago, though, and in most other countries subsequently, and as a consequence Peregrine numbers have steadily increased.  It’s a happy irony that Peregrines, of all animals, have adapted readily to the presence of humans, happily taking up residence in metropolitan areas: high-rise buildings in city centres, hosting both numerous ledges on which to nest and an abundance of Pigeons on which to feed, are as well-suited to Peregrines as a human construction can aspire to be.

But I’m not saying anything new here.  So written about are they, so studied are they, that it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything new to say about Peregrines at all; except, perhaps, to recount the effect that seeing one has on me – for the soul of a person is always new to other people.  I like to say that no day in which you see a Peregrine Falcon can be a bad day, and though it’s facetious as all such comments are there’s an element of truth in it: catching even a glimpse of a Peregrine so lifts the spirits that all other concerns seem earthly and facile.  The last one I saw was in the most mundane of places: above the fenced-in courts of the Clifton Tennis Centre, in Clifton Hill, as I walked up the ramp from the pedestrian underpass beneath Hoddle Street and Clifton Hill train station.  The sky was stagnant and overcast, and it was in the dead hours of mid-afternoon, and the Peregrine flew hard and fast just above the autumn-stripped trees and it was silhouetted against the sky so precisely that its wings seemed liked sabres, its body with its short head and long tail seemed like an arrow.  It was present in the sky for just long enough for me to recognise what it was, just long enough to grasp me and root me to the spot in stunned admiration.  It was there for just long enough for me to wonder what strange urge or instinct had led me to lift my head at the precise moment that it was passing – and then, before I could begin to even fathom the surprise of it, it was gone.

Image by Paul Randall, sourced from

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