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Peregrine Facts

Peregrine Falcon Information

Distinguishing Characteristics
The peregrine falcon, formerly known as the duck hawk, bears the distinction of being the largest falcon in New Jersey, and the world's fastest bird. Like other falcons, peregrines can be distinguished by their long pointed wings and exceptional flight speed. Adult peregrines have slate gray to bluish backs and a light-colored breast with a fine brown horizontal barring that becomes lighter with age. Immatures are brown above with a light colored breast that is streaked vertically with brown markings.

Superior wing speed makes the peregrine extremely proficient at catching avian prey in flight. In New Jersey, their diet consists primarily of pigeons, songbirds, shorebirds and ducks. Peregrines hunt by soaring high above their prey. Once their target is singled out, they fold their wings and drop (stoop) headlong toward it. As the peregrine reaches its prey, its wings are extended in a braking motion while the legs are thrust forward in a pendulum motion. The prey is usually killed by the impact of this mid-air collision. At other times peregrines will simply chase and overtake their prey.

History and Status in New Jersey
During the 1940s, an estimated 350 pairs of peregrines nested east of the Mississippi River, with perhaps five pairs nesting in the Garden State. Historic records indicate that peregrines once nested on the cliffs above the Delaware Water Gap, and on the Palisades overlooking the Hudson River.

The decade of the 1950s saw the widespread use of DDT to control mosquitoes and other insect pests. As this potent toxin entered the food chain, it took its toll on peregrines and other birds of prey. By 1964, peregrines had completely disappeared from the eastern half of the country, prompting federal and state governments to list the species as 'endangered'.

With the ban of DDT in 1972, there was renewed hope for the recovery of peregrine populations. In 1975 the Division of Fish and Wildlife accepted a proposal by The Peregrine Fund to begin a restoration program in New Jersey. Young peregrines were bred in captivity and released through a 'hacking' process along the coast. Although the coastal marshes were not considered typical nesting habitat, an abundant prey base and freedom from predation by great horned owls provided a unique opportunity to restore the peregrine population. Hacking continued between 1975 and 1980.

In 1980 the first wild nesting occurred at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Brigantine. Today, the peregrine's recovery in the Garden State continues at a slow but steady pace. By 2004 the nesting population numbered 19 pairs; in 2010 there were 25 known pairs. Recently, peregrine activity has been confirmed on the Palisades and in the Delaware Water Gap region where the birds historically nested.

New Jersey's peregrine falcon population is monitored closely by the Endangered and Nongame Species Program. Each year biologists band young falcons and gather information on nesting success and productivity. Biologists continue to monitor the population to detect the presence of environmental contaminants. Since the majority of our adult population does not migrate, their health serves as a good indicator of the quality of our environment.

Distribution and Habitat
In New Jersey, peregrines now nest along the Atlantic coast from Ocean to Cape May counties, and on Delaware River bridges from Burlington to Cumberland Counties. Prior to 2003, all nests were on man-made structures that include nesting towers, water towers, large bridges and high-rise buildings. A milestone occurred in 2003 when a pair was confirmed nesting and successfully fledged young from their ancestral home overlooking the Hudson River, the cliffs of the Palisades.

Although peregrine falcons are found worldwide, taxonomists have classified birds from various regions as subspecies, or races. In New Jersey, the eastern subspecies predominates, although since its reintroduction to the wild, it also includes strains of the tundra (northern Canada) and Peale's (western) races.

Breeding Biology
Most peregrines nesting in New Jersey are resident birds that remain near the nest site throughout the entire year. Courtship begins in earnest during March with aerial displays and the male ('tiercel') bringing food to the female ('falcon'). Peregrine nests, known as 'scrapes', consist of a simple depression in a gravel substrate. Egg laying occurs between late March and the end of April when the female will deposit a clutch of three to four eggs. Incubation occurs only after all of the eggs have been laid and lasts 32 to 33 days. The female usually performs most of the incubation responsibilities with the male occasionally participating. After hatching, the young are totally dependent upon their parents (altricial) until they are ready to fly in approximately seven weeks. Upon leaving the nest (fledging), the young remain dependent on the adults until they master their flight and hunting skills.

Management Recommendations
The restoration of the peregrine population in New Jersey marks an important conservation milestone. Current indications show that falcons are moving toward their historic nesting eyries on the cliffs of northern New Jersey. Offspring from New Jersey falcons have also provided birds for reintroductions in other states, thereby accelerating the recovery process in the east.

Environmental contaminants such as pesticides, PCBs and heavy metals continue to threaten sensitive components of our ecosystem, including the peregrine falcon. Peregrines and other sensitive species continue to serve as important indicators of the health of New Jersey's environment.


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Last Updated: June 18, 2015