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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 1, 2004 - Issue 112


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The Falcon and the Duck


The wintry winds had already begun to whistle and the waves to rise when the Drake and his mate gathered their half- grown brood together on the shore of their far northern lake.

"Wife," said he, "it is now time to take the children southward, to the Warm Countries which they have never yet seen!"

Very early the next morning they et out on their long journey, forming a great "V" against the sky in their flight. The mother led her flock and the father brought up the rear, keeping a sharp lookout for stragglers.

All day they flew high in the keen air, over wide prairies and great forests of northern pine, until toward evening they saw below them a chain of lakes, glittering like a string of dark-blue stones.

Swinging round in a half circle, they dropped lower and lower, ready to alight and rest upon the smooth surface of the nearest lake.

Suddenly their leader heard a whizzing sound like that of a bullet as it cuts the air, and she quickly gave the warning:

"Honk! honk! Danger, danger!" All descended in dizzy spirals, but as the great Falcon swooped toward them with upraised wing, the ducklings scattered wildly hither and thither. The old Drake came last, and it was he who was struck!

"Honk, honk!" cried all the Ducks in terror, and for a minute the air was full of soft downy feathers like flakes of snow. But the force of the blow was lost upon the well-cushioned body of the Drake, he soon got over his fright and went on his way southward with his family, while the Falcon dropped heavily to the water's edge with a broken wing.

There he stayed and hunted mice as best he could from day to day, sleeping at night in a hollow log to be out of the way of the Fox and the Weasel. All the wit he had was not too much whereby to keep himself alive through the long, hard winter.

Toward spring, however, the Falcon's wing had healed and he could fly a little, though feebly. The sun rose higher and higher in the blue heavens, and the Ducks began to return to their cool northern home. Every day a flock or two flew over the lake; but the Falcon dared not charge upon the flocks, much as he wished to do so. He was weak with hunger, and afraid to trust to the strength of the broken wing.

One fine day a chattering flock of Mallards alighted quite near him, cooling their glossy breasts upon the gently rippling wave.

"Here, children," boasted an old Drake, "is the very spot where your father was charged upon last autumn by a cruel Falcon! I can tell you that it took all my skill and quickness in dodging to save my life. Best of all, our fierce enemy dropped to the ground with a broken wing! Doubtless he is long since dead of starvation, or else a Fox or a Mink has made a meal of the wicked creature! "

By these words the Falcon knew his old enemy, and his courage returned.

"Nevertheless, I am still here!" he exclaimed, and darted like a flash upon the unsuspecting old Drake, who was resting and telling of his exploit and narrow escape with the greatest pride and satisfaction.

"Honk! honk! " screamed all the Ducks, and they scattered and whirled upward like the dead leaves in autumn; but the Falcon with sure aim selected the old Drake and gave swift chase. Round and round in dizzy spirals they swung together, till with a quick spurt the Falcon struck the shining, outstretched neck of the other, and snapped it with one powerful blow of his reunited wing.

Do not exult too soon; nor is it wise to tell of your brave deeds within the hearing of your enemy.

Print and Color Your Own Falcon

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Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

The peregrine falcon belongs to the genus "Falco," which is characterized by long pointed wings. In fact the word Falco is derived from "falx," the Latin word for sickle, in reference to the distinct sickle-shaped silhouette of the peregrine falcon’s extended wings in flight. Also unique to this species is the notched beak that is used to kill prey by severing the spinal column at the neck. The peregrine falcon is a crow-sized bird, weighing just over two pounds with a wing span of approximately 3 feet. An adult peregrine has a dark grey back and crown, dark bars or streaks on a pale chest and abdomen, and heavy malar (cheek) stripes on the side of the face. Immature peregrines are buff colored in front and have dark brown backs; adults are white or buff in front and bluish-gray on their backs. Females and males are identical in appearance, however, the female can be a third larger than the male.

Where is the peregrine falcon found?
The peregrine falcon has the most extensive natural distribution of any bird in the world, limited only by high elevations, extreme heat, and extreme cold. It is found on all continents except Antarctica. In most parts of the world, it is absent only in the high mountains, in large tracts of desert or jungle, and on isolated islands in the oceans. The American peregrine falcon breeds in Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

How did the peregrine falcon get its name?
Peregrine in Latin is "Peregrinus," which means traveler. Peregrine falcons are well known for their long fall and spring migratory flights to and from their nesting and wintering habitats. The Arctic peregrine falcon lives up to its name, breeding on the north slope of Alaska east across northern Canada to Greenland in summer and migrating as far south as the tip of South America to winter.

The sport of falconry involves training falcons to hunt game, and people who practice the sport are called falconers. Early falconers referred to peregrine falcons as such because - unlike most birds use for the sport of falconry - they were always trapped during migration, and not taken from the nest.

How fast can a peregrine falcon fly?
In level flight, the normal speed for peregrines is about 40 to 55 miles per hour. In a stoop (dive) peregrine falcons can attain speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour as they attack their prey.

How do they capture their prey?
Peregrine falcons are aerial predators, feeding on live birds and an occasional bat, which they capture in mid-air. Peregrine falcons often hunt in tandem, alternately diving on their prey until it is caught.

Do peregrine falcons have natural predators?
Peregrine falcons are fast, aggressive, and fearless predators located at the top of their food-chain; they rarely suffer from predation by other animals. Great-horned owls and golden eagles are known to occasionally kill fledgling peregrines, and less often, adults. Peregrine eggs sometimes fall victim to raccoons and red-tailed hawks. The nestlings of ground-nesting Arctic peregrine falcons may be preyed upon by grizzly bears and foxes.

Do peregrine falcons mate for life?
Yes, peregrine falcons are monogamous. They also breed in the same territory or area for their entire lives. There are exceptions, such as when one mate dies or is replaced by a stronger individual. Sexual maturity occurs during the second year of life, followed by approximately one month of courtship. In the spring, 3 or 4 eggs are laid. Incubation takes approximately 33 days and although both parents share incubating duties, the female performs the greater share. Two or three chicks usually hatch and fledge in approximately 42 days. After fledging, young peregrine falcons are still dependent on their parents for food until they learn to hunt, which takes about a month and a half.

Do peregrine falcons build nests?
Most birds build nests made of sticks and soft natural fiber material in which their eggs are incubated. Peregrine falcons lay their eggs in "scrapes," which are shallow indentations they scratch out with their talons in the soft earth on the floor of their nests. Peregrine falcons typically nest on ledges and in small shallow caves located high on cliff walls. They have been known to use the abandoned nests of other birds, and on the north slope of Alaska, commonly nest on the ground.

When do American peregrine falcons breed?
American peregrine falcons begin breeding activities in the south earlier than in northern States. In Arizona and coastal California, peregrines begin nesting in late February and early March. In Alaska, nesting begins in May.

What subspecies of peregrine falcon are native to North America?
There are three subspecies nesting in North America:

  • The Arctic peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus tundrius) nests on the north slope of Alaska east across northern Canada to Greenland, and winters in Latin America.

  • The Peale’s peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus pealei) is a year-round resident on the coasts of Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska north to the Aleutian Islands.

  • The American peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum) nests in southern Alaska, Canada, United States and northern Mexico.
    Peregrine falcons that nest in subarctic areas generally winter in South America, while those that nest at lower latitudes exhibit variable migratory behavior. Some are nonmigratory.

What was the historical size of the American peregrine falcon population?
The historical status of the American peregrine falcon is not known, but it was probably never common, even when compared to other birds of prey. The limited historical data suggest a best estimate of 3,875 nesting pairs. The decline of the American peregrine falcon population began in the 1940s, was most pronounced during the 1950s and continued through the 1960s into the early 1970s throughout most of its range. By the time biologists realized the magnitude of the American peregrine falcon decline, the population was only about 12 percent of what it had been prior to the introduction of modern pesticides.

What caused the near extinction of the peregrine falcon in North America?
The use of DDT as a pesticide during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s resulted in a precipitous decline of peregrine falcons in North America. During this period of DDT use, eggshell thinning and nesting failures were widespread in peregrine falcons, and in some areas, successful reproduction virtually ceased. As a result, there was a slow but drastic decline in the number of peregrine falcons in most areas of its range in North America. DDE, a metabolite of DDT, prevents normal calcium deposition during eggshell formation, resulting in thin-shelled eggs that are susceptible to breakage during incubation. Peregrine falcons feed near the top of the food chain and suffered from the accumulation of DDE due to eating contaminated prey.

How many American peregrine falcons were there when the bird was first placed on the endangered species list?
The eastern population of the American peregrine falcon was gone and the populations in the west had declined by as much as 90 percent below historical levels. By 1975, there were only 324 known nesting pairs of American peregrine falcons.

How many American peregrine falcons are there today?
There are between 2,000 and 3,000 breeding pairs of American peregrine falcons in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

What's the status of the peregrine falcon now?
Thanks to the increase in peregrine falcon population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was able to remove the species from the Federal list of threatened and endangered species effective August 25, 1999. The peregrine falcon will be monitored for several years to ensure that it no longer needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act. If necessary, the species can be added back to the list in the future.

Photo credits: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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