The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is the fastest flying bird, capable of reaching incredible speeds in excess of 200 mph (389 km/h) while hunting. These birds are not only fast but capable of migrating impressive distances too. Peregrine falcons are the most widespread falcon species in the world, and they can be seen in a number of habitats across North America.
Peregrine falcons are resident all through the year in some parts of the United States. In others, these birds can be seen while migrating between their breeding grounds in the arctic and their overwintering grounds in Central and South America. These versatile raptors also breed in some areas of the contiguous United States and overwinter in others.
Peregrine falcons migrate to maintain access to their most important prey- other migratory birds. Their migration can take several months, with almost daily flights lasting many hours. These birds migrate following regular routes, and they tend to return to the same sites year after year.
This complete guide covers the fascinating story of peregrine falcon migration, so read along to learn everything you need to know.
Peregrine Falcon migration depends on their location
Peregrine falcons are at least partially migratory across the majority of their distribution. Across, North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, these birds follow a similar pattern, breeding in the north, and migrating south for the winter.
In the United States, only peregrine falcons that live in the Southwest, on the West Coast, and in parts of the Northeast are resident throughout the year.
Continue reading to learn more details about the peregrine falcons’ migrating behavior.
Peregrine falcons spend several hours per day in-flight while on migration. Data from tracking seven peregrines in 1975 showed that the birds averaged six hours per day at an average speed of 21mph (33km/h) - a cruising speed for the fastest animal on the planet!
Peregrine falcons usually fly at pretty low altitudes while on migration, typically within about 300ft (100m) of the ground. They can also fly at great heights, however, and have been recorded at altitudes of 2,950 feet (900m).
A peregrine falcon gliding through the sky
Peregrine falcons head south in the fall and return to their summer breeding grounds in the spring. They generally fly during the day, and are not in a hurry to get going, usually setting off well into the morning and ending the day's travels by late afternoon.
Peregrine falcons migrate to escape the harsh northern winter, a time when temperatures plummet and prey becomes scarce. Many of the peregrine falcons' most important food sources are migratory birds, so it makes sense for them to follow their food.
Close up portrait of a Peregrine Falcon
Not all peregrine falcons migrate, and those birds that do migrate fly varying distances depending on where they breed. Generally, the individuals that breed the furthest north also fly the furthest south to overwinter.
Peregrine falcons that breed in Northwestern Canada, for example, will fly to as far south as Argentina each year to overwinter. This is an amazing one-way distance of over 9000 miles (14,500km)!
Peregrine falcons migrate from their summer breeding sites, southwards to more favorable climates to spend the winter. In the US, peregrine falcons are resident in some areas, while they also have a widespread but patchy summer breeding range across the central areas.
In the United States, peregrine falcons breed in (and migrate from) the following states:
Peregrine falcons also overwinter in some areas of the United States. They are only present in the winter in coastal areas from North Carolina through Florida and to South Texas. They also overwinter in much of the Californian interior.
Peregrine Falcon coming in to land on a branch
Peregrine falcons migrate south from their summer breeding sites because these areas get very cold in the winter and prey becomes scarce. These birds may migrate within North America, but many will migrate further south. Peregrine falcons that do not overwinter in the USA migrate to Central America and as far south as Argentina and Chile in South America.
This north-to-south migration pattern is also seen in peregrine falcons that nest in Europe and Asia. Many of those birds fly south to Africa and southern Asia for the winter.
Peregrine falcons spend several hours each day in-flight while on migration. When the weather does not allow it, they will stay put, perhaps only leaving their temporary roost to hunt for the day’s meal.
The total time it takes for peregrine falcons to get from their breeding grounds to their overwintering grounds will depend on the distance of their migration.
Some peregrines migrate a relatively short distance, while those that breed the furthest north also migrate the furthest south. One such long-distance migrant traveled roughly 9,000 miles (14,500km) from northern Canada, all the way to Argentina in about 4 months.
Peregrine Falcon flying low over a field
Peregrine falcons will fly for about 25% of their day, spend an hour or so hunting, and spend the rest of their day resting. They do not necessarily follow this routine every day, however, because they avoid flying into large storms.
These birds also make use of staging areas, where they can stop over for a few days or even weeks.
Peregrine falcons usually migrate on their own. Sometimes, fledged birds from the same nest will take their first migration together, but this isn’t always the case.
Perched Peregrine Falcon with captured prey (bird)
Peregrine falcons are able to live and breed in the same areas throughout the year where the climate is good and food resources are abundant. In other areas, these birds undertake short movements each year of just a few hundred miles or less.
Most peregrine falcons move south for the winter. Many of the peregrine falcons that breed in North America migrate all the way into Central and South America for the winter. Some individuals fly as far south as Argentina and Chile, while others are happy to spend the winter along the south coast of the United States and in Mexico.
Peregrine Falcon perched in a snow covered tree during the winter
Peregrine falcons spend the summer months in their northern breeding grounds. This includes northern Canada and Alaska, as well as the northern and central parts of the contiguous United States.
Fall marks the start of the return migration for peregrine falcons that overwinter south of their breeding grounds, but the date of departure varies depending on where the birds breed.
Peregrine falcons that breed up north in Alaska, for example, will begin flying south as early as late September. They must begin their migration early because winter sets in earlier at such a high latitude and they also have a very long distance to reach their overwintering grounds in South America.
Peregrine Falcon soaring through the forest
Peregrine falcons do not return to the same area where they were hatched. These birds typically disperse 39-485 miles (63-781km) in New England, for example, but just 3.7-12.7 miles (6-20 km) in Nanuvat in the Arctic.
Adult peregrine falcons usually return to the same territory each breeding season, although they may not use exactly the same nest site. They are usually monogamous and the same two individuals may raise chicks together for many consecutive years.
Peregrine falcons also return to the same overwintering areas each year. These skilled navigators have been known to return and roost on the same building each year for over a decade!
Perched Peregrine Falcon on a tree branch
Peregrine falcons do not usually migrate at night. These birds typically fly for about six hours per day while on long-distance migration, usually between mid-morning and late afternoon.
Studies on migrating peregrine falcons indicate that these birds tend to fly a little over 100 miles (161km) per day. They can fly as much as 200 miles (322km) each day when weather conditions are favorable, however.
Interestingly, one study found that peregrine falcons fly 16 miles (26km) further per day on average while returning to their summer breeding grounds than when departing.
While peregrine falcons are capable of incredible speed while hunting, they migrate at a much more leisurely pace. In fact, these birds often glide using thermal air currents at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour (64km/h). One young male peregrine who was tracked on migration for 15 days flew at an average speed of 21mph (34km/h).
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